Great Books for High School Kids: A Teachers’ Guide to Books that Can Change Teens’ Lives

Edited by Rick Ayers and Amy Crawford (Beacon Press, 224 pages, $15.00), BUY NOW!
reviewed by Jill Davidson

Three cheers for summer! The weather’s great, but the best part is more time to read. Those of us who are daily threatened by the height and heft of our must-read book stack will be enthralled by Great Books for High School Kids.

The first half presents seven essays, each by a teacher telling the story of reading a specific book with a specific class. The richness of the essays lies in the nuances of the students’ reactions to the books. As each class makes their way through Bless Me, Ultima, The Oresteia, Bastard Out of Carolina, Song of Solomon, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Things They Carried and Reservation Blues, we’re guided through a potent group learning experience that is particularly affirming of the craft and brilliance of great teachers and the insight, intelligence, and emotional capabilities of young people.

While Great Books isn’t a how-to, teachers can pick up a lot of practical goodness: the authors interweave their stories with specific reading strategies such as how to prepare a class for a book, how to create a group reading experience with readers with different levels of preparation and ability, how to analyze plot and character, and how to conduct the difficult discussions that powerful books provoke.

The second section of the book is a glorious annotated list: book upon book that inspire great teaching and powerful learning. Great Books‘ final section presents a compendium of lists, unannotated but categorized. “Talking Back: Making Moral Choices in an Immoral World,” “Cultural Survival,” “Love, First Love,” and “Urban Gritty” are a few.

Ayers, Crawford, and the other teacher-authors honor the synergy created between a book and the personal experiences of a teacher and a group of students. They understand how the most meaningful learning happens when a teacher goes “off the script” and follows the impulses of a deeply felt discussion. Their insight reminds those in the world that would adulterate literature to use as fodder for standardized tests, or foist prepackaged curriculum on teachers and students that books “expand our sensibilities and deepen our encounter with the world.” The real power of Great Books is its affirmation that teachers are the best curriculum creators.