Discussion: Literature in the American School System


According to a variety of sources and international reports, American students are falling increasingly behind their international counterpoints with respect to education in the fields of math, science, and reading/writing (rhetoric).  Why is there such a disparity between children growing up in different countries?  Can this be attributed to each nation’s implemented school system?  Or even the modern generation’s increasingly prevalent fascination with gleaning a large amount of information in the shortest allotment of time?

Having recently graduated from high school and with college looming right around the corner, I’ve had some time to reflect on the positive and negative aspects of the portrayal and presentation of literature in the American school system.  To date, I’ve taken a total of 13 English courses with an equivalent number of teachers and instruction styles, and I’m astonished by how greatly my experiences in each of these classes differed.

From kindergarten, reading has been an integral component of our education – we learned to recite our ABCs and sound out words, as well as eagerly awaiting daily story time, which entailed sitting in a circle around the teacher as he/she read aloud and displayed each picture.  As we’ve grown older, reading assimilated a more daunting connotation as we were inevitably forced to scour textbooks, study for tests, and complete research projects.

Throughout elementary and middle school, with the exception of eighth grade, I received very few reading assignments, and those that were allotted were often very simple and well below my reading level.  I was very quickly bored by these assignments and consequently began to form a negative association with them.  While I ultimately grew to despise summer reading and school-assigned books, I began to develop a love of reading outside of school.  This dichotomy was very strange growing up, and in retrospect, I wish I could have enjoyed both aspects of reading (for pleasure, as well as for school).  Instead, the distinction that I had established between the two steadily increased as I grew older.

In eighth grade and high school, the majority of homework and in-class assignments in my literature classes was busywork, which further solidified my mindset.  While I found the books themselves to be more interesting, I dreaded the assignments attached to them.  This was also the period when I began to discover that, according to my teachers, there was only one “right” way to analyze a character, scene, or theme.  If someone’s personal thoughts did not directly correspond with those of the instructor’s, the voiced interpretation was automatically “incorrect.”  I found this narrow mindset extremely frustrating, particularly when tests and essays were graded with the same approach.

Most recently, however, I was enrolled in AP English Literature and Composition, and this course taught me to approach reading and writing for academic purposes from a different perspective entirely.  Rather than teaching directly from a teacher’s manual of a textbook or from some online source of notes, my teacher refrained from voicing her own opinions or attempting to guide the class discussions in any particular direction.  She would occasionally interject clarifying comments or answer any thematic or contextual questions, but she emphasized the importance of the students contributing to the conversation.  By listening to each of the key points that others had identified within a given work, my classmates and I learned to analyze book from a variety of perspectives.  There was never a “correct” answer or approach to a given scenario, and no one’s observations were deemed wrong or misguided.  The instructor of the course taught me to love reading and writing in a classroom environment again, and I’m so grateful for this and all of the other experiences with which I walked away.

What are some of your experiences with literature classes, both in America and internationally?
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I am a freshman in college and an avid reader/reviewer, horseback rider, and graphic designer.  Since a young age, I have fostered a love of reading, beginning with my forays into the Nancy Drew series.  I’ve branched out significantly in my reading tastes since then, and my favorite genres include young adult, romance, mystery, and thriller.  I’m constantly trying to expand my horizons, however, so I do dabble in other genres.  While I’m not reading, I volunteer at a hippotherapy center and a veterinary clinic, practice agility with my dogs, play piano and guitar, and sketch.
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8 thoughts on “Discussion: Literature in the American School System

  1. Awesome discussion Olivia! Personally I never really liked the way teachers taught in my English classes. Like you said, they always dismissed ideas that didn’t fit with their own. Most of my teachers didn’t really allow us to form our own ideas, they just told us everything and gave us work. I still kind of like English, but I think the way it’s taught could be different.


    • Thank you! From talking to other bloggers as well as some of my classmates, it seems to hold true that so much of an individual’s perspective on academic reading is predicated upon the teachers that they’ve had for literature courses. Unfortunately, few seem to luck out with those uncommon professors that encourage independent thinking and are willing to look at a scene, character, or theme from a variety of perspectives. I’m hoping that more teachers will begin to assume this mindset moving forward because it could greatly reform at least one aspect of the American school system.


  2. great post! i’ve been incredibly fortunate in the teachers i’ve had and the classes i’ve been able to take in that i went to a catholic elementary/middle school and then a pre-IB/IB high school, both of which gave me the highest level of education. as a result, i was always taught to analyze books from a highly objective standpoint and that there was never one “right” interpretation of literature. we also read books from around the world and from different time periods, allowing us to see how literature and perspectives changed based on time period and cultural understanding. it was truly amazing and i had incredible teachers on top of having great curriculum. but i do worry about the “standard” state of teaching literature in schools which i often hear about from people who were/are not as fortunate as myself. i think the american school system needs to be *greatly* reformed in all areas and that it often lets kids down.


    • Thanks! I’m very jealous – you seem to have had a slew of excellent teachers! I agree, though, there are numerous inconsistencies regarding teaching methods and the actual material covered in courses, even across individual states, let alone nationwide. Unfortunately, English courses are just one of the aspects that need to be addressed for a more comprehensive overall education.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have to say you’re one of the lucky ones when it comes to experiences regarding English in the American school system. The fact that you were able to enjoy some of the books (despite the reading) and found a teacher who allowed you to analyze a book in your own viewpoint is fantastic… and rare. Too often I see English lit teachers being very one-minded in how to teach, how to read, how to discuss. What’s worse: the books chosen. I have to say that English class in grade school is what killed any hope I had at enjoying reading during that time period (and even into college) because I was forced to read boring (or even scaring books) that I found highly inappropriate for people of my age.

    What’s more, was the necessity to analyze the book to death to the point that it’s not a book anymore, but just something to analyze. I fear that if the way we teach English in the American school system doesn’t change, we may be faced with a severe lack of literacy (or merely lack of interest in reading) in the coming decades. After all, how does one learn to enjoy a book when they’ve never done so before?


    • I think you hit the nail on the head – so many individuals who claim that they don’t enjoy reading can often trace these feelings back to a particular English instructor and class. I have a feeling literature teachers often forget what it’s like to be in our positions, and they’re more concerned with ensuring that they create a curriculum that will be widely accepted by their contemporaries and school administrators, as well as parents. Even for those teachers with very little leeway regarding which books are assigned, their teaching methods could be tweaked to provide a more pleasurable experience and future association with reading.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well, and I fear one of the biggest problem with English teachers is actually their love of reading. They pick books that they love, but forget that everyone has different tastes in literature. As a result, they force their own favorite books and viewpoints on their students and end up being blinded to their students disinterest. It’s sad and I wish there was more leeway in how teachers are allowed to teach English and literature. Hopefully things will change in the future just as they’re changing in the book publishing world. Here’s hoping. ^.^


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