CONSIDER THE CLASSICS: Time-Tested Titles for
Even the Most Reluctant Reader
In the movies, getting kids excited about
learning seems dramatic, alluring, and, if you put your nose to
the grindstone, not even all that difficult. Who wouldn’t
want to be the one who made every kid in a troubled South Central
Los Angeles high school pass the AP Calculus BC exam, as Edward
James Olmos (playing teacher Jaime Escalante) did in the film
Stand and Deliver? Or, more poignantly for me, who wouldn’t
want to inspire failing students to wade through the works of
Dylan Thomas and thus to understand literature’s relevance
to their own lives, as Michelle Pfeiffer (portraying teacher Louanne
Johnson) did in the movie Dangerous Minds?
As a graduate student in education, I watched these favorite inspirational
stories and couldn’t wait to create my own. I wanted my
students not only to engage in the material that I gave them in
class but also to experience reading as something fun and exciting.
I wanted to share with them my own favorite classics, from Madame
Bovary to Light in August to The Murders in
the Rue Morgue.
Of course, I found that it wasn’t as easy as Michelle Pfeiffer
made it look. It was a good day when my students at Charlestown
High School in Boston remembered to come to class, let alone
remembered to come prepared and ready to discuss literature. Even
while I was working for Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (a
nonprofit organization for highly motivated students in New York
City public schools), I found that outside the classroom, my students
were about as interested in Jane Austen as I was in their hip-hop
As frustrating as my attempts were, however, teaching only reinforced
exactly how important it was to instill in students a love of
reading. For the first time, I could see that getting my kids
to read classics outside of the classroom would have concrete
effects far beyond the warm, fuzzy feeling I had in my stomach
when I watched Stand and Deliver.
Reading is important in helping students strengthen not only their
imaginations but also their vocabularies, their writing skills,
and their experiences of living. Research has shown that the best
way for students to prepare for the verbal section of the
SATs is not by studying flashcards or vocabulary but by consistently
reading. While it helps for students to read anything, classics
tend to expose them to different words and situations. The classics
provide a context that will help young adults to understand other
texts, to participate in a wider variety of conversations, and
to see beyond their own worlds.
The question, however, remains: Is it possible to get adolescents
interested in classics? If so, how?
The first great lesson I learned as a teacher is that it wasn’t
my responsibility to create a classroom of my protégées.
It actually didn’t matter at all if my students were reading
the books that I loved. It mattered that they were reading books
that they loved. Though I never liked Herman Melville when
I was in school, he could become for my students what Faulkner
and Fitzgerald became for me. It is essential to let students
make their own, guided choices and to give them options that will
fit with their interests.
For those who have expressed an interest in the military, The
Red Badge of Courage and All Quiet on the Western Front
are full of energetic battle scenes. Moby Dick, Robinson
Crusoe, and The Three Musketeers will appeal to
those with a sense of adventure. Travel and outdoor enthusiasts
will enjoy the works of Jack London and Rudyard Kipling.
When it comes to classics, for many people,
size does matter. Give one adolescent boy The Count of Monte
Cristo at 1,488 pages and another Charlotte Temple at 144
pages, and the one with Charlotte Temple is sure to think he’s
got the better end of the deal. Charlotte Temple is certainly
important and is not to be missed in the classroom, but teenage
boys would be far more likely to get into Dumas’s epic tale
of treason, prison breaks, and sword fights. Most, however, would
never figure that out, because they wouldn’t look past the
thick spine and the hefty page count.
Using size as an advantage, though, can help students get excited
about reading. Short books, novellas, and even short stories won’t
intimidate students and can be great introductions to an author’s
writing. For example, the Ray Bradbury story “All Summer
in a Day” is a great precursor to his classic Fahrenheit
451. Similarly, Notes From Underground is good way
to give students a taste of Dostoyevsky before they plunge into
Crime and Punishment.
Most students have at least a small rebellious
streak, and at first glance, reading—particularly reading
the classics—doesn’t quite fit into that attitude.
Helping students to understand that some classics were long considered
edgy can make many books more appealing. Nathaniel Hawthorne,
for example, seems a bit more dangerous after students find out
that in many town squares, The Scarlet Letter was burned
for its sexual deviance.
Also, the category of historically banned books is simply a great
place to start when thinking about reading material for reluctant
readers. Books generally incite controversy because they are on
the vanguard of intellectual discourse, which means that they
are energizing, provocative, and downright exciting. From Frankenstein
to The Jungle to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,
banned books represent some of the richest, most fun literature
For the better part of a school year, whenever my student
Jim raised his hand, I would call him “Lord Jim” (after
the Joseph Conrad title). Almost every day after class, he would
ask me about the origin of the nickname. My response was always
the same: “Go find out, and come tell me.” I wasn’t
overly optimistic, but one day in March, he waited after school
and announced proudly: “It’s a book, Miss! What’s
it about?” Again, I figured that if I continued to use the
nickname and if he got curious enough, he might actually
read the book. My ploy worked: Jim slugged his way through, and
by the end of May, he was clumsily referencing Conrad in his papers.
The moral of my story about Jim isn’t that giving out nicknames
will necessarily get kids to read. Rather, I found that no one
likes to be on the outside of an inner circle—be it
of friends, jokes, or even knowledge. When Jim thought that the
whole world except for him knew why he had a nickname, it motivated
him to do some investigation of his own. His story is indicative
not only of a way to get kids to read classics but, again, of
why it’s important. Classics are consistently referenced
in any number of sources, and students who understand these references
will have a leg up in and out of the classroom.
After two years of teaching, I became an editor. I have been lucky
enough to be in a position at the Modern Library that allows
me to think about books, and particularly classics, in a new way.
I now spend my days thinking about the definition of a classic,
about what is missing from the canon of classics, and about what
introducers and translators and editors can do to help bring out
the best of these classics.
I still firmly believe in the importance of the classics, and
after spending time in the classroom, I have seen the impact that
these great books continue to have on students. I know now
that it is extraordinarily challenging to inspire young minds.
Not every classroom story has a neat Hollywood ending like those
of the movies I admired. With the right tactics and with
some extra patience, however, it is certainly possible to help
students build a lifelong relationship with reading, both inside
the classroom and out.
Rebecca Shapiro has worked as a writer for
Kirkus Reviews; as a writing instructor at Charlestown
High School; and as a teacher and counselor at Sponsors for Educational
Opportunity, a nonprofit organization for motivated students in
New York City public schools. She holds a B.A. in English from
Brown University and an M.Ed. from the Harvard Graduate School
451 by Ray Bradbury
Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
Count Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
in August by William Faulkner
Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
by Herman Melville
Murders in the Rue Morgue: The Dupin Tales by Edgar Allan
Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
Temple by Susanna Rowson
by Mary Shelley
Jungle by Upton Sinclair
Adventures Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain