You Can Make Literature Interesting–Really!

In high school, how many people disliked or hated their English classes?  Exactly.  Almost everyone.

Have you ever considered why that’s the case?  We aren’t born with a dislike of reading and everyone loves stories–whether in a book or told at a table over a pizza and some Coca-Cola.  Almost everything we relate to one another is a story in some form and yet…a sweeping majority of kids find English and Literature dull, a tedious day.  That was true forty years ago and sadly without tweaking things, it’ll be true forty years from now.

Notice I said ‘tweak’–I don’t think massive changes are necessary to fix things.  Teachers simply need to practice what they preach.  English teachers instruct student-writers that they must always keep their audience in mind.  Using terms like recidivism or anthropomorphic in a story for 8-yr olds won’t work and you’ll lose older kids with “See Tim. Tim walks. Tim talks. Tim is funny” in less than twenty seconds (more like twenty milliseconds).

So think to your Literature classes in high school.  Think of some of what you read.   Here are some examples:

Hamlet, MacBeth, King Lear
Moby Dick
The Deerslayer
The Great Gatsby
The Pearl, The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men
A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises
The Scarlet Letter
A Tale of Two Cities

Those are just examples off the top of my head.  I do want to be clear–I’m not saying these are horrible books.  Other than Moby Dick, they aren’t.  But what exactly in these holds anything of interest to a 14-17 year old?  We are failing to take into account interests and maturity–it’s lazy teaching.  Teachers assign ‘classics’ because it was what they were forced to read, what they read *in college or later* or because ‘it’s good for them to be exposed to beautiful literature’.  …but if I hate it when it’s crammed down my throat–I ask, what good is that exposure?

When I was asked to teach Literature, I didn’t do what the previous teacher did.  I remembered the suck of my high school English teachers, had in mind the comments kids would make during study hall in my room–and I tried to change things because I believe you can create a list of classic novels and works that can spark interest in the text–or at least get them to grind through it because it isn’t that long of a piece.  So, here’s a list of a few things I assigned and why:

Henry V: You do need Shakespeare.  I explained it before we started reading–this is a spoiled rich kid, the equivalent of a high school senior whose father dies and suddenly he finds himself king of England.  He has to grow up fast–and how do you get past your image as a partier to get adults and your friends to now take you seriously?  …it’s a story of suddenly having to grow up very fast; that can hit home with kids who have parents get divorced or have one die unexpectedly.

Romeo and Juliet: If they didn’t get this forced on them in Jr. High, it’s good for teaching Bill as well.  High schoolers know all about the angst of love and crushes…and the cool thing with R+J is that it has so many, many, many cliches.  Except–Shakespeare’s the guy who created most of them.

Also good for teaching Shakespeare–show them/let them listen to a performance.  Shakespeare was meant to be seen/heard rather than read.  Consider movies.  West Side Story, Romeo Must Die, 10 Things I Hate About You, A Thousand Acres, *THE LION KING* …all of these are re-interpretations of Bill’s stuff.

Frankenstein: This covers gothic lit and it’s classic horror…but it also touches on modern issues–you can discuss it alongside altering crops, cloning, the creation of the atom bomb.  Where do we draw the line between what CAN be done and what SHOULD be done?

The Doll’s House: A short play by Ibsen–so you’ve hit Scandinavia here.  It’s about the role of women in society.  Think of the possible avenues of discussion.  And…it’s short, so if someone doesn’t like it (usually guys), you don’t go on so long with it that they tune out completely for a week.

Heart of Darkness: Again, it’s short.  It’s a tough read, so I give it extra time–but I also showed “Apocalypse Now” (with parental note permission and not showing the scene with the Playmates…) as we went over it.  We discussed this in terms of Afghanistan/Iraq–but also about obsessions and how they can consume/shape us.  This was never the favorite–but it always got discussion…and that is at least some of the point.  It also inspired a novel I got published…the poor review is funny–someone who didn’t like the publisher and commented before the book was even printed. *shrug*

Fathers and Sons: Turgenev/Russian literature.  It’s not long.  It’s about two young men who grow together in college, graduate, and visit their homes and realize they aren’t really meant to be lifelong friends.  It’s about mental attitude, an outlook on life–and the idea of nihilism.  It’s a book they’ve never heard of, but they’ll read when you note it’s about college-aged characters…they can relate to them.

A Canticle for Leibowitz: A bit longer, it is ultimately three separate, related stories–that you can read 1-2-3, 2-3-1, or 3-1-2 and still understand what is going on.  You can discuss whether these create different messages, you can discuss this in relation to Turgenev’s character’s nihilism, and whether history is doomed to repeat itself.  It is one of the first real ‘apocalyptic’ science fiction novels.

Starship Troopers: Yes, I’ve assigned this.  The thing is–it reads really fast, but you can discuss the ideas in it such as mandatory civil service in order to vote, the metaphor of democracy vs. authoritarianism, whether the Federation is fascist–and if so, is the book an allegory of fascism vs. communism.

A Handmaid’s Tale: Canadian and feminist literature here.  Again, the question of the role of women and society and you can also bring in terms such as utopia and dystopia for discussion…let them see if they can find other works that fit in these categories.

WE: Russian dystopia.  WHen they read this, they’ll find comparisons to Orwell’s 1984 (Zamyatin wrote WE long before 1984 was published).  What are the ethics of riffing on someone else’s novel?  Would we ever consent to being known only as numbers? (…they’ll say no, then I’ll ask about Student ID or SocSec#s….oops)  You can talk about peer pressure.

I also like having them read some short stories here and there–such as reading Poe’s The Telltale Heart then something from Lovecraft and on up to Stephen King and “The Boogeyman” so they can see the evolution of horror–but also get a sense of how short stories are constructed.

What about poetry?  Yeah, we’ll cover a couple…but it’s more fun to ask them to bring in their favorites.  They wind up doing an internet search for ‘Best Poem’ and then everyone brings in a copy of Frost or crap like that that they don’t care about.  When they’ve done this, I always get asked what my favorite is (and being prepared) and I start “We come from the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow…”  Someone will interrupt and say “Dietz, that’s a Led Zepplin song.” (Yes, kids still know good music)

I’ll nod and say exactly–and boom, now we discuss the interaction of music with words, the real meaning of things like ‘lyrical’ or ‘ode’.  I’ll maybe have them listen to Iron Maiden’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and then we’ll repeat the assignment…oh, how it is different!  Just as cool–you then have them read the lyrics as is–without using the rhythm provided by the music.  How does that change things?  Best modern form of poetry going?  –Rap.

So–there you go.  Keep your students in mind and they’ll stay more interested.  Students who are more interested learn more–and that’s the goal.