Sequestered in a corner, with the light of the window, I used to sit and read voraciously. Whisking myself away to foreign places or angrily joining the resistance against a terrible dictator (even if that dictator was a pig.). Reading is an opportunity to escape or connect depending on the day.
In my career as an English teacher, I’ve had the opportunity to read and reread some of my favorites as well as some I appreciate for their merit but not for sheer enjoyment. Always trying to help students understand that we won’t love everything we read, but most of it is worthwhile for some reason and finding that reason is a part of the journey.
Discussing what makes literature meaningful and worthwhile was a big part of what I sought to do as an English teacher. Always eager to inspire and connect with my students through their love of different literature or movies, it was an honor to share their first experiences with some classics.
Each time a new class would approach a piece of literature, classic or otherwise, we tested it for enduring importance. How do we connect with what we read? In what context is it appropriate to read and can words really bring us together?
A resounding “yes” is usually what we discovered.
Here are a few of favorites and fun memories associated with students as we read them:
Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen was not a favorite of mine in high school, as a matter of fact, I hated Pride and Prejudice the first time I read it. Unable to connect with the heavy-handed role of marriage and completely missing the satire, I found the novel painful. It actually provoked anger. When I reread the novel as an adult, my opinion of it changed. Not because I feel like women have to be married, but because I appreciate who Jane Austen was and how Elizabeth Benett was a woman ahead of her time like the author. The satire and language are brilliantly laced throughout and the nuance of the characters are both witty and worth exploring deeper. What is amazing is how little some stereotypes have changed and that makes for a great conversation with students.
The Great Gatsby - My love for F.Scott Fitzgerald’s words and syntax is unwavering. Over the years, I dove headlong into the beautiful cadence of his sentences which are starkly contrasted by the carelessness of the characters and frivolity of the time. Gatsby is a nod to the American Dream and a warning about intention. Reading this novel with students always provokes different responses and a wide variety of consternation about how culpable we have to be for our actions. Students empathize with different characters or vehemently hate others, perhaps they are bothered by Nick’s seeming complicity in the carelessness, but one thing is for sure, regardless of when this novel was written, it resonates. This is one of the few novels I have read that has had an enduring impact on me as a writer, more than a reader. Considering the process Fitzgerald went through to complete it, I have a deep respect for him and his process and I share that with students too.
Hamlet - Shakespeare has to turn up here somewhere, right? I am an English teacher. He’s a guilty pleasure. Hamlet wins over Macbeth for me because of the amazing experiences I’ve had reading it with students. The last time I taught this tragedy, I turned it over to the students completely. We explored the psychological aspects of the play and how each character exhibited different symptoms which helped us understand their motivation. Hamlet is a character high school-aged kids can really identify with. He’s moody and sullen, but deep and really wants to do right but is having such a hard time making decisions. Sound like any students you know?
A Christmas Carol - After teaching Great Expectations for years (and not really loving it), I decided it was time to try something new. Since the Dickens unit generally fell close to the holiday break, this novel was an easy switch. Dickens does a great job of mixing the issues of the time into a ghost story and we had a great time discussing important themes around charity and whether or not people can change. Students made brilliant satire movies based on the text and the rich discussions the students led were second to none. The novel is accessible and also historically interesting. I’m glad I made the switch when I did.
The Harry Potter series (Especially The Half-Blood Prince) - Few series have held my interest as this one has. Having fallen in love with the characters and the story itself, I remember the first time I read the Half-Blood Prince and really feeling drawn to that storyline. As the pages of the text ended, I wept for Dumbledore’s demise, not yet knowing what was to come in the seventh novel. Harry Potter has been an enduring text in my life and an endless way to connect with students, my son and other people from all over the world. There is a richness to the story and the many themes explored that never get tired or old.
Animal Farm - Most students have been skeptical when I pull out Animal Farm at the beginning of the school year... in the 12th grade. I mean, it’s so simple, right? Exactly. The text is accessible, but it offers the chance to start exploring literature through author’s craft and not through comprehension of the story. Since I knew students can read this great little page-turner, it’s the perfect opportunity to shift the way we read for a different purpose.In the AP class, we need to think about craft and the impact of author’s choice instead of the mere understanding of what is happening in the text. This deceptively simple novella, like House on Mango Street, offers a wealth of craft choices to discuss from anthropomorphism to allegory and use the fairy tale. We talk about audience and characterization with historical context. And the best part is that kids get it. We also do a fun activity where they synthesize the understanding in a talk show segment that allows them to get creative.
Divergent - I’ve never taught this novel, but I read it on a student recommendation. I’m a huge fan of dystopian fiction of the like of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and the rest of Orwell’s works and this series didn’t disappoint. I enjoyed learning about the culture of this world and then, more importantly, I craved the conversations with students. This isn’t the first novel I read after seeing many students carrying it. Others were: Twilight (although I get the appeal, it was terribly written), A Great and Terrible Beauty (which was awesome), the Magicians (enjoyed the first book, but not the next one and the television series really didn’t align with the text), and Coldest Winter Ever (which was challenging to read, but helped me understand my students better.)
Being able to share conversations with students about literature they are drawn is a great passion of mine. Teenagers still love to read, they just haven’t been given enough permission or choice in school usually to go after the genres or content that appeals to them. We need to find ways to allow students to read what interests them and teach them the skills they need through that content. This is how we will develop a real love and passion for reading that will grow as students grow.
What books have you read upon a student or colleague recommendation that has sparked a conversation or a relationship? Please share
The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.