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Students Should Be Offered Alternative Assignments in Uncomfortable Situations

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School is a place of learning. Yeah, that seems pretty obvious. But in the 21st century, students are forced to do things in the classroom setting that they aren’t comfortable with, which affects their learning capability and disrupts the learning process. For some students, it’s reading things they write aloud, for others it’s dissecting that frog for Biology. Neither of these things really affect me, but in my twelfth grade English class, I was forced to deal with an experience that I believe disrupted what I was learning. This I am not okay with.  

I hate to read, but like the good little student I am, I read the books required by the school  like I’m supposed to. Generally, I don’t really have an opinion on the material we are forced to read, but for the first book of my senior year, my teacher chose Kurt Vonnegut's vulgar anti-war novel, Slaughterhouse Five. None of the other classes are reading it.  Now, the plot sounds good and the novel was rumored to be written like Salinger’s  The Catcher in the Rye, so I was psyched. It must be better than Shakespeare, right?

The book follows Billy Pilgrim, who is a prisoner of war at Dresden in World War II. He gets captured by Tralfamadore aliens and starts time traveling from his childhood to his death to his time mating on Tralfamadore with a porn star (and cheating on his wife) back to the war. See, great premise. And then  it all goes downhill.

The major thing that made me be feel repulsed and uncomfortable happened on page 139. Paul Lazzaro, another prisoner of war, boasts about how he tortured a dog because the mutt bit him. Vonnegut writes, “I [Lazzaro] got some steak … sharp as razor blades. I stuck ‘em into the steak—way inside … I threw him the steak. He swallowed it …  blood started coming out of his mouth … started crying … I laughed … the sweetest thing in life.”

Now, honestly, is this what a 17-year-old girl should be reading? What good comes out of it? I either get really disturbed and the image haunts me for the rest of the day or I become really violent and I want to do this to a dog. And trust me, some people in my English class might pick the second one.  I wouldn’t want my children reading this and I would not want to read this myself. It’s horrible. Why can’t I just read A Tale of Two Cities like the other class?

Although I would prefer banning the book, the book does offer some literary merit, so I understand why it is read. So, I’ll compromise. In ninth grade, our Biology final was to dissect a fetal pig. This didn’t bother me much, but I remember that my teacher offered an alternative assignment for those uncomfortable with the dissection. Last year, the English 3 class was reading something on domestic violence (I was in AP, so I didn’t have to deal with this situation) and a girl was allowed to go to the library, because she had connections to the issue. But for me, these accommodations were not offered. I believe that is incredibly unfair, because I simply should not be forced to read about torturing dogs.

I mean, if a 17-year-old wants to read this, I don’t care, but I should not be forced to read something that produces such vulgar, disgusting images. I would have made a fuss to my teacher, but since we are now onto the next book, Hamlet, it wasn’t worth it. Besides, my English teacher hates me enough.

I know it’s a hassle for the teacher to create an alternative assignment. However, as I have said, school is a  place of learning. And I feel that that month of English was totally wasted, because of this uncomfortable situation. It’s really a shame too, because I like English.

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About Maddy

  • “I would prefer banning the book…”

    For what reason?

    If you plan on enrolling in English courses in college, there’s no alternative reading assignments for those who find a particular book upsetting. The goal is to encourage you to broaden your mind, not to dissuade you from reading literature.

    And Vonnegut didn’t condone the actions or images he conjured; he satirized his subjects. That’s a crucial distinction.

  • Maddy, we all have to do things that we don’t like or find distasteful. Perhaps a dialog with your teacher would be in order, perhaps discussing why he chose the books he did. Instead of looking at the assignment like it is a chore, you should view your assignments as having some value somewhere, even if it’s only miniscule. Make the teacher show you the value. That’s their job.

    Granted, that’s hard to do, and I know that. I take violin lessons, and believe me, there are days when I wonder about my teacher’s methods and motives. When I am frustrated, I have to remember that she’s there for a reason, to guide me, and maybe the communication isn’t so good.

    Hmm… I’ve actually had this discussion with my own kids many times. They’re now in college and every once in a while, I get the same complaint.

    I’m actually pleased to hear your teacher chose this book, instead of some mindless crap that many modern teachers choose.

  • Brad Schader

    Although I would prefer banning the book

    That is one of the most horrid statements I have ever heard from a teen. Banning books is never the right thing to do for many reasons.

    1. It violates the first amendment
    2. It opens a door where others can now silence things you say and do they don’t like
    3. It closes a door for discussion of morality

    Personally, I hated this book as well, but I would never ask for it to be banned nor do I feel my time spent reading it was wasted.

    However, as I have said, school is a place of learning. And I feel that that month of English was totally wasted, because of this uncomfortable situation.

    Learning is not always comfortable, happy, or easy. The months spent was not totally wasted on you at least because it caused thought and ended with an essay about your experience reading it. Show this to your teacher and I bet they will be so pleased with this.

  • Jordan Richardson

    I either get really disturbed and the image haunts me for the rest of the day or I become really violent and I want to do this to a dog.

    Doesn’t seem like you give yourself too much credit, Maddy.

    C’mon. You’re smarter than this.

  • gee, i’m hoping that they have discussed in class that Vonnegut witnessed the firebombing of dresden. sure enough, the torture scene isn’t pretty, much like what Vonnegut saw with his own eyes.

  • Maddy’s Mom

    I am pretty sure Maddy doesn’t want the book banned completely — just from High School curriculum. There were things I read in college classes that should not be in High School.

    I’ve yet to understand why I had to agree to have my child get sex ed or watch an R-rated movie that is in class shown but literature gets a pass. Then again, I grew up in truly progressive times and my teachers did give us a choice so I tend to be surprised when anyone is forced to read or do something that disturbs them.

  • Lisa Solod Warren

    What disturbs me the most about Maddy’s piece is the part where she says she hates to read. But in her bio she says she is an active writer for the school paper.

    What a disconnect.

    How can anyone aspire to be a writer, call themselves a writer, write at all, and yet hate to read?

    Reading is what makes a writer. Reading is what forms a writer. Reading is what opens up a world view, informs a life, shapes a vocabulary. And reading things that shake one up, make one think, even disturb one, are what an education is all about.

    Maddy’s mom defends her daughter, but she isn’t sure, and neither are any of us.

    Maddy got the first amendment wrong in an earlier piece (for which she got angry at me when I pointed it out) and clearly she showed herself as a nonreader then when she went with one “source” and pulled a whole article, of sorts, out of it.

    Now she talks about banning books.

    Maddy, the internet has a long life and some of what you write may come back to haunt you. I would do my research and think (and READ) before I dash off pieces like you do.

    Surely, a girl who excels in AP courses must be looking at colleges. How will you explain yourself?

    And how can you love English and hate reading?

    Maddy, education and getting a good one is all about opening your mind, not closing it at 17. Both you and your mom talk about being “forced” like you are in the gulag or something… when what you are is fortunate to have the privilege of getting a good education.

    I would presume, like other posters, that your teachers took the opportunity to talk about war and one of the most horrific events of World War II, something everyone should know about. It’s all part of your education and all part of growing up. And growing up is just what happens to all of us.

  • Maddy’s mom

    Madeleine has a learning disability and yes, she writes far better than she can physically read. Reading is unpleasant for her and the several relatives on my side with the same problem. The rest of us read constantly.

    I would not read that book. I left the room when the girls discussed it and read it aloud and analyzed it.

    Choice is far broader than it’s not a gulag so deal with it.

    When an assignment involved the Museum of Tolerance, there was a choice. One of my kids went. One did not. I do not go. Yet I know of WWII.

  • Lisa Solod Warren

    People with reading disabilies frequently overcome them, often by getting books on tapes.

    I get where she gets her “deal with it” attitude.

    I would advise her to get a thicker skin, and perhaps you might encourage this if she plans to write more things in her life. Writing opinion pieces means sparking discussion and even having people disagree with your point of view.

    The Museum of Tolerance is an interesting story. You certainly have your own way of raising your children. I am certainly glad you know of WWII. What you know of it and what Maddy will know remains to be seen.

  • Maddy’s mom

    Wow books on tape. Who would have thought of that? Actually, they have far more advanced devices available in the 21st century.

    You’re just arguing to argue now.

  • How can anyone aspire to be a writer, call themselves a writer, write at all, and yet hate to read?

    It’s easy, Lisa. Maddy is a high school kid assigned what to read. High school is boring, Lisa. It was back in the sixties when I went, it was in the seventies when you went, and it is now. It doesn’t have to be boring, but it is. Engaged minds do not have to seek out sex or drugs to be kept stimulated. But that is another topic altogether.

    Being asigned boring reading material is enough to turn off anybody from reading, even a writer like Maddy. And I’m not even looking at Msddy’s learning disability.

    I had the option for an alternative assignment, Lisa. I signed myself into the library to read during the boring “free” periods when we had to sit like morons in the assembly hall. I created the damned alternative. And I sat myself down and read what I wanted to read – linguistics books that examined the grammar of the various Germanic, Romance, and Slavic languages, for ewxample – or encyclopedias, or maps. I would study the maps, seeing if I could figure out the dates of the maps by the borders. That is what interested me, and in the Midwood High School Library, I read what I wanted to, and no bore of an English teacher could afflict me with the crap they called “literature”.

    But Maddy might not have that alternative. So she is stuck trying to absorb the boring books her teacher assigns.

    Nota bene, Im not sayng that I think that “Slaughterhouse Five” is boring. But Maddy thinks so. And she is writing the article, right?

  • CallmeMaddy


    First of all, never take shots at my mom. That’s just foul play and doesn’t come off well.

    How am I ever going to explain myself to college?
    I just a $22,000 SCHOLARSHIP to Northern Arizona. Yeah, $22,000.

    Just because I don’t read books makes me a bad writer. I read a lot of news articles. I actually find that more useful than some liteary book that means nothing to me.

    I love English because I LOVE writing. I hate to read, but writing makes reading worth it.

    I love history as well. I liked reading about WWII a lot actually. But I still found the book offensive.

    Reading is a huge challenge, but I still try. And somehow, I’m doing fine even though people like you just love to critize me.

    This is an opinion piece. That is my opinion. That is all.


  • Lisa Solod Warren

    Honey, your mom got on the site to defend you. If I wish to respond to her, I will.

    And please, don’t tell others what to do and not to do; you are still a child and you sound like one. I know, I have children, too.

    That’s great about Arizona State. I hope they never make you read anything offensive or anything you don’t want to read, like “some literary boook that means nothing” to you. Oh, but you have a lot to learn about what does and does not mean something to you.

    This is MY opinion. That’s all!

  • troll

    Maddy – the image is horrifying…why did KV include it in the book do you think – ?

  • Maddy – I found your article interesting, because your perspective is unique, though I disagree with most of what you said.

    1. Should teachers have to assign alternates to every disagreement a student has? What if someone didn’t want to read The Grapes of Wrath because the depression era upset them too much?

    2. What does being a girl have to do with it? You specifically said “is this something a 17 year old girl should be reading?”

    3. You said you hate reading and gave no reason or specifics about hating to read literature. You also said you wouldn’t have minded reading A Tale of Two Cities. Then your mom comes on and complains that people can’t say anything because you have a learning disability. Is that fair? If your mom can leave comments, then anyone can leave comments responding to her.

    4. You also said you would prefer the book to be banned. That is an extremely strange and upsetting comment from someone who loves to write.

    5. If you truly find the book to be inappropriate as high-school curriculum, then that is a cause you can take up with the school. Talk to the teacher, your parents, your guidance counselor and possibly the librarian to figure out a fair course of action. Find out if others agree with you. If it’s just a case of you not liking it, then you should probably use the book as a learning experience in literary analysis.

  • maskay

    I can see why that scene would be upsetting–I was upset at hearing you describe it. I could not have read it at 17, and not at 37 either.
    In college, yes, you may be assigned things to read, but it is different than high school. When I enrolled in an English class and saw what was on the syllabus for that semester, I switched to a different section/teacher because I knew the material didn’t interest me. I felt (and still feel) that if I am paying for it, I’m going to take the class that I have the most interest in and best chance at excelling in.
    Keep up the good work!

  • Buck

    Maddy, this kind of thinking is part of what gives Republicans a bad name. Seriously.

    Even if you meant only banning the book from high school classes – as your mom suggested – that’s called censorship. The public school system is a government funded program.

    Weren’t you the one who was outraged that a student was not allowed to wear an anti-Obama shirt at school? Didn’t you call that censorship?

  • bliffle

    I see your point, Maddy. Maybe Kurt Vonnegut is a little too lurid for highschool students. On the other hand I can see the argument in favor of KV because he’s more relevant, more modern.

    IMO many of the traditional readings along this line are really more potent because they leave more to the imagination.

    Back in The Stone Age we read “Red Badge Of Courage”, “Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge”, etc., and I remember them still for their expressiveness and their impact.

    Sometimes it helps to do extra work and then Pick A Fight With The Authorities. I remember in HS that I was disappointed with “Heart Of Darkness” so I read several Conrad stories (“end of the tether”, etc.) and novels (“Victory”, which I love to this day, and “Nostromo” which I’m cool to) so that I could put HOD into a context and advocate MY choices.