Great Books that Get High School Students to Put Their Smartphones Down

You know how important reading is, especially in the era of Common Core. We asked high school teachers from around the nation to share the books they love to teach, but that are outside the traditional canon. Why? Including contemporary literature in your lesson plans increases engagement and relevance, which can increase stamina and reading response.

Use this list to give your students more decision-making power over the texts they read, and help them develop more independent learning skills and find more relevance in the subject matter.

Fiction

The Help by Kathryn Stockett lends itself nicely to contemporary issues with a writing style you can easily use to integrate the teaching of writing and grammar skills. It’s great for looking through the lens of reading like a writer and writing like a reader. Its themes and text complexity also provide a breadth of readability for students at most secondary reading levels.”

— Suzanne Forman, American literature and advanced composition and literature teacher, Winnetonka High School in Kansas City, MO

“I recommend The Fault in Our Stars because everyone in high school is reading John Green. This particular book has both a strong male and female main character, and it deals with the tough and contemporary issues of love, sex, dreams and terminal illness.”

Laura Staal, veteran K–12 teacher and professor of education, UNC-Pembroke, Pembroke, NC

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart tells the story of Cadence Sinclair Easton, who comes from a family of great wealth, that owns their own island off Cape Cod. The entire family returns to the island each summer, but the summer Cadence turns 15 brings a mystery and a horrific secret that is revealed over the next two summers. The stunning ending will leave readers breathless.”

— Jerene Battisti, teen services coordinator, King County Library System, Issaquah, WA

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, is part of the Seeds of America Trilogy and teaches students about the value and importance of freedom. After being sold to a cruel couple in New York City, a slave named Isabel spies for the rebels during the Revolutionary War. Students learn about the nation seeking freedom while at the same time learning about the condition of enslaved people in America and the measures they took to get their freedom.”

— Yolanda Gonzales, global history and social studies teacher, Beaver Country Day School, Chestnut Hill, MA

Ender’s Game and now Ender’s Shadow have kids enthralled. Student comments are usually ‘best book ever read!’ Variations on the same come from low-reading-level kids and super-achiever types. I’m guessing part of that comes from kids’ pleasure in the books’ language and the behavior of many of the characters — but also because the books feature kids like them who are superior thinkers in comparison to adults. There’s no doubt the video game culture, common experiences with bullying, and a sense that adults/teachers manipulate kids contribute to the popularity of the novel.”

— Kevin Daugherty, ninth grade English Language Arts teacher, Springfield Public Schools, Springfield, MO

Nonfiction

Red Madness: How a Medical Mystery Changed What We Eat by Gail Jarrow, is about pellagra, a now-little-known disease caused by eating foods made from spoiled corn, corn bread and grits. Among the poor in the South in the early 1900s the disease was rampant, causing horrible rashes, diarrhea, stomach pains, weakness and even death. It took decades for the cause to be found. This book is filled with period photographs of the victims and allows the reader to solve the medical mystery in a very readable text.”

— Jerene Battisti, teen services coordinator, King County Library System, Issaquah, WA

“My top pick for full-class instruction would be Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III. The writing is amazing, and it would be fun to see what the students would notice and note in it. Also, his life is so turbulent, as are the lives of his parents and siblings. When I read it, I was in awe at how much Andre changed over the course of his life and how very much he loved his father, who was often quite difficult to love. One of my students who is reading it said to me that he likes it as much for the style as he does for the content, and this is a student who is a reluctant reader. It would be a great text for doing sentence imitations and close reading exercises, as well.”

— Oona Abrams, twelfth grade English teacher, Chatham High School, in Chatham, NJ.

“Not many of my students have read Mindset by Carol Dweck yet, but I implemented a lot of the ideas from the book in my class last year, and noticed a huge difference in student growth and achievement. You’ll learn about whether you have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset — and how you can change to a growth mindset about learning, even if that isn’t where you are currently. I also recommend Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife. Doesn’t that sound enticing? You’ll learn about the history of our number system. Several of my students have enjoyed learning from it.”

Jennifer Wilson, National Board Certified math teacher at Northwest Rankin High School in Flowood, MS

Another great nonfiction read is The Nazi Hunters: How a Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World’s Most Notorious Nazi. A best-selling author for adults, Neal Bascomb chronicles the hunt for Adolf Eichmann, who organized the transportation of millions of people to Nazi concentration camps. The title won the 2014 Young Adult Library Services Association Award for Excellence in Nonfiction.

Need other ideas? Talk to your school librarian, fellow teachers and your students to see what they recommend. Then browse the shelves (online and in-store) for other titles and content area texts that engage your students.

Margot Carmichael Lester is owner of The Word Factory in Carrboro, NC. The granddaughter of schoolteachers, she’s a frequent guest instructor, leading K–12 workshops on persuasive, opinion and argumentative writing. She’s a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Find her on Google+.

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