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HATING THE CLASSICS

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Mr. Lawrence, the blogger at Get Lost, Mr. Chips, has figured out why students so often hate reading "classic" literature in English classes. It's not the material itself, he says. It's the presentation:

What doesn't help their appreciation/comprehension of these works is arguably in the piecemeal presentation, which breaks down chapters and has students analyzing sentence after sentence instead of 'enjoying' the book for what it is. Many cheat—and I know I did—by reading the CliffsNotes / SparkNotes for the books (I used the one for Lord of the Flies). 'Pleasure' is negated by turning the books into 'assignments' which are mandatory for class points.

He's sure got that right. Long after high school, I realized I actually liked reading short fiction. What I hadn't liked, in the 10th grade, was being forced to dissect "Sonny's Blues" for weeks (really) on end. I still remember there was Biblical symbolism involving a "cup of trembling," but the plot? The cadence of the writing? It took years before I was willing to give them another go. Perhaps the best thing an English teacher can do is try not to build more walls between the kids and the content than is really necessary.

2 Comments

I understand what both of you are saying about student resistance to reading the "classics" and why they resist. I wonder what you think of this idea as a possible solution? Hand out an outline--a VERY BASIC outline--of the work, discuss it VERY BRIEFLY, and then immediately (in the same class period) show a film or a video of the work. THEN distribute the reading assignments.

Prepare yourself for a happy surprise. Students will actually READ the assigned segments as due, and there will be a level of excitement during discussion that you weren't getting before. Why? My theory is that the film or video gives them two components essential to the understanding of any literary piece: 1) The work's basic structure and, therefore, its "rhythm" and scope, and 2) a context or framework into which the work "fits." Armed with these two essentials, the student can approach the reading assignment with a confidence s/he might not have had otherwise.

PS - Some teachers use this technique but show only half of the film or video, reasoning that students will be so curious to know how things work out that they will be motivated to read. In my experience, most teenagers will be TOO impatient and will proceed to read ONLY FROM THAT POINT ON. :-) Try both approaches, I guess, and see which works better with your class.

[Apologies for all of the CAPS--this blogboard doesn't have the option of italics and bolding.]

Ms. Douglas: I hope you don't mind, but I'm going to copy and save your suggestion there on my hard drive because it's sound advice and I feel like it'll come in real use in the future ... plus, I love films, and incorporating them in any constructive way makes the classes more interesting.

Ms. Donnelly: Thanks for the mention! ;-)

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  • Mr. Lawrence: Ms. Douglas: I hope you don't mind, but I'm going read more
  • Jean Douglas: I understand what both of you are saying about student read more

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