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.






3 thoughts on “The Classics: To read or not to read?

  1. This resonates with me going in to next year as well. I’ll be moving to grade 8, and our building is looking to find ways to help “close the gap” for our lowest achieving students. My thoughts are to do away with whole class novels and use the guided reading and literature circle methods. I wrote about it on my newly launched blog. I looked forward to reading about what you decide!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Focus: Five Things for the 2017-2018 School Year - Louden Clear in Education

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