Why do teachers make us read old stories?



Teachers often assign older books.
vovidzha/Shutterstock.com

Elisabeth Gruner, University of Richmond

Curious Kids is a series for children of all ages. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it to CuriousKidsUS@theconversation.com.


Why do teachers make us read old stories? Nathan, 12, Chicago, Illinois


There are probably as many reasons to read old stories as there are teachers.

Old stories are sometimes strange. They display beliefs, values and ways of life that the reader may not recognize.

As an English professor, I believe that there is value in reading stories from decades or even centuries ago.

Teachers have their students read old stories to connect with the past and to learn about the present. They also have their students read old stories because they build students’ brains, help them develop empathy and are true, strange, delightful or fun.

Connecting with the past and present

William Shakespeare wrote plays in the 1600s that are still read today.
Martin Droeshout/Yale University, CC BY

In Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” for example, teenagers speak a language that’s almost completely unfamiliar to modern readers. They fight duels. They get married. So that might seem to be really different from today.

And yet, Romeo and Juliet fall in love and make their parents mad, very much like many teens today. Ultimately, they commit suicide, something that far too many teens do today. So Shakespeare’s play may be more relevant than it first seems.

Additionally, many modern stories are based on older stories. To name only one, Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” has turned up in so many novels since its original publication in 1848 that there are entire articles and book chapters about its influence and importance.

For example, I found references to “Jane Eyre” lurking in “The Princess Diaries,” the “Twilight” series and a variety of other novels. So reading the old story can enrich the experience of the new.

Building brain and empathy

Reading specialist Maryanne Wolf writes about the “special vocabulary in books that doesn’t appear in spoken language” in “Proust and the Squid.” This vocabulary – often more complex in older books – is a big part of what helps build brains.

The sentence structure of older books can also make them difficult. Consider the opening of almost any fairy tale: “Once upon a time, in a very far-off country, there lived …”

None of us would actually speak like that, but older stories put the words in a different order, which makes the brain work harder. That kind of exercise builds brain capacity.

Stories also make us feel. Indeed, they teach us empathy. Readers get scared when they realize Harry Potter is in danger, excited when he learns to fly and happy, relieved or delighted when Harry and his friends defeat Voldemort.

Older stories, then, can provide a rich depth of feeling, by exposing readers to a broad range of experiences. Stories featuring characters from a diverse range of backgrounds or set in unfamiliar places can have a similar effect.

Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ has been retold many times.
John Tenniel/Wikimedia Commons

Reading can be fun

Old stories are sometimes just so weird that you can’t help but enjoy them. Or I can’t, anyway.

In Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” there’s a character whose last name is “Pumblechook.” Can you say it without smiling?

In Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” a cat disappears bit by bit, eventually leaving only its smile hanging in the air. Again, new stories are also lots of fun, but the fun in the older stories may turn up in those new stories.

For example, that cat returns in many newer tales that aren’t even related to Alice in Wonderland, so knowing the cat’s history can make reading that new story more pleasurable.

I won’t deny that some old stories contain offensive language or reflect attitudes that we may not want to embrace. But even those stories can teach readers to think critically.

Not every old story is good, but when your teacher asks you to read one, consider the possibility that you might build your brain, grow your feelings or have some fun. It’s worth a try, at least.


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Elisabeth Gruner, Associate Professor of English, University of Richmond

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Old white men dominate school English booklists. It’s time more Australian schools taught Australian books



Shakespeare’s plays are still some of the most studied texts in school English.
from shutterstock.com

Larissa McLean Davies, University of Melbourne

In recent weeks, Australian universities’ commitment to teaching Australian literature has come under scrutiny. This came amid revelations Sydney University has withdrawn funding from its Chair of Australian Literature – the nation’s first.

Later news of the possible closure of UWA Publishing compounded anxiety about the future of Australian literary studies. An article in The Australian newspaper noted there is no local university in which an undergraduate student can specialise in Australian literature.




Read more:
The open access shift at UWA Publishing is an experiment doomed to fail


The concern goes beyond tertiary studies. We conducted a project exploring secondary school teachers’ engagement with Australian texts. We found Australian books are not consistently taught in classrooms and, when they are, they more often than not marginalise female, refugee and Indigenous authors.

A professor famously said he would teach the novel Kangaroo, in the absence of appropriate texts by Australian authors.
Wikimedia commons

The demographic of Australian classrooms has changed significantly in the past fifty years. But the texts studied in English have remained remarkably stable.

In our multi-cultural society, where compulsory schooling is intended to help develop critically informed and empathetic citizens, this situation requires serious attention.

Why teachers don’t teach Aussie books

Studying English and literature in settler societies was historically intended to support students to value “Englishness”. As a result, Australian literature, if it was acknowledged at all, was systematically marginalised and maligned in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In the 1940s – in a precursor to what we now call the “cultural cringe” – an English professor famously renounced Australian literature. He said that, in the absence of appropriate books by Australians, he would lecture on DH Lawrence’s novel, Kangaroo.




Read more:
‘Australia has no culture’: changing the mindset of the cringe


Australia’s first national curriculum, in 2008, attempted to respond to this enduring imperial literary legacy. It mandated teaching Australian literature, placing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander literature at the heart of this commitment.

Harper Lee is one of two female authors on the list of the top 15 books taught by English teachers we compiled from our national survey.
Wikimedia commons

Most states and territories have mandated text lists for school senior years, which generally include titles by Indigenous authors. But recent research in Victoria has shown school uptake of these texts is limited.

Our research shows teachers are often reluctant to select books by Australian authors. Reasons for this include a limited knowledge of diverse Australian texts, often due to a lack of exposure to Australian literature at school and university.

There are fewer teaching resources for Australian literature too and teachers are concerned about inaccurately representing the stories of Indigenous Australians.

Some teachers we spoke to also raised questions about the quality of Australian literature, as compared with more established canonical texts. One teacher said:

While I appreciate that it is important to have Australian literature in the curriculum […] I find that Australian texts are often very similar and this limits the number of themes and ideas the students are exposed to over the course of their education.

We also conducted a national survey of more than 700 English teachers, asking them what books they taught in class. The following top 15 texts were most referenced:



This should not be seen as a definitive list of texts most used in Australian classrooms. But it does offer insight into the relative status of Australian literature in the curriculum.

Most works on this list are written in the past, by male British or American writers. Most of these have formed part of the school literary canon for generations. There are only two texts by women, Hinton and Lee, and no texts by Australian women, migrant Australians or Aboriginal writers.




Read more:
Diversity, the Stella Count and the whiteness of Australian publishing


The only texts by Australians cited here are Marsden’s 1990s dystopian invasion series and Silvey’s 2009 coming of age novel.

How do we change it?

Our research showed teachers need more time, knowledge, resources and confidence to include more Australian literature in the classroom. This is not surprising given teachers we surveyed and interviewed often completed both secondary and tertiary studies in English without significant experiences of Australian literature.

Coleman’s speculative fiction novel has been studied by our teacher researchers.

In response, colleagues and I have partnered with the Stella Prize (a literary award for Australian women writers) to develop the teacher-researchers project.

Teachers select a text from the Stella long-list. They then work intensively with the project team – which includes teacher-educators and Australian literary studies experts – and university archives or other cultural collections, to develop resources to teach their chosen texts that can be shared.

Texts in this pilot project have included Heat and Light by Ellen Van Neervan, Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman and The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke.

This project will expand the literary knowledge and experiences of teachers, students and school communities involved. But a concerted, bipartisan and enduring commitment to resourcing scholarship and teaching of Australian writing across universities and schools is imperative.

If we are to ensure all students experience Australian stories from the past and the present, Australian writing, in all its rich diversity, must be a central part of a literary education.The Conversation

Larissa McLean Davies, Associate Professor Language and Literacy Education, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

2019 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction Winner


The link below is to an article reporting on the winner of the 2019 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, ‘The Glad Shout,’ by Alice Robinson.

For more visit:
www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2019/11/14/142143/the-glad-shout-wins-readings-prize-for-new-australian-fiction/

Amazon and Library Ebook Lending


The link below is to an article that is worth considering in the library ebook lending controversy – for Amazon is probably the worst offender when it comes to this.

For more visit:
https://the-digital-reader.com/2019/10/25/sometimes-amazon-is-more-evil-than-the-major-publishers/

Paying to Browse?


The link below is to an article that takes a look at paying a fee to browse physical bookshops/bookstores. Would you do so?

For more visit:
https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/should-we-pay-to-enter-bookstores

2019 Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction Shortlist


The link below is to an article that takes a look at the shortlist for 2019 Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction, formerly the Samuel Johnson Prize.

For more visit:
https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2019/10/23/141539/baillie-gifford-prize-for-nonfiction-2019-shortlist-announced/

2019 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction Winner


The link below is to an article reporting on the winner of the 2019 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction – Alice Robinson’s second novel, The Glad Shout.

For more visit:
https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2019/10/22/141519/the-glad-shout-wins-2019-readings-prize-for-new-australian-fiction/