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Contemporary vs. Classic in High School English Classes

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message 1: by Emily (new)

Emily (Emikay) In the latest edition of my school newspaper there was an article [debate of sorts] between a junior at my school and an English teacher. The junior wanted to exchange Dickens and Shakespeare for more modern young adult fiction, while the teacher argued that classics were a better basis for a class room situation.

I personally think that courses should be a blend of both classic and modern, and wish my school would let us ready Chbosky, Meyer, or Green after we finish Melville and Thoreau. I do not think that we should go without classics, as there are many good novels I would have not read were it not assigned, and if one must be eliminated from the course it should be contemporary fiction, which I am more likely to read outside of class.

Are your school English classes primarily classic or modern or blended equally?
Do you think classics or modern fiction should hold more power in English classes?
Do you think you would learn more from a relatable modern book as opposed to a classic?
Any similar debates at your school?

message 2: by Kim (new)

Kim | 47 comments My school is a personalized learning school so students can aid in the design of their English classes; however, that said, they are encouraged to do a blend of both. I've always found as an English teacher that if you can pair them, that's even better - especially when looking at things thematically. I just saw a teacher on another post talk about pairing Perks of Being a Wallflower with Catcher in the Rye which I thought was cool. And I liked doing a lot of pairings with Shakespeare in my classes - like we would read Midsummer Night's Dream with I was a Teenage Fairy or something like that. I also tended to like looking at Jane Austen with some of the teen dramas of current YA (I had one girl write a killer essay on Jane Austen and Gossip Girl...she made a really good argument). Overall, I write teen fiction and I know that my writing is richer because I've read some of the classics - themes are universal and approaching it this way, I think, helps root us to our humanity.

message 3: by Ken (last edited Feb 17, 2008 03:23AM) (new)

Ken Great topic, Emily.

I, too, am going to come down on middle ground (despite Confucius' saying: He who walks the middle gets hit from both directions). I see YA as a "gateway drug" to the classics, if reading be an addiction (and I'm convinced, happily, that it is).

Of course I cannot speak from personal experience. In an odd twist, I grew up as a teenager who read classic after classic. Now, as an English teacher, I read more YA than anything. Why? Because I allow kids choice in their reading and have a standing HW assignment of 30 minutes' reading every night. Yes, we take time to read required books, too, as it is mandated ("womandated," what have you) by the district. But for the most part, my mission is to introduce non-readers (whose numbers are legion) to the thousand delights of reading, and these are indeed salad days for YA readers -- the genre has reached its glorious potential like no other time.

So, paired classics with YAs would be great, though I'm also convinced you can make classics interesting if you know what you're doing as a teacher (front-loading, making connections to lives of the students, etc.). The themes are universal and timeless. As humans, we are what we are -- and that will never change. Still, YA has its place in every secondary English classroom. Teachers who deny that have their heads in the Pleistocene Era sand.

message 4: by Boyd (new)

Boyd | 3 comments I'll confess that we've really gotten away from the classics in my classroom. Next year, I do intend to do more classroom reads of classics, but this year the majority of my students' reading has been self selected. Some study or other I read suggested that 80% of student reading should be self-selected.

Like New England, my students must read 25 books of choice this year. In class, we've covered as a group Macbeth, and that's about it for the classical literature to date. We're going to do either Lord of the Flies or 1984 before the year is up, because the district says we're supposed to.

That being said, I'm constantly recommending and pushing classical literature to students. I'm surprised at the number of students who will pick up classics on my recommendation. I find that sort of individual funneling toward classics more effective than the whole class shotgun approach where you shoot them all with a classic and are lucky if 50% of the class actually reads it.

As I've talked to my students, I'm simply astounded at the number of them who confess to me that they haven't read a single book in the last four or five years. When I asked them how they made it through their English classes without reading the books, they reply that they used a combination of listening in class and sparknotes. Some of these kids are "good" students as well. I'm not sure that cramming classics down the throats of kids is effective any longer. On top of that, I'm not sure that it meets the current pedagogical push for diverse learning and individualized instruction.

message 5: by Emily (new)

Emily (Emikay) Kim, I really like the pairing idea, it would be neat to get to do a compare and contrast like that for English.

And I wish we got to choose our reading here. Well, we do, but not anything that actually counts towards credit in anything.

Then again, I'm in AP so there are certain books we have to get through to be fully equipped for the test; Moby Dick, The Scarlett Letter, The Great Gatsby, etc. After we take the test, we'll still have three weeks of school left, and we get to choose out of a selection of books a few to read and take tests over for our grades the last few weeks.

message 6: by Boyd (new)

Boyd | 3 comments Emily,

If it's any consolation, our AP classes don't get much self-selection, either. Much of the theory I'm relying on is intended to reach struggling and reluctant readers and combat general illiteracy. Those are issues that don't crop up so much in AP classrooms.

message 7: by Emily (new)

Emily (Emikay) I suppose that would make sense. Most people in my English class like to read, when they have time for it.

message 8: by [deleted user] (last edited Feb 18, 2008 12:11PM) (new)

I couldn't agree with you more -- on every point you made except for the first one -- YA as a gateway drug to classics. Anything that gets someone reading is a gateway, no matter if it is a comic book, a YA novel, or a classic. I don't think classics are any better than a lot of other fiction. Most of them were just considered popular fiction in their day.

As to the personal experience of reading classics, I discovered that rebound books, the kind with the plain covers, no dust jackets were really good when I was in about 6th grade. After all, if so many people had read the book that it fell apart it had to be good. When I went to the library I purposefully looked for books that had been rebound because of over use and read many, many classics that way. I'm sure I was the only 7th grader who claimed Silas Marner as a favorite book. I now read lots of YA because I like it and it is where I'm finding innovation and spectacular writing right now.

message 9: by Kim (last edited Feb 18, 2008 08:40PM) (new)

Kim | 47 comments Thanks for point that classics were considered pop fiction in their of my professors in college used to chuckle and say Herman Melville would think it was hilarious that people thought his work "serious" and "literary" - he was writing to entertain! I, too, am so thrilled with YA lit right's one of the reasons I write it. I actually had a reporter ask me a few months ago, and these were his actual words: "you can obviously write, so why are you writing for teens?" ARGH! I told him he 'obviously' hadn't read enough teen fiction. :-)

message 10: by Ken (new)

Ken Kim, that reporter should know that many "adult" writers have been crossing over into YA (in droves, yet!) because that's where the readers and the money are.

Guerilla -- Fair enough! I shouldn't restrict YA as a "gateway drug" to classics, I should amend it to "any reading." Classics are difficult because of the more challenging vocabulary used in their day and of the conventions observed (that is, not many of them were written with "opening strategies" to immediately "hook" the reader... it was the readers' job to do the heavy lifting and get to the good part).

Talk of Melville brings Dickens to mind -- the ultimate entertainer writing for money by-the-word in periodicals. And yet my students (yes, even the Honors class) will cry foul if assigned Great Expectations, saying it's too hard! Still, there's no denying that Pip's ambitions to run with the rich and famous is fueled by the same fascination they feel for glamorous types in entertainment magazines and Estella's ability to decimate this Pipsqueak of a kid is equal to any Mean Girl in YA you can find. And Miss Havisham? If there's one things kids love (then and now), it's over-the-top, squirrelly characters like that (to the tune of the Doors' "Light My Fire"...).

message 11: by Ashley (new)

Ashley (Departed_Dearly) | 5 comments Well, I'm only in Junior High but, I would rather have newer books instead of the classics. I'm not saying get rid of them completely. Another problem is that our teachers in elemertary and the starting of middle school made us read some of the oldies already and having to read them again is out of the question for me. Right now my 8th grade teacher is really good with picking out books. We finished up the Golder Compass in her class finally, even with parents complaining and it was one of the best reads I've done in a class in a long time. Maybe a fair blend of good books would be perfect. Last year we read oldies but we read the Hobbit which was another good book so it's not all bad.

message 12: by Coralie (new)

Coralie Johnson Since many teachers agree that there should be a combination of old and new "classics" what are some of the new YA books that would qualify? I'd love to hear what others would choose!

message 13: by Patty (new)

Patty | 6 comments Great question, Coralie! I'm interested to see what others recommend. I teach 7th grade, so my YA picks skew a little young:
Freak the Mighty
Harry Potter (God bless J.K. Rowling!)
The Giver
Coraline and/ or The Sandman (graphic novel)
Something Wicked This Way Comes (not "new" since it was written decades ago, but enough off the beaten track to make it worth mentioning)

I didn't have to read classics until high school - no assigned novels when I was in junior high, just ye olde literature textbook - so my first experience with the classics came from those little Illustrated Classics books that had a black-line picture on every other page. I devoured them, and I still recommend them to some of my reluctant readers. They're a great way to focus on the story when a reader is too intimidated to tackle the original.

message 14: by Ken (new)

Ken The Outsiders still holds its own in the classroom. Beloved by boys and girls, amazingly.

message 15: by Brandon (new)

Brandon | 3 comments My biggest concern is that what are students really getting out of the classics if they are relying on sparknotes to do the assignments? Where as, if you used new literature, they can not rely on sparknotes to answer the questions in class.

I am a lover of the classics, but I think that the kids have to have a point of relevancy to truly understand and appreciate them. Case in point, tying 10 Things I Hate About You in with Taming of the Shrew... My kids and I had a great discussion about that book, and my eldest son is now reading Shakespeare because of that movie and the connection he was able to make with it.

message 16: by Boyd (new)

Boyd | 3 comments My students just finished up Lord of the Flies. It was an extremely successful unit. I think a big reason for the success is that they've been doing so much independent reading of choice that they were hungry to take a work and discuss it as a group.

Anyway, they really enjoyed the book for the most part. As always, there were students who hated it, thought it was boring, thought it was stupid, but many of those ended up loving the book by the time we finished analyzing it.

As far as modern points of relevancy to the book: Survivor, Lost, and Kid Nation are all good pop culture ties. Also, the Simpsons have done a spoof on the novel. Taking Back Sunday and From First to Last also have songs referring to Lord of the Flies. There's also a culty novel out called Battle Royale (not suitable for a school library) that a lot of the kids are reading that deals with some similar themes, though it's over the top.

message 17: by Caroline (new)

Caroline (booksandbows) | 17 comments I am an eight grade student and in my english class this year we read a blend of modern and classics. We read Romeo and Juliet, Of Mice and Men and Secret Life of Bees. Secret Life of Bees was the most popular with me and my classmates but I still enjoyed reading the others. Another way my teacher incorporates contemporary litterature into her lessons is through grammer sentences, so while we may not be reading Harry Potter in school, we are at least writing about it.

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