All tagged Teaching

Teaching the Classics: The Scarlet Letter


Note: This is the first in an ongoing series from Sandra, retired high school English teacher and current substitute teacher in the same subject area, discussing the classic novels she taught, their relevance to today's teens and pairings with contemporary fiction.  

I taught high school literature for twenty-six years, many of the same books year after year. You’d think they would become ho-hum with a huge yawn after a few years. 

No so. 

There’s always something new and fresh that first-time readers bring to a text so it stands the test of time—meaning they relate to the characters and situations regardless of era or setting. Some books are simply universal. The Scarlet Letter, which I've written about previously, stands out for the fresh perspectives my students would bring to them each time I taught these books.

It’s all about making connections and drawing parallels.

I recall one student gingerly holding a copy of The Scarlet Letter between her thumb and index finger. The expression on her face was somewhere between horror and admiration as I shared that I had taught, and therefore read, this book every single year.

“What? You’ve actually read this at least twenty times? That’s that’s—I don’t know what is is,” my student said.

Read the rest--> 

Adventures in Substitute Teaching

 I love reading. I love words. I love the worlds created in my brain from images emanating out of words. That’s why I became an English teacher.

What a perfect job for me! I spent my career promoting books, themes, poetry, writing, thinking about literature—it’s such a complex and beautiful compulsion that I could, but won’t, go on and on and on.

Via Flickr Commons - A 1950s advertisement featuring the “ideal teacher.” Click through for image credits.

I retired three years ago and now revel in my free time to do all that I love: reading, writing, talking about literature, and gardening (which actually has nothing to do with reading). For me, this is fantastic, although I came to a point this fall where I decided I wanted to connect again with kids and young adults.  

I began substituting. Once or twice a week, I get to spend time back in the classroom—and I’m loving it.

One evening the phone rang with a request to substitute for a middle school learning resource room teacher. Ummmm… I taught high school students for twenty-six years, no middle school kids were ever part of my classroom teaching experience. I almost declined the job offer but pulled back a bit and thought,

“Wait a minute! What a snob I’m being. I’ve worked with so many students with reading and writing difficulties, with second language students and students who flat out don’t like English class. I’ve taught college prep classes too. I can do this!”

When I came into the classroom the next day, I was surprised that there were only six sixth grade boys. The “regular” teacher was there to greet me. When she discovered my background and experience she told me what reading she wanted done and suggested that I come up with my own writing prompts for the boys.

To my surprise, I had a great time with these boys, especially when it came to writing.

I had a couple of good ideas—or what I thought were good ideas—for prompts. Six sets of eyes stared back at me, none with with an inkling of inspiration. One boy took pity on me and signaled to me. When I leaned down to talk to him, he whispered to me his idea for a prompt,

“Tell them they’re trapped in the desert, the sun’s sizzling and they look up and see a sand dune that’s made of ice cream.” 

Credit: Primer in the Classroom, Flickr CommonsAfter twenty-six years of teaching language arts in a public high school, I arrived at the conclusion that there is no one method or book that’s appropriate for all young people.

Department meetings and informal conversations about how best to teach students always circled back to the same topics: What should teens read? What will most develop their reading skills? A typical exchange of ideas could get a bit testy. This is a rerun of a typical conversation about reading lists:

Everyone must read Shakespeare or they’re culturally illiterate.

Wait a minute. What’s the purpose of reading? Is it to carve out identical thinking, minds that we’ve crafted into whatever it is we believe is in their best interests?

It’s not developing reading skills for kids to require them to read something that we must interpret for them just to get at meaning.

I believe we must stop, sit back and think logically about what it means to read and how to help students become critical thinkers.

But, we’re doing them a grave disservice if they haven’t read the classics!

Why worry? They should just read, regardless.

What about free choice? Can’t we open the door to more selections, especially the free reading time in the summer?

And so it went, on and on and on with no resolution. 

With everyone and their uncle writing columns about summer reading, I thought I’d throw in my two cents on this idea of reading lists, and the concept of “right” reading choices, based on my experiences in a high school classroom (I retired a couple of years ago).