TSS: Teaching Classics to Students

Hey there Saloners. I hope everyone has had a fantastic week. I've slowly been enjoying the last moments of "freedom" (sure I've gone up to my classroom to get work done, but isn't it always easier when you know that you don't HAVE to?).

With Florida schools returning (and some already have) I've been perking my ears up a wee bit more at the bookstores or around teens. Trying to feel out what they're reading, what they're liking. Usually I spend most of my summer reading YA books and Tween books that I can recommend to my students; this summer I didn't. I feel a wee bit outta loop. I tend to have quite a bit of freedom in my curriculum (teaching 7th grade advanced, I don't have specific novels that I have to cover). And because of this, I allow for frequent individual chosen reads. My opinion has always been: we create readers if we encourage readers to explore what interests them as much as teaching them the merits of (da da DDDDUUM) "The Great Ones" and how to graph a story.

As it happened I attended a family gathering today which included one sophomore (10th), three freshman (9th) and two 6th grade girls*. I sat around gabbing books to the girls going (or in) high school first - summer readings have always intrigued me.

"So whatcha read this summer for school?" I pried.

"Oh we had to choose two books from this list on the school website. So I read Willow and Linger. I liked them both," sayeth the entering Freshman who adores reading - we'll call her The Bookworm.

"Yeah, you have to tell me about one of them," sayeth the sister who hates to read - we'll call her the Reluctant Reader.

"OMG (ok, no, I didn't actually say the letters) that's so awesome. I couldn't read titles that were out when I went into school. I remember having to read Watership Down before 9th grade and couldn't figure out why my teachers assigned it. I mean, it was about a bunch of rabbits in this community. What? Really! Linger, that's the werewolf one right?" I continued prying.


"Oh god, you're gonna read this most boring book this year," Reluctant Reader says to Bookworm, "It was called. Oh god. What was it, oh yeah, To Kill a Mockingbird. God it was awful!"

I gasp.

"Are you kidding? It's incredible! Atticus is incredible. Wow. I loved that book!" I squealed. And yes, I do squeal. I get this high pitchy cheerleader voice when I either get mad or excited. *rolls eyes* Whatevs.

Now while this is going on, Bookworm is looking at me with doubt, cuz obviously the name Atticus does not encourage he interest. And then Reluctant Reader attempts to remember the story for Bookworm and it goes something like: "Er, well, there's this black guy and he's on trial for rape. But he didn't do it. And then there's this other guy who is trying to get him off. And so the dad kinda frames the black guy. But I think that the black guy and the daughter were like in love or something? I don't know. I didn't really pay attention."

The conversation continued for a bit more. I tried to do damage control for TKaMB because I really wanted Bookworm to walk into the classroom with an open mind. Plus, I mean, c'mon man, it's HARPER LEE. It was, like, the 50th anniversary and all that shizzat.

But then I got to thinking...are we wasting the classics on the young?

I think it's most excellent that students get to choose from this list of books for their summer reading [(and I do want to clarify, that this is just general population (a term coined for the average student). The honors, IB program, etc., all have different requirements)]. Perhaps if more students are encouraged to check out some most fierce contemporary YA lit, they wouldn't roll their eyes at reading. Maybe, just maybe, contemporary lit should be taught in the classrooms in the first years of high school.

Do most students in high school love classics? Or are we constantly re-reading them going, "Huh, I used to hate this but now I love it?"

I'm not really sure how that works. In high school I Hemmingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls and Farewell to Arms. I disliked them both. To this day, I still feel a certain type of gag-reflex coming along. Plus, i cannot decipher the two in my head. I have NO desire to re-read them. Watership Down? I didn't really care for Bigwig (but can remember his name nearly 20 years later) and his rabbit commune but might JUST MIGHT re-read it. Steinbeck, I totally dug. But by then I was getting a wee bit older. (Oh and I was in the AP classes - Advanced Placement, so I doubt I would have been offered the list above to read from...which is another gripe because I never really read YA books when I was YA. Although I bet the genre has come along way. Er, okay. End tangent). Scarlet Letter? OMG. Totally loved. Canterbury Tales? Yeah, Chaucer grew on me during college.

*Whew* I just did a lot of name dropping. Yikes.

But you see, I'm still sorting out my feelings on the subject. What is the best age to introduce students to classics? Perhaps if there are YA books that coincide with the same themes and teach them jointly? Would that be possible? And if we are to stick with the plan that general population (there's that term again!) should have the enrichment of The Classics, what classics are the most teachable? How do we put it in perspective?


  1. My issue with teaching classics to students is that we don't teach the right ones. The only book I remember liking that they made me read was As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner and that was more for the writing and the exposure to a completely different style than anything else.

    We don't give teens classics they can relate to. The Scarlet Letter? Billy Budd? Shakespeare? No. No no no. I want to reread The Scarlet Letter now because I know there was no way I could have understood it then. But if they'd have given me The Bell Jar I would have been swooning.

    Adults who make reading lists forget to think about what's most important to teens. They grab the best greats of literature and toss them out there expecting 14 and 15 year olds to understand them. More often than not, it's not going to happen, especially with relunctant readers. But if you give them something they can RELATE to, that will change things immensely.

    I had this argument once with an English teacher and he told me that would never teach something like The Bell Jar to kids because they would relate to it, and that would be bad. What kind of argument is that?? He was an idiot. He also wondered why his students hated him.

  2. Nowadays kids have low threshold. They can't concentrate. Classics consume a lot of time. In that kids would rather text or be with the computer. I try to make my students read with no success.

    I think we are facing the same problem all over the world.

    TSS: Celebrating India's 64th Independence Day.

  3. I love to read, but I couldn't stand the books the teachers chose when I was in school. Why do they choose such boring titles? If the aim is to encourage students to read, then choose something they can relate to. I think to this date, that's still why I avoid the classics. Or all the books with symbolism or "lyrical prose" which just bored me...

    I'd tried TKAMB twice (high school and college) and gave up both times. It's probably something I'd appreciate much more now.

    I think books like The Hunger Games can capture their attention (both boys and girls) but there still lots to talk about, e.g if you are Katniss, would you go to the game in place of someone else? Are any of the players "ethical"? How about the government's role?

  4. I think in today's world it's more important to get young people interested in reading in general than exactly what they read. Certainly it needs to be well written, with valid thematic material, but also entertaining and relevant.

    The books that were considered "classics" in my day aren't going to work for the majority of today's students. I'm not necessarily thrilled with that idea, but I'm afraid it's true.

    That being said, I still think To Kill a Mockingbird is relevant, and young people should read it/see the movie or play.

  5. There is no book that all students will love. This is one thing I've learned after over 20 years of teaching. The best thing to do is to mix it up. Use some material that is written directly for them (YA)m some that you think will speak to their interests, some that will challenge them and even some that you think they'll have a very difficult time with.

    You cannot grow if you do not stretch.

    I'd love to do The Bell Jar with high school students but I think the content is rife with danger. I think using a book like The Hunger Games is a waste of classroom time becuase so many kids will read it anyway. I try to bring books to the table that the students don't already know about.

    And for the record, I am opposed to summer reading lists. I think kids should be left alone in the summer to read or look at the moon or whatever they want to do. I believe the main thing students learn from summer reading lists is how to fake their way through a book report or how to cheat on a review test. Summer reading lists just gaurentee that a large percentage of students start the school year by lying to their English teachers.

    And To Kill a Mockingbird Rules. What's wrong with that kid? ;-)

  6. I liked most of the classics that I read in high school with the exceptions of Moby Dick and Of Mice and Men. I think a mix of modern lit and classics would be nice, but I think teachers try to give the students a good grounding in the classics before they go to college.

    I know I begged for a reading list all year from my AP English teacher, and she just rolled her eyes and said they didn't put any of the old classics on the test anymore. Well they did - we had only read one of the books listed on the essay section and that was in junior high. It was incredibly frustrating. Then I went on to the college where everyone in the honors department gave the impression that they had read all the classics (and were very snooty about it).

    So I think teaching the classics is necessary preparation for college, especially if you're going to do anything in the way of an English lit focus. But for those who are not in AP or advanced classes - especially reluctant readers - I could definitely see the value of giving them a mixed reading list to encourage a love of reading.

  7. Of the classics I read in high school, I mostly liked the ones I now liked, and disliked the ones I now dislike. Loved To Kill a Mockingbird, and that hasn't changed; but then, neither have I come to like The Scarlet Letter. It seems like a crapshoot, teaching classics to kids, but it's probably a crapshoot no matter who you're teaching them to.

  8. I certainly didn't appreciate much of the reading given in high school but rereading them as an adult certainly changed my opinion. Which obviously means I wasn't ready for them then.

    I'm not a teacher so not sure if this would help but it's sad if we don't plunge young students into classics. There are many classics that I loved as a kid and most of them not required reading. I just read them because they interested me. Such as:

    The Little Prince (Saint-Exupery)
    Silas Marner (Eliot)
    Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Carroll)
    Daddy Long Legs (Webster)
    Heidi (Spyri)

  9. I'm a junior in high school and we are studying Brit Lit this year. Needless to say I'm not looking forward to it. I have no interest in Beoweulf. I'm willing to give Dickens a try and we already had to read some Shakespeare and that was OK. But there is only one female author on our list and no authors of color. It's frustrating. I do wish our English teachers would work on having us read more books that apply to our own lives and showed some diversity (although I'm glad we read Of Mice and Men, that was fantastic. along with Huck Finn and A Raisin in the Sun. American Lit was a pretty good year).

    We read To Kill a Mockingbird in 8th Grade and I loved it. I read a lot of classics in 8th Grade (Pride & Prejudice, Emma, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre) and while I may have missed some things, I generally really enjoyed them. I think it is possible to find YA books with similar themes, or even books with crossover appeal. Teenage main characters, but maybe written for people a little older.


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