Some texts endure time like paintings and monuments, left to stand and be interpreted by new audiences for generations. As educators, we sometimes get to make the choice as to which texts continue to live on (at least in our classrooms and schools) and be seen by new eyes.
When we present these “old” and possibly “boring” texts to students, it is our job to make sure they are offered in such a way that is novel and engaging so as to skip the usual use of Spark Notes or other text substitutes.
What students don’t understand is that we aren’t giving them these pieces of literature or primary sources to read solely because they are fun, but for the larger purpose of appreciation and depth of understanding. Each of them has a responsibility of bringing personal context to the read to share with the learning community in order to enrich the learning experience for all.
So how can we present complex texts in a way that peaks the interest of our students?
It starts with the way we sell it.
When I’ve taught Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, I’ve lead with the idea that I hate it, at least on its story alone. Just not my cup of tea, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t read it several times and even come to appreciate for different reasons. It’s rich and offers an experience that other texts didn’t at the time it was written and still offers a narrative voice that is valuable in the context of understanding the history of 19th century England. And what’s more, is that the the themes still hold up for today.
Students look at me, and are like, “Ms. Sackstein, we don’t only read books you like?”
“Absolutely not. Just because I’m an English teacher doesn’t mean I love all of the ‘greats!’ I’m still entitled to what appeals to me aesthetically and then what I can grow to appreciate for what it offers. My job is teach you to read without prejudice and then determine whether or not it has value. Not just encourage you to like things that are outside of your interest.”
This often surprises students, but it also opens up a dialogue about what makes art sustain value over time and what makes literature worthwhile. We agree together on elements that must be present like:
- universality of topics/themes/plots/characters
- mastery of language
- historical novelty
- historical context
- structural complexity and mastery
- historical and current reception
- produces an emotional response
- critical response
But how do we get students to appreciate or consider these things, when we leave personal preference out?
We allow them to dislike it. We give them permission to get angry about it, but then we remind them that if it elicits any kind of emotional response, there is probably a reason worth exploring. What about the text is evoking the response?
While teaching a unit on Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, it is easy to get lost in great philosophical discussions based on the existential subject matter and shear absurdity of what students read. At first, many of them don’t understand either text or enjoy them, but over time, they are often won over or at the very least, can appreciate the way class discussion around the text challenged their thinking.
Authors and playwrights have a way of sharing their ideas that reflect a certain style or time that continue to resonate in cyclical ways. But big ideas like questioning the meaning of life or the value of existence never lose their currency. It’s easy with a room full of high school students to reframe the text in a way that will directly connect with the current realities of their lives as they too are set to make seemingly life altering decisions. The “what if” line of questioning opens up the floor for rich discussion of life and the text itself.
If what we’re doing is working, it connects and this is the goal. How do these explorations of ideas deepen overall understanding about life and why does it matter? As we tackle this tough texts, we must encourage students to lead the inquiry and let them take it in directions they want to go with it, rather than the ones we may feel “HAVE” to get addressed. It’s easy enough to redirect or drop those important elements within the context of their conversations rather than ours.
For larger classes or ones with more reticent students, offer pre-discussion opportunities in small groups or pairs that allow them time to explore aspects of the text deeply and then can feel more confident about a full class discussion. It’s also a good idea to use a back channel like Twitter to encourage the conversations outside of the classroom as well. If students blog in your classes, let them respond there as well IF they are inclined.
Most students are curious about many things, it’s just a matter of tapping into them. Listen to them while they speak and offer them more opportunities to share their ideas. Try to record it when it happens because magic usually happens and it’s great to have proof of those experiences.
How do you make complex texts accessible to students? 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.