OP-ED | The Classics Don’t Matter
At the start of each school year, many students tell me that they hate reading. Many say that they haven’t read a book since elementary school. Part of the problem lies with what we’re asking students to read in high school. Students need relevant young adult literature, not the classics. The classics, or the traditional literary canon, tend to be texts that are praised by scholars, stand the test of time, and, as a result, are often taught in classrooms. Young Adult literature, or YAL, is written about young adult situations, with young adult characters, with a young adult audience in mind. YAL is better suited to turn reluctant readers into lifelong readers.
• EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a series of essays from Manchester High School English and Social Studies teachers who participated in this summer’s Connecticut Writing Project-Storrs at the University of Connecticut, part of the National Writing Project’s College, Career, and Community Writers Program. The program’s goal is to learn how to better prepare students for the writing demands they will encounter beyond high school.
Students don’t care about things that aren’t interesting to them. I choose to teach Macbeth, not because I think my kids should know Shakespeare, but because it is engaging and fun. Too often, we teach what we were taught. And I was taught that the most important novels to know include texts like The Great Gatsby, Moby Dick, The Catcher in the Rye, Hamlet, The Scarlet Letter, and Fahrenheit 451. I found them interesting at the time, because my teacher was passionate, but mostly because I was a compliant, “good” student who wanted to do well in school. These are books that I now love as an adult. But what about the students who are not like me and many of my fellow English teachers?
Most students are not ready for classic literature at 14 or 15 years old. Teenagers are interested in teenager concerns, and the classics are typically concerned with adult issues. When students are forced to read classics, they often become uninterested and disheartened. Donald Gallo argues that forcing the classics on teenagers has contributed to an aliterate society. While we have good intentions in teaching the classics, we are harming our students. Gallo writes, “Even [the] brightest students are still teenagers with typical teenage problems and needs.” Our students need books that they can connect with so that they can develop a love for reading.
This school year, I taught Looking for Alaska by John Green to a class of grade ten struggling readers. Getting them interested in reading was difficult. However, once I got them started, they read it. Not every student, and maybe not consistently, but this was a huge accomplishment for them. One student, who frequently boasted about being a non-reader, started reading the novel. Other students caught on and started reading too. When the year was over, I asked the student why she read the novel. She said, “It was interesting. I liked what it was about. It was actually funny.”
One might argue that Young Adult texts are not challenging enough, not well-written, not “literary” enough. That’s simply not true. Some of the most beautifully written texts that I have read are classified as young adult. Try Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson or The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Try Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Some of the most confusing, complex texts that I have read are young adult; these were texts that I had to ponder about, struggle through, and go back and read more than once in order to understand. Students need interesting and complex texts. The classics are not the only texts that offer that.
This doesn’t mean that students should never read classic literature, but only when they are ready. I was ready in high school, but many students are not. I read Shakespeare and Dickens in high school, but I wouldn’t have flunked out of college or failed British Literature if I had never read Romeo and Juliet or Great Expectations. There were a lot of classics that my professors referenced that I hadn’t read; what I did was pick them up and read them when I needed to. In fact, I succeeded in my college English courses even though I had never read Of Mice and Men, Othello, or The Grapes of Wrath.
Reading was enjoyable to me, so I knew that I had the power to pick up any of those classics and read them if and when I needed to. However, my students need something more at this stage in their lives than I did when I was a teenager. It is far more important to me as a teacher that they find literature that they connect with. We must question why the classics are viewed as more valuable than YAL. Is it the difficulty? The themes the texts address? The authors? The number of years that the texts have been taught in classrooms?
Part of “College and Career Ready” means being a reader. A reader of articles, novels, poetry, voting ballots, emails, advertisements, contracts, transcripts, lab reports. A reader who reads for pleasure and a reader who can attempt to read something that is really confusing. Students will not push through a hard text on their own if they have never enjoyed reading or discovered its value. For most students, the classics will not help them become lifelong readers, but Young Adult Literature will. The Common Core State Standards aim to prepare students for college and career, and yet, only two out of one hundred suggested texts for grades 9-12 are arguably YAL.
If the goal is to create students who can recognize a Shakespeare reference or talk about Pride and Prejudice at a dinner party, then maybe the classics matter. If the goal is to create lifelong readers and young adults who pick up texts for pleasure, then, ultimately, the classics don’t matter.
Sarah Forte is an English Teacher at Manchester High School.
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