Why Are We Reading This?

I’ll admit that even though I’m pretty good at getting my students interested in whatever it is we are reading, but even I get asked those age-old questions…

Why do we need to read this?

How will reading “fill-in-a-title-here” help me in life?

Can’t we just watch the movie?

I get it. I do. If I was a 17-year-old and my teacher plunked Frankenstein on my desk, I would wonder what the heck this old book has to do with my life and my future too.

My answer to students is always the same, “you won’t.  You will not need THIS novel, play, short story, etc. in your life. At least not directly. What you will need is the critical thinking I will make you do ABOUT this piece of literature.”

What is important is that kids read. Period. It really doesn’t matter what they read, as long as they are reading. Reading makes us a better society.

But try telling that to my students. Most teenagers don’t care about studies that tell us that “reading novels makes us nicer and more empathetic.” They don’t want to be nicer.

So READ…but wait. Why read the classics?

I know it’s a bit Old School for someone like me, but I have good reasons for my belief in teaching and reading the classics.

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First of all, I write this as my students are currently struggling with reading Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Some of them hate it.

They hate it a lot.

Not because it’s a bad story, but because it challenges them to think hard while they read.

I like how Neil Gaiman put it:

it’s a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end … that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable.

Frankenstein is a good story. It’s just hard to get through because Shelley–like all writers from her time–enjoy describing something to death.  Gothic literature from the nineteenth century England is not my students’ idea of something they can make connections to.  But they would be wrong, and that is why it’s necessary for kids to read classic works.

I teach The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, Macbeth, The Catcher in the Rye, and Of Mice and Men because they are great. As Dr. Leland Ryken puts it,  “a classic is ‘a performance in words.'” While I encourage my students to read lots of everything they want, I also want them to see what some of the best writing in the world looks like. I want them to know they can find entertainment and connections in works that have been around for centuries.

All reading encourages kids to think outside themselves about what we English nerds like to call The Human Experience, but the classics do this really well. The purpose of great art and literature is to dig at what makes human tick. Works of art and literature become classics because they are considered the best at what they set out to do.

The classics reveal the inevitability of change for human beings. My favorite book is The Great Gatsby. In what has become an increasingly annoying opinion to my colleagues who are not as much of a Fitzgerald fan as I am, I consider Gatsby to be one of the best novels to reveal the change that we both crave and avoid.

Another, less popular reason for teaching the classics, is that they are challenging. This reason is also at the top of the list when my students whine about reading too.

It’s too HARD, Mrs. Sluiter. It’s just so LONG and DIFFICULT to understand.

We can do hard things, yo. We can READ hard things too. Together.

Very rarely do I assign a million chapters and walk away from the book expecting my students to read it on their own.  That is what they should do with books they choose to read, not the ones I am teaching.  Because the key word in that last sentence is “teaching.”

As an adult, I enjoy reading the classics for sheer entertainment (and book cred, if I am honest), I know most of my students wouldn’t pick up The Grapes of Wrath for funsies.  But it’s still an important book. Reading it will stretch them and challenge them as readers and as thinkers…and hopefully as humans.

In the end, none of my students will need to have read The Great Gatsby to be successful in life. They won’t have to be able to explain the symbolism of the green light or discuss the motif of the color white. They won’t have to deliberate over the “greatness” of Jay Gatsby or whether we are all “bourne back ceaselessly into the past.”

However the thinking they will have to do to discuss socioeconomic status and the culture surround it, the treatment of others, the idea of dreams, and the mutability of humankind will force them to look inward. They will have to infer meaning, and explain those inferences. They will have to take stances and support them. They will have to make connections and choose to change or remain the same based on the connections they make.

Literature at its best changes us.

And my job here is to change lives.

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About Katie

Just a small town girl...wait no. That is a Journey song. Katie Sluiter is a small town girl, but she is far from living in a lonely world. She is a middle school English teacher, writer, mother, and wife. Life has thrown her a fair share of challenges, but her belief is that writing through them makes her stronger.

Comments

  1. I truly wish that my kids will have teachers exactly like you, Katie.
    Alison recently posted…Through The Lens Thursday #12: DoorMy Profile

  2. Exactly what Alison said. Honestly, I wish you were MY teacher most days…and most days? You are!
    I loved this.

  3. I love the classics. I think I love that moment when I find humour (Dickens) or an insight into the soul (Dostoevsky) that transcends time and formal language.
    Lady Jennie recently posted…Pommes d’Amour (Candy Apples)My Profile

  4. How can they not like Gatsby?!! That moment when he stretches out his arm towards the green light — you can Feel the yearning in the writing. And don’t we all try to go against the currents of time – surely everyone can relate to that.
    Clearly though, I was one of the book nerds – LOL.
    Or maybe I just saw the connections and relevance of these great works today.
    Pretty sure my Grade 11 English teacher was the reason behind that — so just keep trying!! It will “stick” to some of them.
    Rorybore recently posted…Through the Lens Thursday: DoorMy Profile

  5. I love that you really want to instill a love of reading in your students. I don’t know what I would do without reading.
    Leigh Ann recently posted…the single best thing we’ve done for our marriage (lately)My Profile

  6. I find Gatsby to one of the most nearly perfect novels ever written. He is just such a BEAUTIFUL writer.

    My juniors really really struggle with “Scarlet Letter.” They LOVE the story at its core, but Hawthorne is so verbose and wordy that it’s hard for them to get past. Then on the flip side, they struggle with Huck because it’s so freaking long but not as detailed! So funny. Thankfully AP kids don’t ask those kinds of questions lol!
    Isha recently posted…“I’m Being Jealous!”My Profile

  7. So very well said, Katie. The skills we use to discuss the ideas and motivations behind the works are where big learning happens.
    I don’t remember all the books that I read in high school in great detail, but I do remember the discussions we had about them and the overall impressions they left on me. And I do believe that those skills helped me and made me a better reader.
    Kim recently posted…LayersMy Profile

  8. I have been reading your blog for about two months now and I had to come out of the woodwork to let you know just how much I appreciate your posts on education. I’m not a teacher, though it was something I considered in my younger days, but I find myself emphatically nodding all the way through these posts and praying that my boys have teachers like you when they get into school.
    I am a book nerd of the highest order, having read Hawthorne and Dostoyevsky as my elective novels in American Lit and World Lit, and I couldn’t agree more with your stance on reading the classics! Finding that thread of familiarity in Dickens or Bronte, and feeling it tug at something in your mind or heart is why I continue to find myself standing in front of that section at the bookstore, or downloading The Great Gatsby on my Nook, even though I’ve read it 10 or 12 times already.
    Both my boys love books (they are 4 and 1.5) and I can’t wait to introduce them to some of my favorites in a few years. I’ve just come across a fun board book series that adapts classic lit into counting or ABC stories, and I bought them all for my little guy and my niece that will be here in June. I can’t wait until they come in!

    • Hi Tracey! I know the board books you are talking about! We have the Huck Finn “camping” one, the Jungle Book “animals” one, the Romeo and Juliet “counting” one, and the Alice in Wonderland “colors” one. My two-year old LOVES them!

      Also thanks for reading. So glad you commented so I could say hi 🙂
      Katie Sluiter recently posted…Why Are We Reading This?My Profile

  9. Yes! Yes!!! Absolutely they should read the classics! First, because the classics are awesome, but secondly, because I LOVE when students discover that despite the “weird” language, these stories and feelings are universal and relevant. I also think that reading the classics helps you develop cultural currency. Maybe you hated the book, loved it or didn’t understand it, but you know what people are talking about when they West Egg vs East Egg or “a modern-day Jay Gatsby”.
    KeAnne recently posted…Being EnoughMy Profile

  10. My daughter did not (most of the time still DOES not) like reading (gasp).
    No seriously. GASP.

    When I was her age, I’d skip almost anything to be left alone to read.
    At 14, I usually had four books going at a time and re-read the ones I loved over and over.
    (I did not have a boyfriend. I know. Shocking, right?)

    By contrast, my son’s a voracious reader and only 24 months older than Karly. I did the SAME STUFF with them. All the games and fun and encouragement to make them love reading. But the truth is you can’t MAKE someone love it.

    And yet. She still had to do it. She still HAS to.

    So I’ve had the same conversation with her that you have with your students (because the teaching doesn’t stop at the classroom door, right?). “We do hard things. Things we don’t always love. And this makes us stronger, smarter, more easily adaptable to the challenges of this world.”

    This year, she started high school and it hasn’t been easy. She’s doing well academically, likes her teachers, is being treated with kindness by other students (thank goodness). But she hasn’t found her “group” yet. No soul mate or friend who totally gets her. And she’s not interested in pretending to be something she’s not so she spends a lot of lunchtime….reading.

    Not because she has nowhere to go, no friends to sit with.
    But because she’s finding herself in those pages.

    So please keep up all your good work, Katie. Those kids are DAMN lucky that you’re helping them through the hard stuff. There is so much hard stuff.

    And words are one way to make life easier as we stumble through it.
    julie gardner recently posted…The Space BetweenMy Profile

  11. This is so good, Katie. I wish I was taking your literature class NOW. 🙂
    Andrea recently posted…Getting AheadMy Profile

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  1. […] am not going to abandon my belief in teaching students the classics. In fact, I am hoping that by switching to my plan, students will read more classics…because […]