One of the perennial challenges that English teachers face is how to make classic literature feel new. Unfortunately, many students see these book titles as old and tired. How can we teach students how to fall in love with reading and how to analyze literature to become better thinkers?
The missing element to teaching the classics is you, the teacher. You have the power to make the experience of reading these challenging pieces relevant and worthwhile for students. How are you going to approach the literature and make this approach relevant to topics that students care about?
REFRAMING CLASSIC LITERATURE
To get buy-in to classic pieces of literature, teachers must tap into the thoughts and perspectives of people at the time. When I was thinking through how to teach a piece of literature, I always started with these questions:
- Why did the author write this?
- Who or what is this supposed to expose, challenge, or influence?
From these questions, I can see how to apply the text to current trends and themes that my students would care about. The context, the characters, and even the language may take more time to teach or interpret, but I can find a way to make this text relevant.
Teachers may need to assist students in really understanding the story. For my struggling readers, this meant perhaps reading an abridged version with supplemental vocabulary or analyzing a synopsis to fill in our gaps in understanding of characters and plot points. Sometimes we also used movies or recorded productions to fill in those gaps.
Two of my favorite pieces to teach to high school students are Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Sophocles’ Antigone. Here are the themes that make them feel relevant.
BRINGING LITERATURE INTO THE PRESENT
Romeo and Juliet: William Shakespeare wrote this play to expose the repercussions of young love, relationships, and the destructiveness of hatred and holding a grudge. This play engaged what the Catholic Church considered cardinal sins (suicide, premarital relations, anger and hatred).
Here are some of the topics that can make this play relevant to students:
- Impending death: This is not simply a love story. It literally tells us in the beginning that this is a tragedy.
- Teenage love and romance: Romeo is a ridiculous character and switches his “undying” love from Rosaline to Juliet in the blink of an eye. How would this look today? Would you trust and love someone like this?
- Gang activity: This story is about two gangs (connected families) warring for no good reason (a perfect opportunity to incorporate current interpretations of this trope in current events or other renditions, like West Side Story).
- Silly feuds can have serious consequences. Fleeting love can make you do dangerous things.
Antigone: Sophocles wrote this play to challenge current issues within his society. Because these plays were put on for the masses, this gave him a public audience for his progressive thinking. Antigone exposes the question of religion versus government control, the roles of women in society, and complicated familial relationships.
Here are ways to make this play relevant to students:
- Incest: Yes, it is there. This is always an attention grabber. I mean, this is automatic “ick” vibes.
- Strong female lead: Antigone is going against tradition and the law to do what she believes is right.
- Religion versus government: Antigone believes in the rule of tradition (religious customs), and her uncle Creon, the king, believes that government rule supersedes everything, including tradition. In the end, we see a lot of remorse and regret from Creon over his neglect of family and tradition. He is left with nothing.
- This mix of religion and government has serious consequences. How can we understand those today?
connection to the present
After teaching these titles, you can have students make connections to current events. For example, after Antigone, I would turn this into a current events project that would teach students how to analyze an argument and counterargument. In the play, Antigone and Creon represent two conflicting views on socially relevant topics. After we dissected the viewpoints of the characters, I asked students to find a controversial current event. They then would research both sides of the argument and come up with a final product. Some students wrote a scene for a play of their own where characters represented both sides of the argument, and other students wrote a children’s book exploring two sides of an issue.
Our job as educators is to help our students find a voice in the world. By giving them an opportunity to explore a different era, a different place in the world, and different types of people, they learn that we all have had similar struggles, and we can learn from a variety of narratives. They can take something that they don’t see as relevant and find a way to connect and use the story to make sense of their own lives. Regardless of how restrictive your curriculum may be, you still have the power and your students still have room to become critical thinkers and citizens.