Tackling the Classics: Helping Students Adapt to Reading Literature with a Capital L

I love it when students share what they read with me. I encourage them to interact with each other (and me!) through Goodreads, where we can share recommendations, reactions, and reviews from our reading lives. Many times, students help me learn about cool new titles that I should add to my classroom library. On the other hand, sometimes they make me shake my head in a very special brand of English teacher sorrow. All I really need to share here is this pair of student Goodreads ratings from last year:

Fifty Shades Darker, 5 out of 5 stars.

 Hamlet, 3 out of 5 stars.

Help.

Now, please understand–I am 100% in support of student choice in reading. Our school’s independent reading program, which emphasizes volume and choice has done wonders for the reading culture and ability of our students. And if reading a little bit of what I would generously rate as garbage helps a student become a stronger reader who’s ready for more challenging things than they would be otherwise, I’m all for it!

But… I also have a deep love and respect for classical literature–I am an AP Literature and Composition teacher, after all! When I do teach a full-class text that comes from a more challenging place, I want to give students the best chance to adore it like I do. It’s not easy. Many canonical texts are extremely challenging. They use unfamiliar language structures and words, and abide by different standards for craft. There are old references, and types of humor that aren’t even common anymore. Is reading something like that as enjoyable as reading a fast-paced, on-trend piece of contemporary young adult lit? Maybe not. Or maybe it is just as enjoyable, just in a profoundly different way. Students often don’t understand why we ask them to wade something like Shakespeare’s works. It’s our job to help them see that something like Hamlet will not provide the same automatically visceral thrill as something written at their own independent ability level from their own time. But the mental challenge that it presents is absolutely sumptuous–if one knows to be looking for it.

I started this year with a discussion that I think will be really helpful for my literature students in learning to love Literature with a capital L. It’s about reading for different purposes and the different types of enjoyment we can get out of different texts. I’d like to share the notes from our discussion–maybe they’ll help you clarify reading for different purposes with your own students.

Reading for fun and entertainment

*Purpose: evaluating quality and enjoying emotionally

*Focus on plot, always asking “What happens next?”

*We look for thrill, suspense, and surprise, personal connections to characters, and happy or otherwise satisfying endings

*Texts are typically fairly modern and fairly easy to read

*We want to know… was it good? Did you like it? How did it make you feel?

Reading for analysis

*Purpose: exploring and uncovering mentally

*Focus on message, asking “What moves does the author make and why?”

*We look for craft and language choices made by the author, connections to social realities and philosophical questions

*Texts are typically older and fairly difficult to read

*We want to know… what statement does this text make about life’s big questions? What did this text make you think about?

I find it helpful, too, to talk about literature also in terms of fashion–styles that seemed normal in one era seem dated to us now… but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t cutting-edge and boundary-breaking in their own time. The literary fashion of today’s storytelling tells us that predicability is the killer of a good story. Well, tell that to Oedipus Rex. I’ve found that when students learn to judge literary texts with different tools of measurement, the ability to appreciate (and, yes, enjoy!) comes a little more easily.

Happy teaching!

P.s. Here’s a handy-dandy little graphic about the functions of literary reading to help seal the deal.

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