Turn of the Page

As the school continues to change, even small changes made to the English department’s famous outside reading list could have consequential impacts. 

After much discussion over the span of a year, English teachers decided to change the freshmen and junior outside reading lists. They removed Farewell to Manzanar and Last of the Breed from the freshmen list and added A Separate Peace and The Red Badge of Courage. A Separate Peace was previously on the junior reading list, so when they removed it, they installed The Nickel Boys in its place. 

The English Department was very mindful and considerate when they made their decisions. For A Separate Peace, they deemed that the level of difficulty was not high enough for the junior reading list. “We didn’t think that the reading level really went with junior books,” said English Department Chair Mrs. Gretchen Gowen. “We felt it was fine to move it down to freshman year and make room for (in junior year) a 21st-century novel, The Nickel Boys.” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead wrote the book based on a real-life corrupt reform school in 1960s Florida. 

Farewell to Manzanar and Last of the Breed are no longer on the list largely because of student responses to the books. For Last of the Breed, “It got to the point where my students were like ‘They’re just saying the same thing over and over again,’” said Fr. Patrick Friend ’07. Farewell to Manzanar also had a similar negative response from the students. “I really liked Farewell to Manzanar, it’s super important,” said Fr. Friend. “I think it taught our boys a lesson that there are some books that are important to read even if they’re not entertaining.”

 The other book claiming one of the open spots on the freshman reading list is The Red Badge of Courage. “We’re putting in The Red Badge of Courage, which is a classic book about the Civil War and about what courage really means,” said Mrs. Gowen. “It’s a really interesting story with a lot of levels happening.” 

The process of changing the book list can be grueling for some. “We all have to offer sacrifice to Mrs. Gowen,” Fr. Friend said jokingly. 

Since the additions to the booklist are done carefully, it is somewhat difficult to change. “It takes more than one teacher saying ‘My kids don’t like this book.’ We have mindfully chosen that book and we have our reasons for thinking each book is a valuable reading experience. So it takes a lot to dislodge one of these books now,” said Mrs. Gowen.

The teachers strongly believe that students will respond much more positively to the new books on the list now. “I think 100% they’re going to be more interested in these books — if they choose to read them,” said Fr. Friend.

One of the goals of this reading list is to instill a love of reading in the students. “We can do all this philosophizing about why you should read a book, but basically, it’s just fun,” said Mrs. Gowen. “It can be so much fun and you can be so involved. It’s as entertaining, or more so, as watching a movie.” 

Ultimately, reading is a much better way to spend one’s time than watching TV shows or playing video games. Fr. Friend said that reading a challenging book vs a poorly written book, “is like the difference between a sumptuous meal and all the fast food you eat. I got Chinese on Tuesday night and it sucked. I was so full at the end, regretting everything. But I cooked a really delicious meal on Sunday night. I made a cream cajun chicken and you get to this last bite and you’re like ‘I don’t want this last bite to be over.’ [That’s what reading a really good book is like.] You’re so satisfied and enriched by the whole experience.”

Mrs. Gowen agreed with Fr. Friend. She said, “What I wish for all my students is that they reach the height of reading experience when they forget they are reading and just immerse themselves in the story and enjoy it.”

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