Literature In Schools

How books read in schools have an impact on students.


Tia Munoz, Editor in Chief

The curriculum taught in school, including the books read, goes through a long decision process. The Kansas Curricular Standards provide guidelines on what students should and should not be able to complete at each grade level. However, this is not the curriculum. Instead, these are guidelines that each school district can use to develop its own curriculum (Kansas State Department of Education). This extends into the literature taught in schools, as well. 

“A district committee chooses books for each grade level to help teach certain skills and standards. We consider a number of factors when we select them. Then those choices are approved by the school board and teachers decide how to use them in class,” Kevin Johnston, English teacher, said. 

There are different factors that go into the selection process: The length of the book, the reading level, the appropriateness of the subject matter in regards to the student’s age, the genre, and overall how well it fits in with the other texts used and how they think students will engage with it. 


One of the books freshmen read is The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. The book centers around Starr Carter, a 16-year-old African-American girl trying to balance her life between the predominantly black neighborhood she lives in and the predominantly white preparatory school she attends. After witnessing the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend at the hands of a police officer, Starr grapples with how to handle racism, police brutality, and activism. 

“I mean, I think that that book is a good addition to the curriculum. The sophomore curriculum focuses on a lot of diverse content as well. And so freshmen, just freshmen year, covers the gamut of antiquity to a modern thing, like The Hate U Give,” Savannah Hartman, history teacher, said. “In The Hate U Give, if I’m thinking correctly, it was just taught or is getting ready to be taught or something like that, but I think it’s a good way to lead into that sophomore curriculum where they will read about more things that are, they’re pretty sensitive.”

Hartman, who now teaches history, taught English last year and started the book with her students. It was added into the regular English courses and is taught in conjunction with To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee at the honors level. 

Both books deal with sensitive content. To handle this in a classroom setting, teachers may choose to take different approaches.

“There’s a lot of context that needs to be given. So for example, in To Kill a Mockingbird, the N-word is used in it. And so we have to have a conversation in class about historical context, why that word is used, why it’s okay for some people to say it and why it’s not okay for other people to say it, and looking at the strength of words,” Hartman said.  “The other sensitive content, I mean, for The Hate U Give there’s a lot of sensitive content in it in just that it’s portraying real life. There’s a lot of language, and I feel like it’s a very, for some people, it might be offensive because it’s out. It’s upfront and outright, but to be honest, a lot of the things that are talked about in that book are things that high schoolers say or do on the regular.”

Due to the pandemic and moving fully remote, this is the first year that The Hate U Give has been fully taught. The book was published in 2017, making it one of the more recent novels taught in the school. 

“I liked how it really went over problems that are happening today. It’s been going for a while, but it’s still going on today and it’s a really relevant topic. Going over that and going over awareness especially in stories we read in school is really nice,” Riley Carabio, freshman, said.


One of the books sophomores read is The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. The novel tells the story of Amir, a young boy living in Kabul, Afghanistan. Spanning multiple decades, the book describes the changing political states Amir faces while also detailing his struggles to maintain relationships among different power dynamics. 

“On a purely academic level, I hope that students are able to master the standard associated with each text. However, I do think that the texts we teach have so much more to offer students. I am passionate about all of the texts that I teach, but the sophomore texts have a special place in my heart as they are multicultural in nature and, consequently, are able to offer students cultural viewpoints that they may not have engaged with in the past,” Emily Bradshaw, English teacher, said. “The Kite Runner, for example, gives students a glimpse into the world around them; it also offers a message of hope and courage in the face of appalling experiences. My hope is that students come away from the novel with improved academic skills and strengthened character.”

Each student had a different takeaway from the book. 

“It was a pretty good book. It had some really, really slow parts but overall it was a pretty good book. The content in it was amazing actually. It showed us a lot about different cultures,” Corbin Askew, sophomore, said

Similar to before, some of the books taught in class deal with sensitive topics. Due to this, Bradshaw warns her students before reaching those parts in the books. She also gives them reflection questions, where they can share their opinions without being penalized, as a way to vent in a safe space. 

I believe that it is important to engage with sensitive topics, even when they are unpleasant. When I know that a topic may be triggering for students, I warn them ahead of time. For example, I start each Stiff chapter [a novel that is taught to her senior English students] with a quick summary of the chapter’s contents so that students are not surprised by something unpleasant. I also sometimes ask students to read sensitive passages individually… I do think that sensitive topics have a place in the classroom because (unfortunately) they also have a place in the world, and there is no getting around that,” Bradshaw said. “Reading passages that include tough topics, like assault, shows those who have experienced something similar that their experiences are valid and should not be swept under the rug. Exposure to anxiety-inducing topics can work a bit like a vaccine, strengthening students when they encounter similar topics in the real world and empowering them to advocate for themselves and others.”  


Juniors in AP Language and Composition read The Glass Castle, a memoir by Jeannette Walls. The book follows Walls’ upbringing, detailing the struggles of poverty and difficult family dynamics. 

“The lesson in that book is just too important to deny, you know?” Carol Watgen, an English teacher, said. “That you can have such a terrible childhood and still decide the kind of life you want to have. I think I’ve got a lot of students who need to know that.”

The book deals heavily with poverty, substance abuse, neglect, and more. Due to the sensitive nature of the topics, Watgen chooses to warn her students of what they are going to read.

“The only time I do that is when we get to Welch. You know, I just tell everyone that this is the darkest part of the book, and we’re going to find out why did Rex walls drink so much… I just have to be really careful to make sure to say, ‘Hey, this is coming’,” Watgen said. 

However, it was the sensitive content in the book that provided the biggest insights for some students. 

“I thought it really opened my eyes to a perspective of life I hadn’t really been exposed to before.  A lot of the content is this girl, who is Jeannette Walls writing a memoir, who lived in poverty…I don’t really know about that stuff. All the things that were happening, the conditions they lived in, it was really eye-opening,” Bella LeJuerrne, junior, said.  

In addition to The Glass Castle, some juniors also read The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The book dives into religious extremism, and the effect it had on Hester Prynne, the main character.   

“Literature is about life and life is challenging and stories can help us see our way through. I really believe that…,” Watgen said. “You know, the only novel that we really dive into is The Scarlet letter, which again is about a part of American history that was pretty ugly. Yet here we have this young woman who defied all of that. So do we still have religious extremism in the world today? Oh yeah. Do we have it in Topeka? Yes. I think these are all topics and themes that students can relate to. So I think it’s important to keep teaching them.”


One of the books seniors read is 1984 by George Orwell. Set in a dystopian society, Winston Smith is a middle-aged man living under the rule of the Party. As Winston grows more uncomfortable with his daily life, he begins to explore the idea of rebelling against the Thought Police and the consequences that come with it. 

“When choosing what books to teach the hope is that students’ critical thinking, problem-solving, reading, and writing skills improve. No book is about just learning one lesson.  The goal is for students to think for themselves and be able to communicate and support their ideas…,” Julie Coulter, English teacher, said. “Books are not chosen on a whim or at random. A lot of thought goes into what a group of students may need and what books will help them succeed while learning to like, not loathe, reading. Everything I teach is student-needs-driven. But there is never solely one thing that we hope students learn.” 

Coulter has factors she considers when it comes to choosing books. These include the reading level of the book and what skills it will teach students, the relevancy of the book, the relatability of the themes to a certain age, and whether or not the book can provide advanced work and resources for those who struggle. 

“(1984) was relevant to my life, in some points such as the government stuff that was going on and all of the craziness… It also reflected a lot of everyday life, like it had security of all sorts in. We talked about triangles of power, like the car companies. There are three major car companies and all of the different brands and whatnot that are trying to compete but don’t really get there, and they had a balance of power that way in the book. It was very interesting in those aspects,” Emily Thompson, senior, said.