June 04




Ok…so here’s a scary thought: our students are going to have jobs that do not currently exist, solving problems that we do not currently know are problems, using skills we do not currently know how to teach and technology that does not yet exist. For the past several years, I have wondered about how the students I teach are going to find a way to do that using the knowledge of Moby Dick they have obtained from my classroom. This leads me to forever consider the idea of relevance. Is everything I am teaching in my classroom relevant? Is at least MOST of what I am teaching relevant? How can I take the things I know I need to teach…Shakespeare…Edgar Allen Poe…and MAKE them relevant to our kids? And what new things taking the world by storm should they know about (besides Hamilton. Is there ANYTHING besides Hamilton? I’m not sure)?



Disclaimer: Some of these books are old or “classics”. Many of these books are newer. Some I use as novel studies, some I just have to hand to students when the spirit moves me.


the chosen

The Chosen by Chaim Potok

This one is a Chaim Potok classic. Published in 1967, The Chosen is a story about two Jewish boys, Reuven, a modern Orthodox Jew with an intelligent, Zionist father, and Danny, a brilliant boy and heir to a Hasidic temple. It seems to be anything but relevant. This story, however, exposes students to one of the world’s oldest, still existing cultures, while also speaking to issues that still exist in our society today, such as father/son expectations and managing friendships among teenager from conflicting backgrounds.

Bonus: The movie (which came out sometime in the 1980’s) is amazing, and you can find it on Hulu.



Winger written by Andrew Smith and illustrated by Sam Bosma

MY. GOSH. THIS. IS. MY. FAVORITE!!! The book’s main character, Ryan Dean West, is a fourteen-year-old junior at Pine Mountain Academy, a boarding school in Oregon. He is in the dorm for “bad kids”, his gorgeous best friend, Annie Altman (also a junior, but an “age appropriate” junior) thinks Ryan Dean is “adorable”, and he gets his crotch trounced playing rugby (you will cringe so hard, it will hurt).


stand off

Stand-Off written by Andrew Smith and illustrated by Sam Bosma

While Stand-Off is a sequel to Winger, it deserves its own mention. Ryan Dean West is back at Pine Mountain Academy for his senior year. Stand-Off is just as good, if not better than Winger, but in a different way. Ryan Dean is struggling with a major bugaboo from the previous book, and is having trouble holding everything together. He decides to start drawing again, and lo and behold, Stand-Off takes on a graphic novel element that was not present in Winger. As Ryan Dean deals with tragedy, readers who have experienced their own will be able to relate to him in a non-threatening way. Oh yeah, and Ryan Dean gets a new roommate. Sam Abernathy. Who happens to be a twelve-year-old freshman. Ryan Dean’s descriptions of “The Abernathy” all soccer-jammied up and ready for bed in his Super Mario Brothers sheets will be the funniest thing you will ever read.


thousand splendid suns

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

When I say A Thousand Splendid Suns, I actually mean, please be sure your students read every book Khaled Hosseini has ever written, and then have them wage a writing campaign to persuade him to churn out at least another book per month. I am assuming that most schools have The Kite Runner on their reading lists at some point. Our students read it as their summer reading book when going from eighth to ninth grade. This is good, because it is a book that students might actually commit to reading at a time when of the year when they struggle to commit to finishing a soda, but it is bad, because as a teacher, you don’t get to do much with it. I have read The Kite Runner with my ninth graders (before it was on the summer reading list), and I have read And the Mountains Echoed with my eleventh and twelfth grade literature class. Many of my students in both classes have gone on to read A Thousand Splendid Suns and have said that it was Hosseini’s best story.


glass menagerie

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams

You must read plays in your ELA class. Why do I feel so strongly about literature of the theater? Well…for lots of reasons. You can spend less time on a play, so you can give your students lots of little slices of heaven all year long. They are fun to read in class, and they naturally promote class participation. Students who don’t normally like to read in class often enjoy it when they are playing a character. The most important reason, however, is reading comprehension. You will likely have students in your class who have struggled with reading comprehension since first grade. This gives those students an opportunity to create a movie in their mind – a strategy that is enormously helpful, but much more difficult when reading a lengthier text. Why The Glass Menagerie? It flies by, it has a limited number of characters, and the characters are rich with background stories and development.


Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Identity. When you look at teenage angst, the process of coming of age, and all that which causes your students to drag their weary souls into your classroom, scowl at you, and then proceed to ignore you for the next 45-50 minutes because they are feeling the feeliest feels any feeler can feel, most of it boils down to identity. Aristotle and Dante explores the idea of identity on many levels. The author drives home the importance of identity by juxtaposing a character who is completely secure in his identity with one who is completely lost.


Hamlet by William Shakespeare

There’s melodrama. (500 year old spoiler alert) Just about everyone dies. You know how I feel about reading plays in the classroom. Please, please, please read this dusty old thing with your students and then have them “stage” some of the scenes. It’s riotously fun.


absolutely true diary of a part time indian

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Oh….I feel so strongly about this one. I almost didn’t teach it. I read it. Like everyone else, I loved it. But I almost didn’t teach it. I’m so glad I did, because we don’t know enough about or talk enough about Native American culture or what life looks like on Native American reservations, and we need to. Your student may leave high school knowing almost nothing about Native American life as it is today. Don’t let that happen.

Anything by John Green

Have you ever watched the Crash Course videos on YouTube? What makes them so appealing (besides the fact that history is cool) is his language and the way he can say so much in so little time. His books are exactly like this. His language…his vocabulary…it’s all just overwhelming.



Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

This memoir/graphic novel about a girl coming of age in Iran during the Islamic Revolution is such a crowd pleaser. The book tells the story of the overthrow of Shah’s regime and the devastating effects of the war with Iraq through the eyes of the narrator from ages six to fourteen. Much like The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and And The Mountains Echoed, your students need to read this in order to see something greater than their own tiny microcosm.


Now go ahead, read all ten.

Really. It’s a long weekend. You can do it.



Samantha Steele is a middle and upper school English Language Arts teacher at a small private school in Connecticut. Samantha is also a teacher-author, whose resources can be found in her own classroom, as well as in classrooms around the world. When she is not reading, teaching, or creating, Samantha can be found with her husband, two sons, and marshmallow-filled yellow lab, Olive, or blowing raspberries on her cats’ tummies while they sleep. She gets scratched to pieces every time, but it’s totally worth it.