Reading Lists in a Fragmented Era

Sean Riley

Compared to when I started teaching in 2006, I see more students reading short and dense excerpts and texts to contextualize those excerpts. While I lament the decreased use of fiction in high school classrooms, I do applaud reading shorter pieces deeply rather than longer pieces shallowly. Depth over breadth is indeed a best practice.

A practical challenge that has emerged for me and my students is tracking what students have read and importing to them what is particularly culturally important. Because they read many things, it can be hard for them to summarize or synthesize all they've explored.

Sometimes we look at each other and go: “What did we read again?”

Until Cynthia Ozick’s quest for a critic to unite classic and contemporary texts is met, I have done something simple on my own: I’ve kept an ongoing list of what my students read and which ones give them cultural capital.

Cultural Capital List

The public list you see, which comes from my junior-level rhetoric class, does a few things.

1) It keeps the texts alive in our memories. I hear and see students refer to the texts and draw connections more. I draw connections, too.

2) It holds me accountable. Am I providing various points of view? Are we reading authors of varied disciplines? Are we reading a balance of “classics” and contemporary? When it comes to the rigor and themes of this list, do I feel proud? 

3) It conveys to students which texts give them power. All these texts have made students stronger readers and thinkers. But not all of these texts possess cultural capital. I want students to leave with a clear sense of what texts they should use to develop arguments and, frankly, impress. (As you see below, I tell students that, to me, all the texts are important. But if they want to argumentatively use a text with no cultural capital, they have to spend more time giving background).

In a time when Language Arts feels fragmented, I find that an anchor chart of what we’ve read does exactly like that: anchors us. 

*On a different note, this is my final blog for CORElaborate. I have enjoyed the past two years thinking about education by writing. I hope you and your students have in some way benefitted from this thinking. You can always reach me on Twitter @westseattle35 or in email at

  • English Language Arts
  • Student Engagement
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