Wednesday, November 16, 2011

RTW #105: Sending Vergil

This week's topic from YA Highway:
In high school, teens are made to read the classics - Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Bronte, Dickens - but there are a lot of books out there never taught in schools. So if you had the power to change school curriculums, which books would you be sure high school students were required to read?

First, I would like to say that I believe reading curriculums need to be approached with much more care.  More care and thoughtful deliberation. 


In Dante's Inferno, the pilgrim Dante wants to approach a pair of souls in Hell--particularly, the illicit lovers Paolo and Francesca.  Vergil, Dante's guide, counsels him that it would be most effective (in paraphrase) to speak to the lovers "in the language of their desire."   Similarly, Vergil is the best person to guide Dante through Hell becuase Dante loves the poet's "ornate words."  Dante loves the Aeneid, and as a result, he follows Vergil to salvation more willingly than he would follow scripture.

THIS is the approach schools should take when compiling reading curriculum. 

Imagine what would happen if, before jumping into the classics, we required teens to read stories written in their own language, stories about desires they experience every day, stories about people they can relate to.  Imagine what would happen if we spoke to them in the language of their desire

I know what would happen.

They would
                                                            to love
                                                                                         to read. 

Which, I'm sorry to say, does not happen in a whole lot of high schools.  More often, as I have quite recently witnessed, the majority of students develop a stubborn distate for reading and the blessed minority picks up a blockbuster novel by accident and discovers, lo and behold, that they actually love books. 

In my opinion, middle and high school reading curriculums should have one goal:  to teach kids to love to read. 

And I cannot see why we are trying to accomplish this by asking students to twist themselves into all sorts of contortions so they can appreciate a work of art written centuries or millenia ago, or a work that is so overwhelmingly depressing and/or violent that it bears no resemblance to the actuality of their lives.  (The majority of high school reading curriculum, as I have experienced it and discussed it with peers, contains mostly classics--which I have NO problem with, as I'm sure you can tell from my comparison to Dante--and  ultra-depressing literature--this, I do not understand.) 

The way to teach young people to appreciate Homer, Shakespeare, Sophocles, and the others is not to shove the classics down their throats and hope it digests. 

Dante wouldn't have followed an angel on the path to redemption.  He's simply not in love with the way angels talk.  He's in love with the way Vergil talks.  He's in love with Vergil's poetry.  He respects, admires, and understands Vergil. 

So how do we teach students to love reading, and thereby teach them to love the classics? 


Now, if you've stayed with me all this time, you can probably guess what I mean by "Vergil."  What I mean by books that will speak to high school students in the language of their own desire

Young adult fiction. 

And I don't mean Huckleberry Finn.  I mean the latest, greatest, most fun, fast-paced, romantic, exciting, keep-you-up-at-night YA novels that are being written for young adults right now.  We should introduce teens to the world of reading with these books, and we should sprinkle in these books once we've progressed to teaching classics. 

Then maybe, maybe, high school would be less of a place where only the dorks carry around books to read.  A place where you don't get made fun of for loving Greek tragedy.  A place where people don't snicker when you faithfully do your reading for English class. 

If we first taught our teens to love to read, I can't help but believe it would be different. 


  1. I agree with you.
    Huckleberry Finn vs. Harry Potter? LOL Almost a joke.
    If they learn to read, to like reading, they will come for classics ... it's only natural to want to read the great names and titles of our history and see what's the big deal about them.

  2. I think it's interesting that people come away from books with so many different ideas and interpretations, and I agree that teens should be give the chance to do that for themselves. By reading books that raise questions and stimulate discussions, about their own lives and experiences.

    And as a side note, I remember in junior high, a teacher had us reading out loud. My classmates read in such a monotone, no rhythm or delight in their voices. I was horrified--if that's what it sounds like in their head, no wonder so many kids preferred movies or TV! I was so glad that I'd clued in to the beauty of language.

  3. I agree. But I do think there should be some balance with some of the classics.

  4. I agree--there are so many kids that don't like to read, you have to get them reading before you can just shove the classics at them. I feel like teachers would have a much easier time trying to teach literature if the students already like to read.

  5. This is my favorite RTW post so far.

    "In my opinion, middle and high school reading curriculums should have one goal: to teach kids to love to read."

    I totally agree with this. Classics mean a lot to me, but I came to most of my favorites on my own. I don't think we should take classics out, but I think that we could do a lot to give students books they want to read before we start trying to force Hawthorne down their throats. So they know that ALL books are not like the classics.

    The more we try to force the canonical works, the fewer students will come out the other side with a love for reading. And that's so sad.

  6. "In my opinion, middle and high school reading curriculums should have one goal: to teach kids to love to read." --> This is so very true.

    However, I strongly believe that classics can achieve this if they are made interesting as they open a window to a different world and time. One my junior high school teacher did this for us and I will never thank him enough for making those classics alive to us.

    I think that a good mix of novels, plays, poems of different genra (including classics, modern and recent YA) would do the trick as long as it is mixed with enthusiasm :-)

    Wow that was one long comment :-)

  7. Just to clarify:

    I do NOT think we should take classics out of middle/high school curriculums! Quite the opposite. (The Aeneid is actually one of my favorite books as well, and I l.o.v.e. Shakespeare.) I just think that we should first expose students to books they will be more likely to fall in love with.

    And while I agree excellent teachers can make you fall in love with even the most difficult books, not every student at every school has that ideal situation.

  8. Great post! I still remember the change in my ninth grade English class when The Outsiders was assigned. We couldn't identify with all of it, but for the first time, I remember people actually talking about a book outside of class. They started it because it was assigned but they continued reading it because they wanted to.

  9. @Kathleen Peacock

    I had a similar experience with The Outsiders. My brother hate hate hated reading for years and then was assigned The Outsiders for school and discovered that people sometimes do write stuff that he might be interested in. He has recently discovered the "Zombie Apocalypse" aisle in the bookstore.

  10. One of my favorite books that I read in high school was Catcher in the Rye. I think part of the reason I connected so well to it was because he was roughly the same age as me. He wasn't dealing with serious romantic love, which I feel is difficult for high school students to relate to. So many of the classics seem to have some sort of love story involved, and until someone has experienced that in their life, it can be difficult to understand.
    Something else that makes the classics difficult to read in high school is the historical aspect. If students are unaware of the social norms of Puritans, it's going to be very difficult to relate to The Scarlet Letter. Even though there are history classes in high schools, they don't necessarily talk about the way life was. The historical aspect of the classics can be very off-putting for many readers, even adults.
    I'm really glad you made this post because I found it so interesting and necessary.

  11. @AG

    Well said. The teacher of my senior English class had been a historian before she was an highschool teacher. She was amazing about putting a book into historical context. It made it so much more fun to learn about.