I’m a HUGE fan of reader’s workshop. There’s nothing better — or more magical— than seeing teens excited about reading. Choice of text should be an essential part of any English class; however, I also think it’s essential that we expose our students to the classics. But how do we do that when they aren’t likely to pick up Austen or Shakespeare when the latest John Green selection is so much more enticing? Well, I can tell you one thing: they aren’t going to get turned on to the classics just because we tell them it’s a good idea. What will turn them on is a personal connection, something that will help them see how a dusty old play or novel relates to their lives today.
This semester, when I told my 12th grade class that we were about to start Macbeth, there was an audible groan. There was begging. I just smiled and told them to trust me. I said that before we were done, some of them were going to change their minds about Shakespeare. Some of them might even enjoy it. They laughed at the thought, confident that I’d be eating my words; however, I’m confident that I wouldn’t.
My confidence comes from many years of trying to hook kids into wanting to read classics. I know I won’t get them all, but I’ve developed a number of strategies and lessons over the years that pull my reluctant teens into the stories. I’m constantly tweaking and experimenting, but there are four strategies that I use every time:
1.Use an inquiry approach
Kids today question everything. That’s a good thing, because we want them to be intellectually curious. However, it can be frustrating to constantly hear, “Why do we have to study this?” The best way to prevent the groaning and eye-rolling is to show them how the text is relevant to their lives and, more importantly, how they can apply the lessons that they learn from the reading. Inquiry questions are perfect for this. For example, in 10th grade we read A Separate Peace and To Kill a Mockingbird. Our driving questions for both are: “Where does intolerance come from?” and “What do the novels teach us about tolerance?” My 12th graders read Animal Farm and Macbeth; with these, we are looking at what the play and novella teach us about human nature, as well as the power of language. We read and write and analyze (all of that typical English class stuff), but we are constantly reflecting on what the students can learn from the text – not just what they need to learn for the assessments. At the end of the unit, students complete a project that illustrates what they learned from the study of the text, applying the lessons in a very real-life way. For example, with Mockingbird, students have to identify a mockingbird in their community, and then create a project that allows them to stand up for that person or group – real life learning at its best.
2. Use stories, analogies, and responses to make connections
In order to keep students engaged while we read these works, I try to think like a teen. I’m always asking myself what parts of the text can I connect to their lives, and how I can help them find those connections. Romeo & Juliet is full of these. Unrequited love, defying parents, drama with friends? It’s too easy. But what do teens have in common with a long-dead Scottish King? Quite a bit, actually. When we study Macbeth, I ask students if they’ve ever struggled with temptation and peer pressure or made a mistake they later regretted. I tell them stories of teens, good people at heart, who do something bad because of their own desires and the pressures from those they love. I explain equivocation, the deceptive use of words with double meanings, by using examples of how teens might “equivocate” with parents in order to go to a party that they know their parent wouldn’t want them to attend (carefully preceded with don’t try this at home!). I knew this worked for sure when a student asked me one day what equivocation meant, and then before I could reply, she said, “Oh, that’s the story about the party!”
When students can connect with a real-life example, they are far more likely to remember and engage. If they create the stories themselves, however, that connection becomes even more powerful, so I build in activities where they can do just that.
3. Use engaging assessments
Your students might think that the texts are out-dated, but the methods that you use to assess their understanding don’t have to be. I still use traditional summative assessments, but I use more “student-friendly” ones for formative assessment. There are so many ways you can use students’ love of social media and technology to find out what they know. For example, I have students create hashtags, handles, and texts to show their understanding of a character or a scene. First, I model a few and ask whether the text or hashtag is one that character would actually use. The discussion that follows is usually a rich one, one that demonstrates the students’ knowledge of the character. Students are also highly engaged because we’re using “text-speak”, something they are far more comfortable with than Elizabethan English.
My students are also blogging as some of the characters in the play. They still need to illustrate character development, reference quotes, and think critically, just as they would in a literary essay, but they are doing it in a way that’s much more fun for them — and a welcome change for me.
4. Incorporate lots of movement
When we teach a classic text, there are always many elements we want the students to discover and interpret, and our English teacher go-to is usually to give them a bunch of chapter questions. However, if the kids don’t find the text all that interesting, sitting at their desks doing chapter questions certainly isn’t going to change that. Whether you’re teaching a classic or a more current text, it’s always a good idea to get your students moving. Not only does it give students a chance to get out of their seats, but it also helps the learning process. For example, Pride and Prejudice was a hard sell for most of the boys in my International Baccalaureate class, but as soon as I gave them a critical thinking question and a group challenge that got them moving around the room, they were actually engaged and interested in the topic.
To get them moving, I keep lots of chart paper and post-it notes on hand, and use them so students can do group work standing up. We also do gallery walks so they can see, discuss, and critique what other students have done. Learning stations are another very effective way to get your students moving, collaborating, and thinking critically about the text. The topics are usually the traditional ones that cover things like character and theme and symbolism, but the activity captures their interest and attention.
We finish Macbeth next week, and the first question I will ask after their final assessment is if they liked it or not. I know that several will say no, but I already know that many will say yes. They’ve been engaged and curious over the last two weeks, asking all the right questions. What more could a teacher want?
Jackie has been teaching and learning in Room 213 for 24 years. She has her Masters of Education in secondary English curriculum and currently teaches 12th grade academic and general, as well as an 11th grade International Baccalaureate class. Her focus with all students is on learning how to learn, critical thinking, and love of reading. She lives in Prince Edward Island with her husband and three children. You can read more about her adventures as a teacher at her blog, Real Learning in Room 213 or on Facebook. You can also visit her at her TpT store Room 213 and on Pinterest.