An English Teacher's Guide to the Classics

September 26, 2016
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An English Teacher's Guide to the Classics

By Ashley Skinner, JH Language Arts Teacher

Call me Mrs. Skinner. I've been teaching at DMCS for eight years, and each year, we've read the same classic novels in my junior high Language Arts classes. Most of these novels were written before 1950, and half of their authors were British. So why do we read them? The short answer? Because they're awesome! The long answer? Read on. 

My first reason is a simple one. We read classic novels because most students don't know how wonderful they are, and frankly, they aren't about to dust them off the shelf. Mark Twain summarizes this feeling pretty well. He said, "A classic is something everyone wants to have read, but no one wants to read." That's true for our students. If most of them were given the choice to pick up Shakespeare or Percy Jackson and the Olympians, the average student would choose... well, do I even need to say it? Now to be fair, I don't blame them. It's hard to read something written a hundred years ago, but just because it's hard, doesn't mean it's not worth it. As a matter of fact, when we finish reading a classic novel in my class, students often break out in applause, and there's a buzz of "Wow, that was really good!" There is a certain excitement that comes with persevering through something difficult and finding out that you enjoyed it more than you thought you would. That positive feeling can take away some of the fear of reading an old book, and perhaps... maybe, just maybe... that scared preteen will pick up a classic next time they're bored in an airport library. Too much? Hey, a girl can dream.

For the second reason, I consulted the real experts: my eighth graders. I asked them why we read classics, and I heard, "They are popular. When you get older, you want to have some basic knowledge about classic novels so you can speak intelligently about them in conversations." Someone else said, "They are more difficult to read, which will help us in college." I also heard, "There's often a deeper meaning behind them." Last, someone piped up, "A classic is a story that hasn't been retold yet. It's the original."  This conversation solidified in my mind that despite how hard they are to read, our teenagers recognize what classics have to offer, and that's cool. After all, a classic is a classic for a reason. Whether it's through a unique plot, unforgettable characters, beautiful language, amazing historical circumstances, a relatable theme, or a combination of all of them, a classic has proved it is valuable to students today. Let's take a second and consider how impressive that is. A story that came from the mind of someone who lived a century ago is valued above all others from its time despite the vast generational disconnect that exists between it and us. As my husband put it, "Our culture seems to filter out things that don't work, yet classics are still here. They are still contributing something to your life after hundreds of years." Well said, handsome hubby.  

Third, classic novels have great potential to widen a student's word bank, and there is power in having a well-rounded vocabulary. To quote Mark Twain again, "The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter. 'Tis the difference between the 'lightning bug' and 'the lightning.'" Our students will be much more effective communicators if we show them the avenues our language has to offer when they are trying to express themselves. How can we do that? Well, vocabulary 101 says the best way to learn new words is to read them in context, and a classic is definitely rich with new words. It's unfortunate, but many modern works have a lower reading level. This is not a bash against modern fiction; it is simply reality. Modern books tend to have more modern dialogue, and modern dialogue uses simpler vocabulary. 

The last reason students should read classics is certainly not the least. As a country, we lose a little piece of our future if we do not know our history and one of the best ways to learn history is through story. Students are shocked when they learn that people tossed the content of their chamber pots right into the streets of London. They cringe when they see that men actually played the parts of women in Shakespeare's plays. They get lost in the adventures Tom Sawyer had with nothing but a stick and a beetle (no Pokemon Go there!). These are the daily lives of our ancestors, and these stories increase the connections we make to history, the details we remember, and the desire we have to keep learning more. As Rudyard Kipling said, "If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten." 

After reading this article and none of the above reasons have convinced you to pick up a classic, heed the wise words of this eighth grader, "You should read classics in case you teach English one day." Someone give that kid an A! So when your student comes home with To Kill a Mockingbird, A Christmas Carol, or Hamlet, show your support and maybe even read it with them. You'll make a lasting impression and share a laugh, a tear, or a sigh. This is the power of a classic.