Now that I have stepped out on the ledge that is the endorsement of an ancient text like The Scarlet Letter, it might be time to look at why I would take that step. My personal affinity lies with Hawthorne and always has; in fact, one might say I have an unhealthy obsession with him (or the person I imagine him to have been), but never would I advocate for every 11th grade ELA teacher in America to teach his work.
Even when the teachers in our district get together to talk about common texts for our students, I try to back away from acting too much like the cheerleader for my favorite romantic writer. Not like I have to try too hard – everyone knows how I feel anyway. I love The Scarlet Letter, and it works in my classroom because I love it, but for it to work in any classroom, a few realities have to be in place. So even as I advocate for choice for students and their independent reading, I advocate for choice for teachers when selecting a whole-class text.
What makes a classic text work in the modern classroom?
The teacher has to love the book.
There is little chance I would do a fantastic job teaching The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – a decent job, maybe, but not a fantastic job. I recognize it as a definitive contender for the title of Great American Novel; I see it as the masterpiece it is, but at the risk of alienating even more readers, I must confess that I just don’t enjoy reading it over and over again. I totally place it on the altar of worthy and legendary art where it belongs, but Twain’s irony exhausts me. I simply get tired of the smarty pants tone that exudes nearly every line. So, I don’t teach it – not because it is not worthy but because I cannot do it justice in my classroom.
Love for the text itself is a key indicator of whether a teacher will be able to make the classic work in the modern classroom. Because I love The Scarlet Letter, because I love Hester and all she stands for, and because I love Hawthorne’s tortured and conflicting messages about love, guilt, and revenge, I don’t mind putting in the work to make the book relevant and accessible to my students – and work is quite the understatement.
Only out of love would I spend an entire day in Salem, Massachusetts, during my week-long vacation in Boston, so that I could visit the custom house where Hawthorne wrote the novel, take photos of his quill and desk to show my students, and then buy a shirt with a red ‘A’ on the chest and a quote on the back just so I can wear it when we read chapter 18 in class. Only out of love would I collect an album’s worth of songs that relate to different moments of the story – just so that I could have an eclectic playlist to punctuate those magical moments in the classroom. Plus, analyzing the songs is a great way to bridge the time warp between the novel and my students.
Only out of love would I save boxes and boxes of student art work to use as illustration of that one difficult or exciting scene – like the ‘A’ carved into Dimmesdale’s chest portrayed on a poster in front of my room. My students look at it all year without really knowing much about it, but then, as we read chapter 10 together, and we see Chillingworth acting much like Rumpelstiltskin when he pulls back Dimmesdale’s shirt, someone looks up at the poster and gasps. Love for this book has made me willing to search and dig and scavenge in order to create that perfect gasping moment.
And since I don’t feel that way about Huck Finn, I would dread poring back over the pages or scouring for the perfect accompaniment – because might even tempt me to compromise on the lessons. Undoubtedly, that is good for no one. So, the only way a classic is worth that kind of time and effort is if the teacher loves it. My enthusiasm for Hawthorne inevitably spills over to the students, who are much more willing to give the book a try if I am unabashedly gaga over it. One of my former students, Brianna C., posted this about her experience with The Scarlet Letter in my class: “This was the book that really made me fall in love with reading classic novels!! I loved the way you taught it and the ways you helped me understand it, it’s one of my favorite books to this day because of you!!”
Truly, teacher enthusiasm can be key to success in any classroom (See these articles for more info on the impact of teacher enthusiasm: ASCD and inspiring leaders today.) For those teachers who hate Hawthorne, please leave him alone. Teach the classic that sets your soul on fire like The Scarlet Letter does mine.
The teacher has to know the book.
The Scarlet Letter is a long book, and the language is difficult to manage. Hawthorne takes three pages to describe an image that we probably could understand in two sentences. I do not need to subject my students to his every word, nor do I need to overanalyze every chapter to exhaustive proportions. Overexposure to any text most likely will lead to frustration and exhaustion. Plus, part of the glory of a good book is that we each can relate to it on different levels for different reasons. In order to make The Scarlet Letter work in my classroom, I have to know how much is too much, and I have to choose my emphasis wisely.
Yet, for every tiring description or for the drawn-out teasing Hawthorne seemingly enjoys, there are moments of pure magic – moments where the story and characters are so real that we clutch our own hearts as Dimmesdale does. Other moments could arise – like the ones when we sit in a movie theatre. We become mesmerized by the images on the screen, which transports us to a world where we don’t even think about suspending our disbelief because we completely believe. I have to know where those moments are in the book. I have to know to stop at the moment in chapter 3 when Hester’s eyes meet Chillingworth’s in the crowd, to act out Hester’s movement in chapter 8 when she turns on Dimmesdale in “little less than madness,” and to watch in wonder as the meteor fades across the night sky into the face of Satan in chapter 12.
I can’t teach the book effectively, I can’t make the book relevant to my students, and I can’t make productive use of class time if I don’t know the book I am teaching as intimately as I know my favorite song.
The teacher has to have freedom in selecting the text and in how to teach the text.
I know quite well that other high school English teachers do not enjoy the freedom I have in choosing a text to teach. I have been blessed with a large store room of text options and with administration that has supported a reasonable amount of academic freedom for us, and I am very grateful for both. I am able to teach a book I love, and the other 11th grade ELA teachers in my building can choose the one they love only because we are not locked into a step-by-step, all-together-now curriculum and pacing guide (plus we have enough funds to purchase a few different options).
If we believe the research that says students will learn better if we give them more choices and options, then would it be a logical jump to say making choices available to teachers will help them teach better? Won’t they dig deeper for the perfect lesson and show more enthusiasm when they are given some choice in the texts they use? We all know that we have standards of instruction, and we are more than aware that success on standardized assessments and teacher evaluations rests on how well we teach those standards.
The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) agrees. In their 2014 statement of Principles for Intellectual Freedom in Education, they say, “The preservation of intellectual freedom in education depends upon the fostering of democratic values in the classroom, critical thinking stances and practices among teachers and students, open inquiry methods and access to information, and the exploration of multiple points of view.”
If the question is whether or not freedom will allow some teachers to slack off, or if principals and instructional leaders need to know whether a teacher is doing a decent job within this freedom to choose, I know they can rely on any number of sources for objective data to evaluate progress. I don’t know many teachers whose students are not subject to regular benchmark tests and skills assessments all year long.
And here’s an idea – why not visit the classrooms regularly? Meet with teachers and discuss their plans and listen to their reasoning. I can promise any principal who asks me about what my students are learning at any given point will get a solid earful. In fact, they will probably have to tell me they are late for another meeting so they can get away from my verbal avalanche about what we are learning from The Scarlet Letter.
Next up on the agenda: What makes a classic text worth the effort?
Look for more comments from my former students on the next entry. Until then, read something you love – and celebrate it!