The Classics: To read or not to read?

Teaching the Classics in high school English | Should we teach the classics in high school English? Are we trying to raise kids who read the classics or kids who love to read?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately (uh-oh, watch out!).  I want to change my curriculum next year.  I am always adjusting and tweaking things, but next year I want to do an overhaul.  Thankfully, I have the permission of my principal to update–as long as I’m meeting standards, I can do it however I like.

How exciting, right?!

Exciting but also quite overwhelming.  I mean, I can change anything. He said he will back me up to my PLC, parents, and whoever else might object.  (Since then, we’ve actually been told to update from the Central Office, so that solves those problems–but there is still the question of how).

So, because of all of this, I’ve been thinking.  A lot.  And having conversations. And researching. And philosophizing.  And here I am, with no idea what to do.

I know things I want to do to or do more of:  way more writing (4x what I can grade, per Kelly Gallagher), vocabulary (I’m the worst vocab teacher.  Ever), grammar in context (I’m reading Mechanically Inclined now–awesome!), and a lot more mentor texts, among so many other things.

I’m struggling with what I might not want to do: The Classics.

Do we need to teach them or not?  I mean, I love them, of course.  How can I not teach The Great Gatsby?  How can I send kids off into the world without Jay, or without Lenny Small, or Blanche DuBois?  What if they don’t read about Williams’s red wheelbarrow or Hughes’s dreams exploding?

What will happen to them?

Anything? Nothing?

Since this has been on my mind, I’ve been talking to my colleagues about it.  It seems that most of them are in the same mental place as me, which is to say they, too, have no idea.

The problem with the Classics

Like I said, I love the classics. Although sometimes when I see those lists of all the books I “should” have read in high school, there are many I haven’t.   And I love to read.

But I turned out okay.

My husband only remembers two books from high school: Lord of the Flies and “that one book where they burned all the books”.  He hated them both and doesn’t remember much about them.

But he turned out okay.

The classics are classics because…well, they’re classic.  They have timeless themes, memorable characters, and they’ve withstood the test of time.

But wait, are there no modern, accessible books with similar attributes?

The classics are alluded to all the time.  I can name at least six sitcoms or movies that feature a character yelling STELLLAAA!!! And without reading Streetcar Named Desire, what meaning would that have?

But can you still enjoy Seinfeld without understanding why a drugged up Elaine is saying STELLLLLAAA to Jerry’s uncle’s girlfriend?  Yes, I believe you can.

The problem in my classroom is this:  It takes forever to teach some of these books.  My students are so reluctant to read The Great Gatsby in October that it becomes a constant battle.  It takes us almost six weeks–six weeks–to get through this novel.  From introducing it and building background, to crawling through the chapters, and finishing with a literary analysis, it’s a never ending journey.  While many kids end up enjoying the story (I’d say the book, but I’m not convinced they all actually read it), it’s still hard to decide if it’s worth it.

Do we have to read the classics?  The standards are vague when it comes to texts (especially for Modern American Literature): Apply Grade 11 Reading standards to literature (e.g., “Demonstrate knowledge of twentieth- and twenty-first-century foundational works of American literature, including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics”) [27a].  Okay, yeah, I think I can do that.  <insert scratching head emoji>

I just don’t know that I have to teach the classics to meet the standards.  Am I really going to grow readers while dragging them through “boring old books” they don’t want to read?

(Don’t get me wrong, I know that they’ll have to read “boring” stuff at some point, but does it have to be right now?)

What is our purpose, really? 

As English teachers, what are we trying to accomplish?  Do I want my kids to be familiar with Of Mice and Men, or do I want them to be literate adults?

The latter, right?

So, if I spend weeks on weeks on weeks fighting the classic book battle, am I going to end up reaching that goal?

I know there are exceptions.  For example, I have a handful of kids who did read The Great Gatsby and who did love it; sadly, they are not the norm.  Do I build my course around that precious handful of kids, or do I try to reach everyone?

Again, the latter, right?

Because regardless of what books I teach, that handful is probably going to jump in with both feet and get excited.  If I want my students to leave my classroom having read a few books and maybe even willing to read a few more, I feel like I have accomplished something huge.  Seriously, huge.

My class–while it is such an integral part of my life–is only a blip on my students’ radars. It’s one of seven class they have in a day, one of 28 they have in high school. While I stress over what they’re getting or not getting, reading or not reading, writing or not writing, they’re thinking about anything else.  But what if I could catch their attention with a good, modern, accessible, thought-provoking book?  Am I dreaming here? Maybe.  But I think it’s worth a try.

I think our goal, especially in the high school English classroom, is to renew our students’ love of books.  It’s sad to think of how much our students used to enjoy reading when they were small children compared to how much they hate it as teenagers.  When a student (a junior, mind you) says the last book he read and enjoyed was one from 4th grade, it should be a sign that we’re doing something wrong.

Getting teenagers to enjoy reading is no easy task, as we all know.  The technology and instant gratification this generation has lived with for so long make it hard for them to sit still long enough to read a book.  But maybe if the book is good enough, they will be willing.

The Benefits of Switching up the Books We Teach

If we can help kids enjoy reading the benefits will be immense.

If kids like to read, they will read more.  That’s just a natural result.  If they read more, they will become better readers.  As better readers, tasks will become easier.  It will be easier to read in school, it will be easier to study in college, it will be easier to discern exactly what is needed to correctly apply for a passport, for example.

If kids read more, they will become better writers.  They will see what good writing looks like; they will learn where commas belong (and where they don’t!); they will increase their vocabulary.

If kids read more, they will have more knowledge.  They will have evidence to back up their opinions, they will be able to hold a conversation with anyone.

If kids read more, then when they do have to read the “boring” stuff, they will be equipped to do so.  They will have the skills and strategies they need to tackle their Philosophy textbook in college or the legal document they’re signing.

I’ll be honest, I’m still not sure what I’m going to do. I’m sure the classics will still play a roll in my classroom; My English teacher heart won’t let me cut them out altogether.  We’ll definitely stick to some classic poetry and short stories, I just can’t decide about the novels.  I’m going to research a lot this summer.  (I’ll share whatever I come up with later.)

But I do know this: Something has to change.  My kids deserve the opportunity to enjoy reading again.

And hey, maybe one day they’ll see that list of books they “should” have read, and pick one up.  Or maybe they won’t.

But they’ll probably turn out okay.






Fall Semester Wins

alice-mooreTomorrow is the last day of the first semester of my eleventh year of teaching (that’s a tongue-twister), and it has been really great.  I like my schedule this year, I have really great kids, and I have consistently been in a pretty decent mood.  I will say I haven’t been super productive but at the same time I haven’t really been buried in grading or way behind on anything, and there are definitely areas in which I need to improve (read: vocabulary!!!).  But overall, I count this as one of my favorite semesters of all time.  Yay!

So, I thought I’d highlight some of my biggest wins of the semester

  • Concentric Circle Discussions-
    • Where the idea came from: I had been looking for a way to change up discussion for a little while and I came upon this list from Cult of Pedagogy. While many sounded great, the concentric circle idea made me stop and think.  I chose this one because I felt like it would be the easiest and best way to get ALL of my kids involved with the discussion rather than just my chatty kiddos.
    • What it looks like:  I moved all of my tables to the side of the room and put theimg_6541 desks in a circle in the middle of the room facing out.  I then moved the chairs from the tables to face each desk.  When kids entered the room, the screen told them where to sit.  (I did it once with The Great Gatsby, but that was super chaotic, so I’m just going to explain how I did it with the Of Mice and Men final discussion).  Here is the presentation I used to go through the process.  Since we had done it before, I didn’t have to explain too much, but we talked about what makes a discussion vs. just saying statements back and forth (ugh–the worst!).  As you can see on the presentation, I basically had a couple rounds (enough to cover all of the discussion questions) and had the kids change partners after each round.
    • How it went: Like I said, when I tried it with TGG, it didn’t go super well because I didn’t know I was going to do it when I assigned discussion questions, which I had done completely randomly.  So, for OMaM, I made sure that the inside circle had one set of questions and the outside had the others. (These are my final OMaM questions, so half the class had odds and half the class had evens). This was MUCH less chaotic, so it went really, really well! I was so excited!  Most of the kids enjoyed it and said they preferred it.  At first I was like, “how will I know who is discussing like they should be?” But it was actually pretty easy.  I wandered around and listened in, joined in sometimes, asked some additional questions to keep discussions going.  And I heard some GREAT responses.  All-in-all, it was definitely something I will do again!
  • Essay Feedback-
    • Where the idea came from:  I just sort of made this up after being sick of kids not reading my comments and not learning anything from previous writing experiences.
    • What it looks like: Last Spring I wrote about it here.  I added a new element this semester. I made students fill out this form before we had our conferences.  I explained to them the purpose:  “You spend a lot of time writing these essays; I spend a lot of time reading them and commenting on them, in an effort to help you become better writers.  So, I want you to learn from this experience and that means you can’t just check your grade and shove it all in your backpack.  You must read your entire essay, read all of my comments, complete the conference form and meet with me.  Then, and only then, you will receive your grade.”
    • How it went: One student, when I sat down to help his group with something, said “Mrs. Louden, you’re brilliant.”  WOW! That’s a new one!  “I don’t know about all that, but thanks!”  He explained that what I said was true and that he’d never really paid any attention to the comments his teachers wrote on his paper.  WIN!!!!  Overall, it went really well.  Next time I need to work on helping kids figure out what to look at.  Where as I was more concerned with content, organization, etc., they got hung up on “I should have had a better title” or “I am bad with commas”.  Yes, those are important, but those are lower order concerns and I hope to help them learn the difference next semester.  I think the process was good though.  Most kids gave themselves lower grades than I did (which makes giving them their grades MUCH easier, by the way) and a lot of light bulbs went off during conferences.  Of course, I won’t know until our next formal writing if it worked or not.  Many did show improvement on their formal paragraph on the final exam, so I have hope.

Minor Wins:

  • Group Competitions– Admittedly, I still need to work on this because I haven’t been great at keeping up with it.  I let each group choose a team name, and then I hung signs up with columns for each group.  When the groups did certain things (everyone had their notebook out when the bell rang, or group members dressed up for Homecoming, or whatever) I would add a sticker to their group’s column.  Now, what did I do with this?  Umm, nothing. That’s where the fail happened, but the when it came to motivating the kids to be prepared, stay on task, etc., it actually worked quite well, so for now I’m counting it as a minor win.
  • The Great Gatsby Essay Process – My essay prompt comes from an AP prompt, which I switched up to suit my regular 11s a bit more.  Basically I offer eight quotes from famous (or obscure) people that they had to prove Fitzgerald either agrees or disagrees with based on the novel.  I like the prompt (although I do plan to change it next year), but this year I made the process pretty intensive and I made models for every single part.  I made videos to explain parts of the essay so the mini lessons were available later.   I also have 5th period off this year, which means I am available during all lunches and advisories, so I opened my doors up to help any day during the writing process.  This was great.  A lot of kids came to get help on their essays, which made for a much less tear-inducing stack of essays to grade at the end of it all.  I really liked this process as I felt the students got a much better handle on each part of the paragraph and the essay.  By far these were the best essays I’ve had in years.  Hallelujah!

If you have any questions about what I’ve shared, please feel free to ask!  What are your wins this semester?

I’m so excited for break (we’re heading to the Bahamas in three days!!!) and some time to recharge.  Next semester I have a student teacher, so I’m looking forward to an opportunity to revitalize my own teaching and help a new teacher develop her craft.  Have a great break, y’all!


Vocabulary Plan

I am a terrible vocab teacher

There, I said it.

Admitting the problem is a big part of solving it, right?  Sheesh, I hope so!

Despite being terrible at teaching vocabulary, I am co-leading a school wide vocab PD on Tuesday. Eek. Talk about pressure. Each period anyone who is off for their PLC time will come to me for “Beginner/intermediate” ideas and my colleague, Lesa, for “intermediate/Advanced”.  On the upside, while preparing to lead this collaboration hour, I have found a lot of ideas for my own classroom.

I have finally come up with a plan and starting next week I plan to begin implementing it.

The plan:

  • Students already have notebooks that we use almost daily for Notebook Time, so I am going to ask them to keep a log of words they stumble upon.
    • The words can be interesting, unknown, or nice to the ear.
    • They can found anywhere: in our shared texts, AoWs, independent reading, articles, Tweets. Wherever.
  • Every other week I will ask kids to fill out a form with two (I’m not sure about this yet) words from their list.
  • I will use these to compile a master list for us to study. Sometimes I might sneak in some words I know are coming up that will be tough in our reading–just a teeny bit sneaky.
  • We will complete a Knowledge rating chart on day one and add the words to our word wall.
  • Over the course of the next week or two (I haven’t worked out the details yet), we will play with the words. Say them, study them, use them.
  • I haven’t decided if I want to quiz kids over them. I really don’t. Maybe our “quiz” will be a piece of writing or a concept circle activity or something.
  • Bonus: my students are in groups (their “home base groups”) and we’re going to make names and “flags” for them. Then, and this is a BIG CHANGE for me, we’re going to have an ongoing competition (not sure what the winners will get). When it comes to vocab, this could include competition in games like Kahoot! Or as simple as using the word correctly during discussion or something. Whenever teams earn a point, I’ll add a sticker to their column on the wall. This is so out of my comfort zone, y’all don’t even know!

So that’s the loose plan for now. Thoughts? Suggestions? How do YOU teach vocabulary? I’d really love some feedback on this one!!!

High Volume Doesn’t Mean High Confidence: A Reminder

Wednesday was speech day in Public Speaking.

The air was buzzing with the nervous excitement of the first day of speeches. The kids have butterflies in their stomachs, but they’re also ready, after writing and practicing their speeches, to perform for their peers.

Their first speech is an easy one: a speech of introduction. But I put a twist on it.

Rather than having kids introduce their peers as they are now, I have them introduce each other for a future event. They pretend to be a keynote speaker or an award winner. In their speeches they tell about the person’s imaginary life: their challenges, their achievements, their heroic acts or death-defying feats. It generally becomes quite entertaining. It also lightens the mood quite a bit.

So one after another the kids get up, give their speeches, receive their feedback, sit back down.  And then my most outgoing student gets up to speak.  She giggles a little and swings her leg around.  She starts to speak and her voice is quavering.  Her whole body is moving like she’s unable to keep it still.  She makes it about 60% through her speech and stumbles over a couple words–no big deal, usually–but instead she kind of freaks out.  She looks up, like she’s about to cry and says “can I start over?”  Sadly, the bell is going to ring in about a minute so I ask her to do it the next day.

When the next day rolls around, she is worse than she was.  She is almost in tears before the period even begins, “I can’t go Mrs. Louden. I just can’t.”  We make a plan to have her give her speech just to me. I had her go out in the hall to practice some more.

When I had a minute, I went out to talk to her.  “So, tell me about this.  What’s going on? You’re one of my most out-going students, so I’m just surprised.”

She explained that she took this class on purpose because she knew she needed to get over her fear of speaking to crowds.  And then she said “I’m not out going, Mrs. Louden, I’m just loud. Really loud.  Don’t confuse my volume with confidence.”

BOOM!  That is powerful stuff.  Food for thought.

How many of us have done this? Confused a student’s volume with confidence? Or, in the other direction, confused a child’s quiet with ignorance or apathy?

Guilt washed over me.  How many times a day do I make these assumptions?

We spoke a little more about it, and I mulled it over for the rest of the day, thinking of kids in my classes who were loud or quiet, and what I presumed about their intelligence, interest, or confidence based simply on their volume.

Now I have a challenge for the rest of the year.  It will be hard to measure, except in my own reflections, but I challenge myself–and all of you–not to confuse volume (or lack their of) with confidence (or lack there of).


The First Week



This year I’m changing a lot of my techniques, and I’m working even harder to get to know my kids. Building rapport is something I’m pretty good at (IMHO), but this year I want to take it a step further. I want to really build a community.  I’ve had visits from a lot of last year’s kids; this has not only made me realize how much I am going to miss them this year, but has also motivated me to build those same relationships with my current kiddos.

I thought this weekend I’d review what I’ve done for the first few days of school and layout some plans I have for the year.

The First Few Days

  • As always, I’m focusing on reading, writing, speaking, and thinking.  Every. Day.  Students have already seen these four pillars being addressed in my class since day one.  And their parents knew I was focused on them because of this welcome letter I sent to them before school started.
  • Students have been assigned “home-base groups”. For the first time ever, I have students seated in groups of my choosing from day one.  I grouped them by their astrological sign, based on some advice from a teacher at another school. She swears by this method!
    • It’s been really fun watching the groups get to know each other, and to see which groups are quiet, and which won’t hush up.  I’m excited to see how this plays out throughout the year.
  • Days one and two involved completing Author Sketches based on ideas from Moving Writers, and writing claim sentences as advised by the awesome Dave Stuart Jr.
    • I am striving to use mentor texts this year, so using the author sketches as a way to introduce this idea was a neat beginning.  I think I will do it again next year, but I will make some changes.  By then I’ll have a year of using mentor texts to start from, so I think I’ll be better off.
    • I also want to incorporate more argument into, well basically everything.  So starting with claim sentences about ourselves (based on the author sketches) lead perfectly into writing claim sentences the following week.  We will continue to refer back to those throughout the year because they seemed to catch on right away.
  • I introduced AoWs on the third day of school.  We started with this article about Failure because I wanted to start right away to let kids know that I think it’s okay to fail. We will take risks in my classroom and we can’t be afraid to fail.
  • To introduce students to the idea of backing up their claims, my colleague came up with the idea of giving kids different cereal nutrition labels and then having them sort them from healthiest to least healthy.  I had students do that in a group.  They came up with the criteria that was important to them and then ranked their cereals.  They had to write a claim sentence and explain what evidence they had to back up their claim.
    • Next year I’ll be a bit more intentional and prepared for this so that the ideas care over a bit more.

All in all, I’m happy with what we’ve done so far this year.

I’m feeling prepared and productive so far this year, so if that continues then I think it’s going to be a great year!

I hope you have a fantastic year as well!


The Precipice

I always feel as though I’m standing on a precipice at the beginning of a new year.

The view is beautiful, idyllic even, but it was a journey to get here, and there will be an arduous journey to return to where I started.

I think the view from up here is my favorite part of the year; it’s definitely the easiest part.  I’ve spent countless hours over the summer reading PD books, scanning Twitter, speaking with colleagues, devouring blog posts, all to get to this point.  Plans filter through my brain, images of what each day will look like, how my students will delight in all of the lessons and books and ideas.

And then I remember that a precipice is dangerous.  That at any moment I could misstep and fall off the edge.  While it’s great to have all of these positive thoughts about the year, it’s also important to be realistic and plan for the less sunshiny days.

It will be hard.  There will be students I do not get along with. There will be lessons that fall flat. There will be books that do not get read. There will be essays I shed tears over (maybe tears of joy, but…probably not). There will be days I do not want to do this job anymore.

But on those days I will pull out my Happy Folder and read student notes and parent emails that put a smile on my face, and continue to travel down from the top of the mountain to base camp, where the air is not as thin and I can think a little straighter.

Right now I’m anxious, just as I imagine I would be on a real precipice (okay, actually I’d be passed out because I’m afraid of heights, but I’m trying to stick with the metaphor). I don’t know what lies ahead. I don’t know what the trip down the mountain will be like. I might even fall off the edge (but more of a stumble because I don’t want to die in this metaphor).  But from here the view is awesome, and I’m taking a mental snapshot of it so I can remember it when the trek gets really tough.


I hope you’re enjoying your view right now.  I know it’s hard wrapping up your leisurely summer and returning to the grind of work.  But we chose this work, and if we’re passionate about it, then we can make and enjoy the journey while we’re at it.

I hope you have a great return to school and an awesome year.

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Next week I’m going to write about staying balanced as a teacher.  Stay tuned. 🙂

Looking Forward

School starts a week from tomorrow.  Holy moly.

I won’t lie and say that I’m super excited about school starting.  I could use another two to three weeks to get used to the idea.  It’s extra hard for me because my family lives in Michigan and they don’t go back until after Labor Day.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter because school starts in one week and I have so much to do before then.  Eek!

I have five main goals for the year, which I wrote about earlier this summer.  Over the past few days I’ve been delving into the many resources that I didn’t read this summer and getting excited about some of the changes I plan to make.  The first being the inclusion of WAY MORE mentor texts.  Like, waaaay more.

I purchased this amazingly wonderful book-Writing with Mentors— and every page is inspiring.  Seriously.  I’ve already planned the first couple days to include mentor texts.  I purchased another book based on their recommendation for a first day activity.  The book is called Artists, Writers, Thinkers, Dreamers: Portraits of Fifty Famous Folks and All Their Weird Stuff and it’s full of sketches of the person along with what they liked, where they were from, etc.  Like one of the authors, I plan to use this at the beginning of school for students to do their own Author Sketches.  You can read more about it on their blog, Moving Writers, here.  The following week I plan to start using Notebook Time, which also comes from their blog and can be read about here.

In addition to adding these awesome ideas, I plan to continue to #starbucks my room (which I’ll share more about it when I have progress to show), and I’m not switching my digital class over to Canvas (rather than using Classroom and a Sites).

Whew. It’s going to be a crazy year of changes, but I’m excited about them.  Of course at this time of year I get super anxious.  How will my kids be? What will they need from me? How can I help them?

Hopefully I can keep up with blogging way more this school year.  I’m going to map out a plan for bi-weekly posts for the first 9 weeks to try to keep myself on track.  Here’s hoping!

Happy school year everyone!