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Thread: teaching classic british lit to 9th graders

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    teaching classic british lit to 9th graders

    I just started teaching ninth grade English, and the district's curriculum for that level includes primarily classic British literature. Frankly, most high school freshmen are neither awed nor amused by Ivanhoe and David Copperfield. I've already plodded through several of the Sherlock Holmes stories and Romeo and Juliet and it hasn't been pretty. I'm considering using the Classic Comics version of Ivanhoe to teach my developmental English students. I guess I'm just looking for ideas or suggestions on how to convince the students that "classic" doesn't mean "stuff" (to coin a favorite ninth grade word) that old people read.

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    Johnny One Shot Basil's Avatar
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    Yeah. Stuff sucks.

    Are you allowed to set your own curriculum? I'm guessing probably not, so there's no way to sneak Frankenstein or Dracula in there. But what about poetry? "To His Coy Mistress" seems like it might capture a 9th grader's imagination--and plus it contains so many intertextual points of reference used by future texts that it's a good springboard to other works . . .

    Or you could just torture them and make them read the entire George Eliot collection (I actually like Eliot, but I doubt I would have at the age of fourteen).
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    Who, ME? trismegistus's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by lavendar1
    I just started teaching ninth grade English, and the district's curriculum for that level includes primarily classic British literature. Frankly, most high school freshmen are neither awed nor amused by Ivanhoe and David Copperfield. I've already plodded through several of the Sherlock Holmes stories and Romeo and Juliet and it hasn't been pretty. I'm considering using the Classic Comics version of Ivanhoe to teach my developmental English students. I guess I'm just looking for ideas or suggestions on how to convince the students that "classic" doesn't mean "stuff" (to coin a favorite ninth grade word) that old people read.
    That's a miserable curriculum. Looks like texts that were chosen in 1950 and never reconsidered. You need an overhaul:
    1. Beowulf - excellent adventure story that you might even connect to Gardner's Grendel since Gardner was also a Brit. (As an outside reading you can give them Crichton's Eaters of the Dead which is his rendition of Beowulf written on a challenge.
    2. A couple of Canterbury Tales (no 9th grade boy could resist the fart and sex jokes in stuff like the Miller's Tale)
    3. Lots of the Cavalier poets as Basil suggests. Short, punchy, and generally witty poetry.
    4. Paradise Lost (just kidding) You might actually try segments of Pilgrim's Progress. It's not a bad story, and the allegory of it is so obvious that kids can accomplish a lot and feel good about themselves.
    5. Dump the Dickens; he's good when you're older. If you've got to do the Victorians or Edwardians, go with Tennyson's poetry and HG Wells. Oh yeah, and Kipling's "The White Man's Burden." The kids will have a great time being outraged and feeling morally superior.
    6. Shakespeare is wasted on the great majority of 14 year olds. In fact it's making them slog their way through it that often makes them HATE it when they're old enough to actually begin appreciating it. (Say, junior or senior year.) Still, I doubt you'll be allowed to ditch the Bard. If I had to do one and had a choice, I'd go with a comedy or history over a tragedy.
    7. "Ryme of the Ancient Mariner" might hook some. The "ghost story" aspect of the poem can be useful in grabbing attention.
    8. Robert Burns's poetry is accessible, funny, and an interesting language study. You can use it to do all kinds of things with dialect and their own speech.
    9. Drop some Thomas Gray on them. The Goths among them will love it; the rest will think Gray was stealing from Poe.
    10. What about Graham Greene from the 20th century?

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    Johnny One Shot Basil's Avatar
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    As usual, Trismegistus shows me up with an infinitely more useful post than my own (although [ahem] mine contains a Simpsons quote).

    re Shakespeare: why don't they teach any of the history plays in high school? I don't believe we did a single one . . .
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    Pièce de Résistance Scheherazade's Avatar
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    History and stuff r not like kewl... u no...
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    Expert Waffler Snukes's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Basil
    re Shakespeare: why don't they teach any of the history plays in high school? I don't believe we did a single one . . .
    We did Henry V and Richard III in high school, but neither one in an English class. (Drama class and History class, respectively). But why slog through a boring history play (and I must say, even for being some of his better histories, those two are both dreadfully boring until you start to understand the yummy historical connections, and even those aren't so great if you don't give a hoot about history...) if you can read the 17th century equivalent of a trashy romance novel?

    We read Midsummer Night's Dream in 9th grade (and 10th grade and 11th grade...) and had it not been required reading for so many classes, it might still be my favorite. As it is, I much prefer Much Ado About Nothing.

    As for real helpful suggestions, I defer to the more obvious authorities who have already posted.
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    Well, lavendar1, you have quite a course to teach; I commend you for bravery, really (he-he).
    Dickens may seem somewhat too dry for average teenagers having a short attention span to Dickensian verbosity. I would try shorter, more . . . energetic works, such as short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, Guy de Maupassant, Flannery O'Connor, O. Henry, and the like.
    I entirely agree with trimegistus's idea of reading a few of the "Canterbury Tales," as those prove entertaining for any age, along with those of Aesop, Homer, Virgil, and Giovanni Boccaccio.
    Good luck!

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    Who, ME? trismegistus's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mono
    I would try shorter, more . . . energetic works, such as short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, Guy de Maupassant, Flannery O'Connor, O. Henry, and the like .... along with those of Aesop, Homer, Virgil, and Giovanni Boccaccio.
    Yeah but the problewm is that (s)he's teaching British Lit.

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    Quote Originally Posted by trismegistus
    Yeah but the problewm is that (s)he's teaching British Lit.
    Oops, my eyes entirely skipped past that word, 'British;' I apologize. In that case, I would also recommend George Eliot along with Virginia Woolf. An enormous subject lies additionally with the three Brontë sisters, for they, I think, especially Emily Brontë, enlightened 19th century British literature, along with, indirectly, the early feminist movement.
    Good luck, again!

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    in a blue moon amuse's Avatar
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    in the ninth grade, we studied A Midsummer's Night Dream; additionally, we acted out the play within the play & saw it live in san francisco - needless to say, this worked well to capture our interest. any two of these approaches would probably work well.

    not of course that one needs to travel to the bay area to appreciate it live! lol
    shh!!!
    the air and water have been here a long time, and they are telling stories.

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    the attentional span of the young-adult of today isn't enough to sustain George Elliot, specially in the ninth grade.

    Personally, I think you can only change the mind of your students concerning classics by recommending them actually intresting books outside ciriculum like maybe something by Oscar Wilde and Jane Austen. Something short, witty and relatively less dense. If they like them, or bother to read them then maybe they can be brought around to read folks like Elliot, Thackery, Scott and Dickens. If not then probably there's no hope.

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    Leave The Brontes, they're boring (IMO)


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    Attack With Love Jack_Aubrey's Avatar
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    For someone who just completed ninth grade (me) there are a few demographics of students that I observed. There is a group that will do anything assigned just to get that A to keep the ol' GPA at its current zenith. These are the ones who neither appreciat nor disappreciate what is being taught, ever. There is also a group of kids who couldnt care less about literature, who are bad readers and have never even read a book outside of school. And finally there are kids who are going to appreciate it because they have, in fact, read books outside of school. When my class read Shakespeare last year I was absolutely astonished at every single part of the play we read (Much Ado About Nothing). Before this I had disregarded Shakspeare as a Renaissance fluff writer but I was forever turned on to him.

    So remember you have the opportunity to turn kids on to the greats. And be optimistic!

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    Registered User Zooey's Avatar
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    Tough call. I'm having a hard time trying to think back now at what I read in 9th grade, and I had a great teacher and was interested in what we were reading! And this was only about six years ago! I remember reading large sections of A Tale of Two Cities and Romeo and Juliet- neither which I particularly enjoyed.

    I'm sure you still have staples- but I recommend doing as many short stories as possible, as due to the nature of the length the action and conflict begins quickly, and its probably more likely to hold a young reader's attention more than trying to slog through long characterizations found in a novel.

    I'd recommend:

    Doris Lessing. To Room 19 is my favorite, but don't know if it could be fully appreciated it so early in life. I can't remember the name of it, but she wrote a terrific story about a boy who trains himself to hold his breath and risks his life swimming through an underground cave one summer. It's pretty short, and gripping stuff.

    I'm a Virginia Woolf fanatic, but I highly doubt high schoolers are ready for her fiction (it's hard enough for most college students). However, excerpts from A Room of One's Own is easy to read, and very thought-provoking (I'd recommend the section about Shakespeare's (fictional) brilliant sister.)

    Oscar Wilde. I've only read Importance of Being earnest which may be a tad too abstract, but his writing is a witty delight that is easy enough to read.

    As someone mentioned, I'm sure you have to teach Shakespeare, and I don't think R&J is necessarily a bad choice, though if I was teaching and had carte blanche I'd go with Much Ado About Nothing. You could show clips or have an extra credit assignment or something with Brannagh's film version, which would probably help a lot. Whatever you do, I'd recommend providing some kind of visual representation along with whatever your students read- I was lucky enough to take a Shakespeare class in London this last fall, and it helped so much to see it performed and/or see a film version along with what he read. Shakespeare was writing his plays to be seen, and that's the way I think they should be presented.

    Beowulf isn't a bad suggestion. I was surprised how much fun it is to read. Likewise, many of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales are quite delightful (and quite racy, which I remember was a revelation when I read them in high school).

    Some of John Donne's poetry- very rich and vivid imagery, especially the love poems. Could provoke some interesting discussion on the meaning.

    Dickens is horrible in my opinion- couldn't stand it then, and still can't. Have no opinion on Austen or the Bronte Sisters.

    Anyway, I'll keep thinking and report back if I can think of anything else. Best of luck to you- you're in a tough position, having a (most likely) resentful captive audience. The best thing I can say is to always try to find ways to make it apply to each student's own lives. No matter what your age that is what gives Literature its richness and meaning- and the earlier one figures that out, the quicker a love for Lit will be developed.
    "To get straight to the worst, what I'm about to offer isn't really a short story at all but a sort of prose home movie..."

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    Johnny One Shot Basil's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Zooey
    . . . though if I was teaching and had carte blanche I'd go with Much Ado About Nothing. You could show clips or have an extra credit assignment or something with Brannagh's film version, which would probably help a lot.
    As one of the most gifted thespians of his generation, Keanu Reeves has had the opportunity to deliver some pretty memorable lines. I have to say, though, for my money, NOTHING tops Keanu's first line as Don John in Much Ado About Nothing: "I am a man of few words." Uttered with such villainous intent, seething with malevolence . . . oh, I get woozy just thinking about it.

    Keanu may lack the range of a Duvall or the intensity of a Pacino, but golly, he's just got that certain something, that ineffable quality that separates him from the rest . . .

    I'd KILL to see him do Hamlet!
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