Promoting uplifting literature
in high school English classes
Students have enough stress in their lives and don't need to make it worse by reading mainly depressing books in English class.
Clip from Silver Linings Playbook
Why are so many of the books read in high school English classes so depressing???
In the movie Silver Linings Playbook, Bradley Cooper 's character is passionate when he becomes irate & frustrated about how depressing an Ernest Hemingway novel is. And he has a point. Sure Hemingway is a great writer, but Cooper asks the question: "Can't someone say 'Let's be positive"? Can't the story have a good ending?" There SHOULD be more uplifting, inspiring books rather than the dark, depressing novels that seem to be so prevalent. As a mom of three sons, I've found this to be especially true in high school English courses. Students don't have the choice about whether to read something depressing or not; the books are assigned to them. It's been the same basic curriculum for decades. It is not the fault of the English teachers or administrators; it is simply the curriculum that society has accepted over the years -- but it's time for a CHANGE.
The curriculum is heavy on sad, depressing novels, while ideally, it should be better balanced with books that give students HOPE, books that make them excited about life. The bleak curriculum should also be presented in a context that provides some discussion about hope, that there were other choices for some of these characters. This change has to be brought about through the proper channels of contacting local, county, and state boards of education (including curriculum committees), PTA groups, English teachers, principals, and students themselves.
In the March 2001 edition of the English Journal, a publication of the National Council of Teachers of English, there are two wonderful articles about this concern of bleakness in literature. The first is by Chris Crowe, former editor of the English Journal and English professor at BYU, and the second is from Young Adult author Kristen Randle. Crowe writes about his son’s experiences with bleak literature and then publishes the Randle article below his – one she wrote at his request to address this issue of depressing novels in the Language Arts curriculum. It’s aptly titled: “Let It Be Hope”. Here’s an excerpt from Crowe’s introductory article that quotes his son and how he felt about reading so much depressing literature in school and the misconception that only dark literature is deep literature:
“We go to school to learn how to succeed in life,” he said. “But we have to read books that aren’t uplifting.” Then he came up with an apt analogy: “When you’re trying to learn how to swim, you don’t read books about drowning.”
A few years ago I went through a personal experience with one of my sons and his dealing with severe anxiety. (Click on blue for link to story). He was questioning the purpose of life and had OCD thoughts about it, which I learned is called existential anxiety that is much more serious that simply teen angst. This rendered him almost unable to function at times, but with the help of psychologists, psychiatrists, some of his teachers/coaches, ministers, friends, family, and his faith -- he got through the hardest times -- though he is still prone to such feelings.
During that week when things first hit rock bottom, I happened to notice a book my son was reading for his 11th grade English class on his bed. It was called Ethan Frome, and when I perused it, I found that it was about a young couple that attempted to commit double suicide because their lives were so miserable; they failed at the suicide but ended up suffering disabilities from the attempt -- and they were still miserable about life. I knew that a lot of the English class readings are depressing, but it concerned me that my son had been reading this novel when he was going through such a dark time in his own life. Teens already deal with stress, lack of sleep, hormonal fluctuations, and emotions -- all of which contribute to depression and anxiety -- and yes thoughts of suicide. Why then, must they read such depressing novels in the English curriculum? Surely, I thought, the darkness in the books might contribute to their struggles. Conversely, an optimistic novel might actually help them in their struggles. Yet, how many novels in English class provide optimism? In light of the depression/anxiety & suicide rates, as well as students being turned off by reading -- shouldn't we give them more optimism in the place they go for their education, for their launch into life? Instead, we give them the opposite. To me, this is something that should weigh on our collective conscience.
This book didn’t cause my son's anxiety, but it certainly didn’t help. Another character in a book my son read that same semester hung himself at the end. And then there was the one both my sons read about a woman who drowned herself at the end. What? I realize these are "classics" and have beautifully written prose and lots of character depth; however, can't we find some other well-written books that inspire rather than disillusion and depress? Even if suicides are not part of the books read in class, most of them still have depressing tones and plots. At what expense are we having students read these depressing classics? In this day and age when we’re bombarded 24/7 with bad news of terrorism, the economy, natural disasters, and lots of other things – we don’t need to make things even more depressing for our teens. Not to mention the stress they feel from the competition of getting into college or finding a job when it’s tougher than ever. No wonder many teens don’t like to read and more importantly – No wonder there is an increase in teen anxiety, depression, & suicide.
Soon after my son started having severe anxiety, I expressed my concerns about the number of depressing and suicide-oriented books my son -- and his older brother -- read in their English classes to a curriculum specialist in my county. She replied, "Well, we have to get them ready for real life." Then she simply walked away. I felt my concerns were abruptly dismissed. I was stunned. Did she not comprehend the real life that students were already dealing with? Increased academic pressures, 24-7 news reports of atrocities around the world, terrorism alerts, & the 'no privacy' world of social media are just some of the challenges teens and young adults face. Every generation has its challenges, but this particular generation is dealing with things that no generation before them has had to deal with. If other education leaders have the same feelings in regard to teaching students about 'real life' as this curriculum person did, then they need to hear some other perspectives on the topic. At the very least, we need to make sure teachers and administrators are aware of the effect such negative books can possibly have on teens and to present these books in a manner that takes that possibility into consideration. Presenting suicides, murders, rapes, and misery as 'real life' with no other context or discussion is playing with fire, in my opinion and the opinions of others. So I have worked to bring together some of those perspectives on this site.
I've also included on this site some movie clips, book passages, and lots of songs that either have a hopeful message or express the fears and questions that everyone has because sometimes comfort is found in knowing others feel like you do -- and can articulate it. Finding a connection -- even companionship -- through art is a very comforting thing.
This site is about getting more uplifting literature in high schools, but it's also a resource to maybe find some hope itself.
The song playing on this page is a song I wrote with teen artist Brooke Hatala. It's called More Than This and is about teens knowing that they are so much more than grade point averages, sports achievements or any other accomplishments, looks, etc. They are individuals with hopes and dreams and fears, and they each have such a purpose to exist. This performance is Brooke singing at the 2018 Triangle Mental Health Summit in Chapel Hill, NC.