Bethany Griffin: “Mixing the Classics with YA Lit”

Posted May 21, 2012 by Sara | Novel Novice 2 Comments

Today, we are thrilled to host an exclusive guest blog from Masque of the Red Death author Bethany Griffin on a topic near & dear to our hearts here at Novel Novice: using YA lit to teach the classics in the classroom! Thank you, Bethany, for such a wonderful guest post … and for all you do in the classroom & to promote reading!

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The classics are great, but often they don’t resonate (or engage readers) like YA literature. I think YA choices should be available in all English classes, even honors classes, though an intrepid teacher could pair contemporary YA with classic required literature.

It’s funny, both humorous and a little ironic, that I’m pretty sure I wrote that statement before I had even toyed with the idea of writing Masque of the Red Death. But as a teacher, I stand by my statement.

Now, I’ll start by saying that I love most of the classics, and even the ones that I’m not fond of (*cough* Gatsby *cough) would be preferable school work than working math problems … but no one can argue that the YA offerings published right now are not more enticing to the average expert-on-technology, up-all-night-playing-video-games, want-my-entertainment-right-now teenager.

Why do we want American kids to read? There are many reasons, but mine are:

A) readers are better people/citizens. Readers empathize. Empathetic people have the ability to stop and think ‘how would that feel to me’ before they act, therefore, a reader should be less likely than to bully or harass someone who is different from them.

B) Reading is increasingly necessary to get by in society. This generation of kids will rely on reading comprehension more than any generation before them. It doesn’t matter if they are reading texts, or instruction manuals, they need to read quickly and understand without effort.

To accomplish the reading comprehension required by (B) we could read anything, but we need a lot of it, and informational texts are good and appropriate, as much as the English teacher in me wants to push literature, just reading, reading, reading practicing understanding what is read, that’s what modern kids read.

(A) is more difficult. My own son, who is now 9, showed signs of being a reluctant reader, the child of an English teacher/writer, and a book store manager. We surrounded him with books, and finally The Diary of a Wimpy Kid clicked, and he started reading on his own. But that doesn’t happen for all parents, and all kids don’t have the luxury of being surrounded by books, or having parents who love books and seek out the best ones to give them.

If our goal is teaching kids to read, our best bet, simply, is to give them the books that capture the imagination. I’m all for Shakespeare, but if high school only lasts four years, and the most English classes don’t have time to read as many as 5 full length works per year, then there is no reason we should be reading Shakespeare more than twice in high school. I support twice, after that, I think there are too many other great authors, let’s move on.

Not all teachers have control of their curriculum, I know that, but I think that interesting material has to be offered. We have a reading text book filled with short stories. Not a single story centers around a teenager. No coming of age issues, no angst. What I had planned to do (before I got permission to actually use YA novels instead of the text book) is find contemporary stories from the most modern anthologies, and pair them with classic stories.

In my district we’ve adopted units from Quality Core (curriculum designed by ACT) and one of the Units was on the Hero’s Journey, which I always teach in my Speculative Literature elective, but hadn’t taught in English II before. The suggested literature was Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, which I did read in college. I swapped it out for The Hunger Games. Now after this year, The Hunger Games is going to be retired from my classroom for a few years. But I have to say that sitting in the theater with 100 students (we did a field trip) who I had taught, who knew the book through and through, was amazing.

Also amazing? The kid who has insisted throughout the first weeks of school that reading was stupid and boring, the only one who went to stand in the station marked strongly disagree when I read the statement, “Reading Is Important” … on the bus ride back to school, was overheard discussing Katniss’ motivations and how they were portrayed in the movie. He read Catching Fire and Mockingjay on his own.  I have a stack of student notecards from the last days of various classes saying things like, “I never knew reading could be fun, I never knew I could love a book,” and I have emails from parents saying things like “after my student took your class, they asked for books for Christmas. I couldn’t believe it.”

It makes everything else worth it. Even getting up at 5AM.

So, back to the classics. I love them. I love Poe, and he is well loved by students, as long as the teacher introduces him properly, with lots of emphasis on his personal mystique and the creepiness of his stories. But, he’s hard. His sentences sometimes tie up the reader and buffet them with words. Sometimes those same sentences last nearly the length of a page, and his vocabulary? It’s amazing. I would never encourage someone not to teach Poe, but finding comparable stories, finding teenage stories and angst and accessible storylines to pair up with the difficult stories, and then comparing the themes and the symbolism and the motivations of characters … I can’t think of anything that would be more fun to do on a rainy afternoon, can you?

I take my job seriously, and I try my hardest to prepare my students for standardized testing, for the remainder of their high school classes, and for college. But I also really aim to encourage their reading. Whether they are already avid readers, teen readers who are slowly losing the magic of childhood reading to other pursuits, or reluctant readers, I give them time to read independently (and reward them for it) and I try to choose the most enticing literature for us to read and discuss as a class.

Next year I’m starting from scratch, looking for all new stories for my sophomores. It’s a bit daunting, but I’m excited about the challenge.

Sara | Novel Novice

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