Why Bother with Teaching the Classics?

#classics

#humannature

#interdisciplinarystudies

⏱️  8 min read

written by

kristie camp

November 8, 2020


In my previous two blogs, it sounds like I have listed a truckload of seemingly insurmountable hurdles to jump before a teacher can teach a classic text in the modern classroom. Maybe so – seems like a truckload for sure. 

Yet, if the truckload hasn’t deterred me, and I am still interested in tackling the classic, the next question I have to answer would be: Is it worth all that work

For a teacher to find a classic he or she truly loves, then to study it backward and forward, and then to create engaging lessons that bring the ancient text to life – that requires more time than just about any modern teacher has. 

Plus, the time it takes to teach a book like that – a teacher has to be prepared to dedicate a significant portion of his or her semester to this one book. Few teachers are willing to devote that kind of time to one text, and some experts advocate reading excerpts from many different books instead – a teasing or tasting for the students instead of feasting on one text.  

All of these are valid considerations, and a teacher would probably need to make his or her peace with the reality of the workload and time a classic novel takes to be successful before he or she starts planning the instruction.  

After all that work, though, what is the payoff? Why would anyone put that kind of work into an old book? 

I have four reasons listed here, but there could be many more. However, rather than explaining all the reasons myself, I have included comments from some of my former students – some from this past year, some from as many as ten years ago or more. I would rather let them speak about the value of reading a classic text together - especially since they were the ones who should have learned something valuable from the instruction. 

I asked students who have connected with me on social media to tell me how they had benefited from reading classic texts such as The Scarlet Letter and why. For each reason I give, they will offer their explanations. All the quotations included are from my former students, and they all posted these responses on either Facebook or Instagram. 

https://firebasestorage.googleapis.com/v0/b/fiveable-92889.appspot.com/o/images%2F-tN0lArfuRxs7.jpg?alt=media&token=045191e1-2320-41d6-93bc-c582a0de6739

Another student artist's interpretation of Hester Prynne. Photo courtesy of K. Camp.

Building relationships 

The interplay between a teacher and a student when reading a classic novel together can create a bond and serve as a foundation for a deeper connection between them. In order to help my students see the relevance of a particular passage, I would often tell them stories from my life. This makes me seem more human and accessible to them, but it also encourages them to open up with their own stories. Plus, the act of thinking aloud as we read aloud means I am opening a window to my thought processes - which again, helps us to connect with each other, especially when I ask them their thought patterns as they read. 

Here is what my students had to say about classic texts building relationships: 

“The dissection and conversation over classic novels have been particularly influential on my life specifically, as the different ideals and interpretations have helped me pursue a career in teaching higher level English courses to students and hopefully inspiring the same way that past English classes and teachers have inspired me.” - Kai Sparks. 

“Even though I had always enjoyed reading before 11th grade English class, it wasn’t until that year, your class, that I fell in love with English. Through our readings of classic novels, your help through the dissection, and our class discussions, I learned so much about myself and life.” - Madison Galloway. 

“Not only did it help with the exam, it gave me a chance to read classics I had always wanted to read and to understand parts of the story I may not have on my own through classroom discussion and the introduction of outside knowledge.” - Autumn Foster. 

“The way you taught, both this book and others, really taught me just how much a teacher can actually teach you about the world and not just the subject they specialize in.” - Brianna Conwell. 

“Such a good book! One of my favorite memories from your class is all of us making our own Scarlet Letter shirts.” - Carissa Stacy. 

Engaging in interdisciplinary study 

Since the term “classic” almost always refers to an old book, we learn that reading the old book gives us a look into history in a way we don’t have in history class. A classic novel teaches about people’s attitudes of the time, the social status system of the day, and many other historical facts we wouldn’t learn in a history text dedicated to political and military history only – facts such as what people wore or what they ate or what people did for a living.

In fact, my students often say that they are better able to deepen their historical analysis in AP United States History as a result of the books we have studied in AP English Language class. 

My students seemed to appreciate what they learned about history from these novels: 

“Not only is it educational, but it allows students to see history through a literary perspective as opposed to just learning history from a history book. I also believe it inspires the desire to learn more about history.” -Mirranda Figueroa. 

“I feel like classic novels are much more eye opening to the social, economic, and political issues that the authors faced. I wasn’t a history buff in high school, but I feel like I was able to picture a much more vivid image of the past by reading those books than I ever did from a history textbook.” - Margaret Anne Queen. 

“For a history nerd like myself, classic texts give me a deeper understanding of the time in which they were written. They foster a love of literature that goes beyond anything that could ever be written today.” - Allison Cantrell. 

“As a student in AP US History class, reading the classics in AP English provided intriguing contextualization for the history of our nation and culture, during some of the most profound eras in history.” - Matthew Goins. 

Understanding human nature 

A classic is a classic because it has stood the proverbial test of time, and to do that, it must have something profound to say about life. The universality of the stories helps us to understand some basic truths about humans and our world. 

Below are comments from my students about how classic texts helped them understand some truth in life: 

“Aside from now being able to identify allusions in film and television to classic novels (which is pretty cool), the themes represented in some of the texts we read are not as archaic as one might think. Especially To Kill a Mockingbird. I think a lot of people today might have a little less hate in their hearts if they had read that book. ...In my personal experience, I definitely feel like more of a well-rounded individual for having read the books I was taught in high school.” - Sydney Hudson. 

“I started your class thinking that because I was 16 in the modern era, those stories wouldn’t pertain to myself and my peers, but obviously I was wrong. Some of the same social issues brought up in those classics are topics that we still know and relate to all too well.” - Alena Brock. 

“Being able to explore historical concepts that are still relevant to current issues today is a critical component to student learning experiences,” says Sandrea Poole. She continues: “Studying classic novels/texts helped to broaden my exposure as a student, has helped me to teach relevancy through historical contexts as an educator, and helped me to think critically while gaining a different appreciation for literature as an individual.” 

The Scarlet Letter teaches us that people will put us down and banish us for one wrong doing, but we shouldn’t let that stop us from doing what we want to do, for what we believe in.” - Catherine Blanton. 

“Classic texts are still relevant to our society because those themes are timeless and open for interpretation.... These examples of classic literature helped me realize the tendencies of human nature and helped me as a person to see and understand more clearly the way the world functions.” - Marissa Barrera. 

“All of these classics are important because they all embrace a reminder that humans are always outgrowing social norms. Humans keep on evolving.” - Ansleigh Touchberry.  

Becoming better readers 

If I can guide my students through a classic text with language they are not used to reading or speaking, then I am building their reading skills. Again, effective read-alouds will teach students how to determine word meaning from breaking down a word into its components/parts or by using context clues.

Accompanying think-alouds can model reading strategies, such as predictions, questioning, and drawing conclusions. I can draw students’ attention to particularly effective or controversial word choice and discuss how those words create a particular tone. All of these shared reading experiences teach students how to tackle a difficult text, and they are better prepared when they confront another difficult text on their own.  

Below are ways reading a classic texts has spurred future and better reading experiences for my students:

“I enjoyed reading all of the classics so much in high school that I have even added some of them to my own personal collection. But to me, it was very beneficial because I still think back to some of the stuff you taught me about them as I read them and continue to read them.” - Hannah Byars. 

“I remember the connections we made while reading those two pieces [The Scarlet Letter and A Raisin in the Sun] and I was able to take that knowledge into a college level course at Winthrop and develop an argument on The Scarlet Letter.” - Sandrea Poole. 

“Many people think that classic novels have no place in today’s society. They’re too old to fit in, but that is completely wrong.... Hidden inside classic books are modern tales; all we have to do is just go reading.” -Catherine Blanton. 

“The skills I learned from deep rhetorical analysis to close reading, ...I was able to apply those beyond an English classroom. I am so thankful that we had the opportunity to learn from such texts, and it has made the difference in my approach to other subjects.” - Marissa Barrera. 

“Reading classic literature was very beneficial for me and helped me read and understand the older literature on the [AP] exam.” - Autumn Foster. 

The benefits of teaching a classic text are there if they are taught effectively, which takes time and effort. What does it mean to teach a classic effectively? I will discuss that question in my next blog. Hope to see you there. 

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