No More Crime and Punishment: Engaging Your Modern Students with Classic Literature by Meredith Sizemore
In the last decade, there has been conversation amongst teachers about replacing classic literature with modern texts and encouraging free-choice reading in the classroom. I’ve personally witnessed the transition between being a high school student to teaching high school students. However, in 2003, when I entered high school, I was different from most high school students today: I loved literature. I swooned for Shakespeare’s language in Hamlet, I was thrilled by Ray Bradbury’s futuristic world in Fahrenheit 451, and I cried for Lennie in Of Mice and Men.
Today, most high school students think reading classics is a Crime and Punishment. I’ve heard students’ reasons range from, “It’s too hard,” to “It’s just old,” to “It’s boring.” Teens would much rather be reading something that is relevant to their generation and their current interests. They’d rather be thrilled by zombies, vampires, and cancer-ridden kids than War and Peace. While free-choice reading and contemporary young adult (YA) literature certainly have their many benefits, there are still required state, county and school canons to be read, and therein lies the dilemma for today’s teachers.
Most importantly, when it comes to teaching classics, teachers need to stop feeling like we have “to drag” our students through these novel studies, or that we just have to get them “to survive.” I’ve been guilty of this sentiment—we all probably have at some point—but it’s time to change our attitude and our methods. I recently read Dave Burgess’ book, Teach like a PIRATE, and it has changed my teaching career. Without writing an entire book review on it, I can tell you that there is essentially only one concept that can alter your classroom approach to classics: engagement.
This Brave New World of engaging classic literature is about taking something old and making something new, creating modern-day connections, interpreting meaning, and some times, just being a little silly. With time, and a lot of enthusiasm, many of my students have recanted their Pride and Prejudice over classics, and they are actually reading.
One of my Teach Like a PIRATE inspired lessons includes fashioning Huckleberry Finn’s raft out of desks, having my students all pile on board, then hosting an intimate conversation about racism. It takes a few moments for the silliness of the activity to wear off, but once we’re all squished together and talking about racism past and present, a somber and respectful ambiance hovers over my little Robber Gang. This lesson sets the tone for the rest of our novel study; students are constantly reflecting back to our discussion and how it plays out in Huck and Jim’s evolving relationship.
A second example is a box car simulation for my unit on Night by Elie Wiesel. I do this by herding my ninth graders into a tiny book closet, turning off the lights, and demanding they stay still and silent for a whole minute. When the minute ends, the prisoners emerge single file, silent and wide-eyed. Back inside the safety of my classroom, we unpack the fear and the discomfort of this experience and relate it to Wiesel’s haunting memoir. Students frequently cite this day as the most memorable lesson of the year and choose Night as one of their favorite books.
The point of all this has been to not just “entertain” students, but to make them want to be in class and to want to read the assigned texts. Most importantly, the students are connecting to texts and deciphering meanings. As Kylene Beers and Robert Probst write in Notice & Note, “Meaning is created not purely and simply from the words on the page, but from the transaction with those words.”
By creating these engaging lessons for classics, I’ve simply opened the door for my students to make important transactions between their lives, their world and classic literature. As teachers, that’s our job: to open the door, to invite in and to involve our students.
If we could let our students read only (or mostly) their beloved YA literature, maybe we would. However, there is still a lot to be learned from classics and from the past. So let’s stop making our students Les Misérables. Let’s give them reasons to love classics; let’s give them engagement.
Meredith Sizemore is in her third year of teaching English in Augusta County, Virginia. She primarily teaches ninth grade. In her free time, she’s planning a wedding to the love of her life and reading books like crazy!