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  • Writer's pictureKate Schenck

Why Teach Emotionally Difficult Books?

Updated: Jan 22

Why read?

Seventeen years ago, when I was a first-year teacher, I sat down in early August to write a curriculum map for my first 8th grade ESL English class. My department chair asked me to complete a chart, and at the top was a box for “Essential Questions” of my course. I had no idea what this meant, so I did what I usually do when I am lost and afraid–I went with my gut. I can still feel my overcaffeinated heartbeat as I typed the words that would come to define my teaching career: why read?

Many years later I am teaching senior English and the question of why read has morphed over time into the more specific and now more political question of “why read that book,” and the anxiety that accompanies choosing books for my classes has not eased due to my experience, but rather amplified.

I will first admit I carry a lot of baggage about text selection. I am an alumna of my current school and came of age when my English teachers handed out the 100 Greatest Books list as recommended reading, a list of canonical texts all written by white men, and stressed that we read as many as we could. I respected my teachers then, and still do now, so it is hard for me to break out of the mindset that canonical texts are the only Great Books. Or, at the very least, must be included for a course to be considered challenging.

I still have the list, which maybe speaks to its power

But I, like my colleagues, am also devoted to teaching diverse works from contemporary authors that address issues my students will connect with, and we have written quite a bit on this blog about fostering a lifelong love of reading through reading books that appeal to us, not just those we “should” read.

Teaching seniors means I am working with a class of girls headed off to college in a few months, so my question was, what books would be right for them, now? What stories would be engaging, challenging, and thread the needle of appropriate content for this age group? I thought, what do the students need to know, and what voices in literature can help them understand?

Telling truth, telling fiction

My senior course is memoir-focused and called “Telling Truth, Telling Fiction.” The class description asks: “How is it possible that our lived experiences reveal truths about us and our world, yet they are also heavily influenced by the fictions of our own perceptions, assumptions, prejudices, and histories?” The class interrogates how we tell both truths and fictions every day, and I often ask students to question how our memories are interpreted by us–do we remember only the facts? Or do we remember a situation in layers of biased interpretation?

For a holiday book club, I asked each of my senior classes to choose a memoir from a list of five titles to read as a class between Thanksgiving and Christmas: Know My Name by Chanel Miller, Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, and Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi.

Every class chose Know My Name by Chanel Miller, a story of her sexual assault by a man named Brock Turner as she was walking home from a party on the Stanford campus in 2015. I have 46 senior students, all girls, so statistically speaking, someone in my classes has been sexually assaulted in some way. We will never know for sure, but I proceeded assuming so. 

Choosing difficult texts

Memoir is a challenging genre to teach because many lives recalled require some element of what my students call trauma dumping: memoirists show us that people can tackle great personal conflict and live to tell the tale. The details of trauma are not easy to absorb into our systems. Trauma victims, sensitive people, empaths, and friends and family of folks who have been through trauma will have a physical reaction to a story that reminds them of their pain. Much ink is spilled today about reactivating an old trauma by reading about one; we hear about “trigger warnings” in college classes.

Chanel Miller, courtesy of CNN

And teachers are caregivers so we, like parents, may have an instinct to protect young people and create classroom environments focused on hope and possibility, versus interrogating painful realities of human life, such as poverty, disease, racism, and violence. However, we collectively work against this protective instinct because we know that students will not encounter perfect worlds upon graduation, nor should they want to. We ask the question: is it better to grapple with a topic like sexual assault within the sacred four walls of a classroom space and with an elder guide, or alone at a frat party? We also practice caregiving by asking when we choose a text, what is challenging enough, but also age appropriate. What difficult questions should a 14 year-old be asking, versus an 18 year-old? How will this story lead students to think critically, to ask hard questions, and also to grow in resilience and empathy?

The tension comes now because teachers are questioned by politicians who doubt the neutrality of the elder/teacher/guide in difficult social conversations, and some voices rally against indoctrination. Educators are more than ever aware that our questions, tone, and curriculums exist in a political landscape.

In Teens Choosing to Read: Fostering Social, Emotional, and Intellectual Growth Through Books , professors Gay Ivey and Peter Johnston note that PEN America reports that between July 2021 and June 2022 there were 2,532 cases of book bans, including 1,648 unique book titles, and that number is rising- there were another 1,477 book ban cases in the 2022-2023 school year. While groups arguing for book bans are not representative of the majority of Americans, it still hurts educators to know that books are being banned at all, and many titles that have been banned relate to sensitive matters of identity, including LGBTQ+, race, and social justice themes.

So we know the context of text choice today for educators, but I think one of my students best describes the stakes for young people: “I think it is super important to read this book, especially going into college where this kind of stuff happens all the time, we just don’t hear about it because I think a lot of people keep it to themselves which is 100 times more awful.” 

Students voted almost unanimously to read Miller’s story, so they must want to know more, likely because sexual safety impacts them and their journey next year to college. I hear many off-hand remarks in both my senior and sophomore classes about boys being aggressive; I am sure there are a wide variety of tales to tell. I was eager to read with them and explore their questions and concerns through the lens of writing, storytelling, and also in my role as a social worker. And, student choice is worthy of mention here; students choosing to tackle a difficult text is much different than being required to. 

Tackling shame, together 

While reading Know My Name I asked students to begin one class by choosing one of the quotes at the beginning of the memoir and privately write about their thoughts, with the option to share:

I chose to write about Mary Oliver’s words on coming of age, specifically her requiem that when she was young, she was “such a stranger to (her)self, (she) hardly existed.” I would like to think that, because the memoir is a remembrance of her sexual assault, Miller chose Oliver’s words about youth to honor the many ways seeing the world as we grow up will change our existence in it: we will inevitably have to confront what breaks our hearts, as Miller does in her memoir, in order to know our resilience, and who we are.

Sometimes I look at my high school students and can’t believe how responsible and whole they seem. They make so many good choices, and many students that I chat with regularly voice such a preternatural understanding of their journey and selves that I find myself wanting a do-over of my adolescence. I would give anything to have a second shot at college and career decisions with their head on my shoulders..

Snowball, 1996

This December I chaperoned the senior Snowball Dance at my school, and because I am an alumna, it was easy to pull up a photo of me at exactly the age of my current students while I considered Oliver’s words. When I think of my senior year, a few things come to mind, not least of all my high school sweetheart, Jeff. He was my date to Snowball and another child of the 90s, so smart but also not accustomed to discussions of well-being. I didn’t know myself at all then, and he probably didn’t know himself either, but that doesn’t seem unusual for teenagers. Like Oliver notes, we have to see the world before we know who we are.

But what has changed between 1997 and now is the safety net around teenagers through the conversations they have and the people in their lives today that we did not have, over 20 years ago. 

As I shared my Snowball photo with my seniors, I looked in the eyes of 18 year-old me and remembered that, around the time this photo was taken, my sister, who was a freshman in high school at the time, was raped by an acquaintance. The synchronicity of reading Know My Name while also looking back to this memory was a shareable narrative for my class. I journaled, in response to the Oliver quote, about how I knew something was wrong with my sister that year; she unexpectedly started sleeping a lot and spending most of her free time in her room with her Doors posters and black lights. Prior to high school my sister was social and involved in school life, but almost overnight she became dark, withdrawn, and moody. She didn’t seem to be herself, at all.

I shared with my students that when she finally told our mom about her assault, my mom’s first response was, “Are you sure?” No one believed her, and she spent her high school years and many years beyond (perhaps still today) repairing from this social emotional injury. We did not have personal or guidance counselors at school she could talk to or access to conversations about mental health via social media; #MeToo was years from a movement and the national conversation about consent, sex, and a woman’s right to say no was not yet mainstream. All teenage girls had were our diaries, our poetry, and maybe, our closest friends to confide in, which became, endearingly, a case of the blind leading the blind.

Only today, after years of therapy and teaching experience do I have the scaffolding, curriculum design, and personal boundaries to share such an intimate story with my students. But there is something about busting up shame, like an icebreaker chopping up an ice sheet in the frozen tundra, that connects and opens our hearts. I owe thanks to Chanel Miller for the opportunity to write about my sister and her experience, see through my sister’s eyes, and pay homage to the girls we were back then. My sister, like Miller, is a survivor. It is nice to write those words for the first time. I feel my chest unclench, even now.

You do not have to be good

Mary Oliver also has a famous poem in which she pardons me (I fantasize she is speaking directly to me) by saying, “You do not have to be good.” Her words are a balm for women who believe something is wrong with us, most of the time, or our shame. We aren’t pretty enough, skinny enough, smart enough, a good enough mother or daughter, we aren’t where we should be in life. The list goes on. 

But I once underlined a sentence in The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown that I remember, even now: “Shame hates it when we reach out and tell our story. It hates having words wrapped around it- it can't survive being shared. Shame loves secrecy. When we bury our story, the shame metastasizes.” As one of my students noted: “The hardest part about this topic is that I know not every girl in my class has a safe person to talk to if something like this happened to them.” Or, they bury their story. 

Reading difficult texts doesn’t just prepare our students for the real world; it helps us, the adults in their lives, heal as well. And what could possibly be more urgent in education than modeling for our young people how we heal? We read this book because talking about difficult things is the antidote to shame. As one of my students noted, “This story models how important it is to speak up if something like this happens to you. It also shows that the deep effects of this kind of trauma is understood and normal to feel.” 

And, writing and reading about each other helps us model for our students that storytelling, an ancient practice that kept us going and warm around the home fires when survival outside felt impossible, can hold us and bring us closer to each other, and ourselves.

Kate Schenck is currently watching Midsomer Murders and learning how to bake sourdough bread.

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