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  • Writer's pictureScott Cameron

Great Books to Teach in High School

Updated: Jul 30, 2022

Picking a novel to teach is never easy. Teachers must teach what’s board approved, what’s in the curriculum. There’s always the issue of how much money a district can spend on new books. I always enjoy dusting off books approved a long time ago, but that still sit in the far corner of the book room. Teachers at the same school and who teach the same grade level often must agree on a novel. Sometimes they have no say in the matter and must teach the selections made by a department chair or supervisor. Then there are the bigger questions about what makes a great book or novel or more generally, a great curriculum.


Every teacher wants to teach books that check off all the boxes. The book should be fun and easy to read, a page turner. But it should also be a challenge, filled with metaphors, symbolism, motifs, foreshadowing, and perhaps complex narrative techniques and structures that involve shifts in voice and time. A great book offers many opportunities for close reading, with passages that allow students to really sink their teeth into the language. More generally, the curriculum should contain diverse and contemporary writers from different time periods and should contain texts suitable for high and low performing students. A curriculum should contain stories about romance, power, internal conflict, and beauty, but also topics like oppression, racism, war, poverty, and death. Great books challenge the status quo, they make us question why things are the way they are. They force us to consider unconscious behavior. They make us laugh, cry, and think. The literature we teach should allow students to relate to the story, but also put them in the shoes of a person living an experience unlike their own. Books help students understand the full story behind a person, not just a single thing that defines them.


Most importantly, I think, the stories in our classrooms should produce amazing, deep conversations, and keep producing good conversations year after year after year. There should never be one simple interpretation of a story. Great stories feel fresh every time we teach them. The canon will always include whatever stands the test of time. And let’s not forget that students should also have some say in what they read.


Whenever I meet another English teacher, the conversation almost immediately turns to what novels we teach. So here’s my list – the first list includes titles of books I wouldn’t hesitate to teach again. The second list includes books that I taught at some point but decided to not teach again (if I had the choice). I also have some titles from summer reading assignments and then a list of books I created units on, but never taught. And let's not forget great poets.


Taught and loved:


Night, Elie Wiesel (nonfiction)

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte

Emma, Jane Austen

The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin (nonfiction)

Maus II, Art Spiegelman (nonfiction)

The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka

Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift

A Small Place, Jamaica Kincaid (nonfiction)

All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque

Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare

The Unvanquished, William Faulkner

The Color Purple, Alice Walker

The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas

The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne

Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller


Taught, but wouldn’t teach again:


The Sorrows of Young Werther, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

Hard Times, Charles Dickens

A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt

Everyman, Unknown

The Oedipus Plays, Sophocles

Othello, William Shakespeare

Siddhartha, Herman Hesse

Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Tom Stoppard

Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway

Equus, Peter Shaffer

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

Twelve Angry Men, Reginald Rose

The Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

Master Harold and the Boys, Athol Fugard

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck


Summer Reading:

Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol

Educated, Tara Westover

Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer

Let the Great World Spin, Column McCann

A Passage to India, E.M. Forrester

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

The Awakening, Kate Chopin

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley

1984, George Orwell

Fun Home, Alison Bechdel

The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race edited by Jesmyn Ward (nonfiction)


Books I planned units on but never taught:


The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel


My favorite poets to teach:


Elizabeth Bishop

Tracy K. Smith

Walt Whitman

Robert Pinsky

Thomas Sayers Ellis

Rumi

Maya Angelou

Emily Dickinson

Amiri Baraka

William Blake

Nikki Giovanni

William Wordsworth

T.S. Eliot

Wallace Stevens

Dylan Thomas

Aja Monet

Langston Hughes


Obviously, this list comes from my experience, and is not comprehensive, so what are your top 5 favorite novels to teach?


Scott Cameron

English language arts teacher

Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers






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7 Comments


moroccogirl
Aug 15, 2022

I agree on Macbeth but not on Othello & Their Eyes Were Watching God.

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Scott Cameron
Scott Cameron
Aug 15, 2022
Replying to

Othello’s final speech is so intense. I just reread Their Eyes Were Watching God and you’re right, it’s amazing.

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Scott Cameron
Scott Cameron
Aug 01, 2022

I always get in trouble for that one. I don't know, I can't figure him out because I don't see the internal conflict. He is responsible for killing so many people and then even leads a whole army so he can stay in power. And then my students will insist that it's Lady Macbeth's fault. When I taught it, I tried to focus on how Shakespeare desperately wanted democracy, so that kind of saved it. The question then became, what leaders are like Macbeth in today's world?

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Sarah Harrison
Sarah Harrison
Aug 01, 2022

As for me, I would never care to teach Heart of Darkness again, unless the course were about racism. Even To Kill a Mockingbird is out. The black characters have no agency and function as symbols.

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Scott Cameron
Scott Cameron
Aug 01, 2022
Replying to

Those are the exact reasons they are on that list!

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Sarah Harrison
Sarah Harrison
Aug 01, 2022

I can see why you might not want to do The Sorrows of Young Werther.

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Sarah Harrison
Sarah Harrison
Aug 01, 2022

Hi Scott, I am totally shocked to see Macbeth on your "won't teach again" list. Why not?

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