As a teacher in a parochial school, I’ve constantly had to walk the tightrope in book recommendations. It seems there’s a war between books that are rigorous and books that are parent-approved. Most of the books published in the past 40 years contain strong language, violence, drug abuse, or sexual activity. There are also many books that have some or all of these elements that are great reads for AP students. When making a book list or recommending a title to a student for independent reading, I usually have to know that student’s parents before I can recommend some of my more “colorful” titles.
For those who don’t have to worry about parental concerns, you may not be out of the woods yet. There are still some books that are disturbing enough to trigger some students. Despite the freedom we have in AP, some element of sensitivity is needed when recommending a book to a teenager. Recommending a book is like arranging a setup, so it’s important to ask yourself, is this a book that will hurt this student or a relationship in that student’s life? Or am I recommending a title that could deepen their empathy? widen their view into the world? strengthen their feelings of kindness and humanity?
Once you think about it, recommending a book to a student is a pretty big responsibility.
Recommending a Book – A Simple Strategy
In the fall of last year, I tried a new strategy that completely erased all my parental concerns. Even better, it helped me get to know my students’ comfort levels in reading during the first few weeks. It also increased my students’ interests in independent reading. Here’s what you need to get started:
- A roll of masking tape or washi tape
- A permanent marker
- A classroom library (even small collections are great for a start!)
Next, go through and label each book with a 1, 2, or 3 by putting a small strip of tape on the spine. Here’s a breakdown of what each number means:
1 – Little to no objectionable material
- Some infrequent uses of “TV-level cursing” (words you can say on television)
- mild acts of violence
- examples: Pride and Prejudice, Fahrenheit 451, Animal Farm, etc.
2 – Infrequent objectionable material. May include:
- frequent “TV-level cursing”
- infrequent stronger curse words
- plot events relating to sexual activity (but not graphic portrayals)
- some strong acts of violence
- examples: Brave New World, The Underground Railroad, 1984
3 – Objectionable material. May include:
- regular use of stronger curse words
- plot events relating to sexual activity which may be graphic or violent
- several strong acts of violence
- examples: Beloved, Atonement, The Things They Carried
In the first week of the school year, I send an email home to my AP Lit students’ families, explaining the 1-2-3 system. I also use this as an opportunity to explain why 2- and 3- level titles are worth reading, despite having a strong religious or moral stance against some of the content within. In my first year of this, all but one gave me permission to read 3-level books at my discretion.
That discretion is important; it’s a tool that AP and other advanced literature teachers should practice before doling out any title. For example, my student who loves animals more than humans would perhaps not do well with a book that contains animal abuse. A child that you know struggles with an eating disorder should stay away from a narrative that has an unhealthy relationship with food. And obviously, students who have shared with you a struggle with an abusive relationship should avoid reading about a similar relationship.
Obviously these details will not be apparent in the first few weeks of school (and sometimes not even in the final few weeks), but I’ve learned that students open up in surprising ways when they’re asking for a book recommendation. This is a special gift bestowed unto few people, but particularly English teachers.
We can take measures to respect this special relationship and endorse titles that are rigorous and even provocative, as long as we know our students can handle it.
Implementation of this system shows a respect for both higher literature and the emotional development of your students. It also keeps parents informed, which is an added bonus. I can attest that I did not have a single challenge from an AP parent all year, and several came forward to appreciate this approach in particular.
If you’re interested in implementing this system you can access my AP Lit parent email here. Feel free to copy and change the text to match your own voice or decisions in the classroom. To learn more about my independent reading strategies in AP Lit you can check out this blog post. Or, get a jump-start by purchasing my resource on independent reading on TpT.