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Tyrone ninth graders read classic and contemporary books

Forty years ago in 1967, at age sixteen, writer S. E. Hinton published a book about some good-hearted gangsters and entitled it “The Outsiders”. With action packed plots, adventuresome characters who talked like teenagers, realistic settings, and relevant themes, Hinton’s contemporary book offered a breath of fresh air for High School English Students bored by Classic Literature.
For decades before Hinton’s teen novel, many American adolescents viewed classic literature, such as Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” or Dicken’s “A Tale Of Two Cities”, as stories to sleep through. One Tyrone student summed up the situation with typical teenage eloquence when he warned, “If our English teachers want us to read that classic crap, they should give us a book and an alarm clock, so we can wake ourselves up from it.” In Tyrone’s ninth grade English classes, students have no need for an alarm clock to awaken them from a boring book, since they read only a few short classics, and plenty of contemporary young adult books during their freshman year.
As Tyrone’s football season opens at Gray Memorial Field each autumn, students in Richard Merryman’s ninth grade English classes open a young adult football novel by Chris Crutcher entitled “Running Loose.” In that 1983 book, Chris Crutcher tells the story of a star football player from a small mid-western high school who finds himself in a sportsmanship battle with his coach, quits the team, loses his girlfriend in a car accident, and comes to realize with singer Stevie Wonder that “ Though I thought that all would last forever / Just like the Weather / Nothing ever can stay Gold!”
In November, during the month of congressional and presidential elections, Tyrone ninth graders exchange their young adult football novel for a classic political book by George Orwell entitled “Animal Farm”. In that 1945 fable, which features talking animals, Orwell uses the failed Russian Revolution of 1917 to warn young adults that no matter if the country be Russia, or Iraq, or America, unethical government leaders can use hard-working and uninformed citizens to achieve unfair and even harmful goals.
As the winds of winter descend on central Pennsylvania in January, and some Americans reflect on the accomplishments of Martin Luther King Jr., Tyrone ninth graders polish their public speaking skills by performing parts of King’s “I Have A Dream Speech.” In addition to that speech activity, they read Robert Lipsyte’s young adult book entitled “The Contender”. In that 1967 novel set in a city ghetto, a talented African-American athlete uses his skill in the sport of boxing to fight his way out of poverty and crime.
Of course on Valentine’s Day each February, ninth grade English students return to the classic play writer Will Shakespeare, while they practice their passionate public speaking skills through acting out Shakespeare’s teenage tragedy of love, “Romeo and Juliet”, which dates from 1597.
In March, as spring blossoms across central Pennsylvania, and local farmers prepare their fields for planting crops (remember that agriculture remains Pennsylvania’s largest industry), Tyrone ninth graders read two books related to farming — John Steinbeck’s classic novel “Of Mice And Men”, and Robert Peck’s contemporary story “A Day No Pigs Would Die”. In Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize novel of 1937, two migrant farmhands find their life dream shattered because one of the farm workers cannot escape his mental challenges. “A Day No Pigs Would Die” tells the tragic story of a twelve-year-old farm boy who struggles to keep the family farm from bankruptcy after the premature death of his father from a heart attack.
With the arrival of April, some Americans recall those awe inspiring moments in April 1945, when allied soldiers liberated Jews from the Nazi concentration camps of World War II. Reliving that triumphant April moment, ninth grade English students read the poignant pages of Elie Wiesel’s World War II diary novel entitled “Night”. In this classic book about Nazi terrorism, an elderly Elie Wiesel describes his years as a teenage Jewish inmate in a Nazi concentration camp, where daily he witnessed horrifying Nazi brutality and the dying of his mother, father and sister.
Concluded Merryman, “In building the reading curriculum for freshman English classes, we tried to include both classic and contemporary books, which above all else, would keep ninth graders awake! We tried to avoid that literary scandal described by Professor Paul Gallo in ‘The English Journal’, where he lamented that we teach our children to read in elementary school, and then force them, during their teenage years, to read literary classics that most of them dislike so much, that they have no desire to continue reading into adulthood.
“Instead,” finished Merryman, “we want to instill a love of reading in Tyrone students that will guarantee they become lifetime learners as adults!”