Classics in the Classroom: Designing Accessible Literature Lessons

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"I believe all...students deserve the riches that great literature offers. It can help us understand both the world and one another." - Carol Jago

*Being a teacher means being a learner.
*However much you think you know, it is always worth
thinking some more.
*Whenever you find yourself in a quandary, read the research.
*Teaching well can be thrilling (97)

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As English teachers and lovers of rich literature, layered with universal themes and human truths, we find it hard to understand how our students don’t acquire the same adoration we have for the likes of Kafka, Shakespeare, and Orwell; how do they not see the value and merit in reading such rich texts that have formed our past and are still shaping our future? How do students scoff at literature that act as a "window to the world?" (5).
In Jago’s Classsics in the Classroom: Designing Accessible Literature Lessons, she reaffirms for the English teacher the importance, value and worth of teaching classics in the 21st century English classroom. She leads the reader through seven chapters that address issues and questions teachers often encounter when presenting the classics. Despite the recent push amongst many experts to implement contemporary literature and choice into curriculum, Jago insists that the classics maintain their position in the classroom with their timeless relevancy to our world and culture.

Principles for Literature Teachers:

  • Students must read;
  • Don’t confuse reading for pleasure with the study of literature;
  • Don’t simply assign lengthy, difficult books; teach them;
  • Reading literature should include word study;
  • Reading literature builds background knowledge;
  • Reading literature educates students’ imaginations;
  • Metaphorical thinking is a life skill (1-20).

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Practical Approaches

Chapter 2: All About Words
Vocabulary, Vocabulary, Vocabulary. Where do we start?
By combining Stahl and Shiel's (1992) methods of:
*teaching prefixes, suffixes, and roots:
*teaching students to derive meaning from context; and
*teaching words as part of semantic groupings (Jago, 23)
Jago reinforces the importance of teaching vocabulary within the texts she is teaching by combining all of the above methods and using specifics. One strategy she uses is the vocabulary bookmark. By requiring students to write down the word and page number of difficult vocabulary, the teacher can help students define the words through what they already know or suppose with the help of the teacher (26). This leads to the active learning in the classroom as well as helping students realize that "learning new words is a natural act" (25).
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Chapter 3: Choosing Which Books to Teach
In today's classroom teachers are often conflicted as to which texts to teach, or at least which versions of texts to use. Difference in students' ability levels within the same classroom or grade complicate these decisions. Jago addresses this issue immediately. In chapter one, Jago states, "The texts chosen for classroom study should be ones that students are unable to read without you" (2). Jago goes on to dedicate a whole chapter (chapter 3) to the challenges and possible approaches to choosing such texts, as well as sharing her own choices and plans.
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Jago's Criteria for Choosing Texts:
*are written in language that is perfectly suited to the author's purpose;
*expose readers to complex human dilemmas;
*include compelling, disconcerting character;
*explore universal themes that combine different periods and cultures;
*challenge readers to reexamine their beliefs; and
*tell a good story with places for laughing and places for crying (47).

Chapter 4: How Stories Work
In the 1st chapter in Classics in the Classroom, Jago argues the importance of moving away from the Zone of Minimal Effort into Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development (2). She revisits these terms in this chapter, showing us by example how to help students "navigate" (60) stories to better understand them. She begins by discussing literary elements by equating each element with a question.

*"Who?" leads readers to characters
*"Where?" and "When?" to setting
*"What?" "Why?" and "How?" to plot
*"So What?" to the author's purpose and theme (61)

How to discuss a story, its structure, and literary devices? Ask sensory questions!

Steinbeck's Metaphors (Fig 4.2)
*Steinbeck's images and metaphors *What they make me feel and think *What they suggest about Steinbeck's message
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Chapter 5: How Poems Work
Jago integrates poetry into her classroom like a foreign language. "We want this terminology to become our common classroom language" (76). As to poetic terms, she suggests not handing out a list, but making students form their own list with help from lecture and the discussion of poetry. Like other chapters, Jago offers up ways to make lazy readers better by letting them work together. She also insists on ending the class with a final reading of the poem being currently discussed (90).

Thinking Aloud
*pose questions
*identify unfamiliar vocabulary or allusions,
*make connections to their own experience,
*rephrase inverted lines, and
*comment on the poem (78).

Examples given: Wordsworth's "The World Is Too Much With Us" (79) and Poe's "The Raven" as it relates to Jago's, "Inspiration Versus Perspiration" (92-94).

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Chapter 6: Lesson Design for Classical Literature
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Start small with transforming a single lesson.
Throughout the previous chapters, we have seen references to other scholars and how a teacher might incorporate their ideas into their own teaching theories and strategies. Sharing knowledge is the focus of this chapter. "It is the teaching, not teachers, that must be changed" (96).

*Finding a Professional Home
*Lesson Study in Japan
*Example, Homer's Odysssey
*Turning the Teaching Over to Students

Chapter 7: Literature, Knowledge, and the High School Graduate

As a summation for the importance of classic literature in classroom, Jago points to the state standards and benchmarks to further support her thesis in chapter seven. "In order for students to meet such a benchmark by the end of twelfth grade, they need practice with literary analysis throughout middle and high school" (150). She even deepens her argument by explaining the importance of such skills, outlined by the standards as, "important training for the mind" (150). Literature analysis shouldn't be reserved solely for English-degree-seeking students; instead, it is a lifelong skill to be taught within the rigor of the classics.

"Elements of successful literature study" also assessed on standardized tests:
  • Close reading of the text
  • Character Analysis
  • Drawing inferences
  • Application
  • Evaluation
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Carol Jago talks a lot about the importance of group work in Classics in the Classroom: Designing Accessible Literature Lessons. This makes a lot of sense and one can see the importance of group work in a school setting. Given the time constraints in the contemporary classroom, how does a teacher effectively incorporate group time into the lesson plan?

Reading this text, I also saw the theme of celebrating students' as well as celebrating literature and language. What might be some effective ways to celebrate students comprehension of literature in the classroom?

As a teacher of Creative Writing at the Collegiate level, I found this book to be very relevant to my classroom and to the Creative Writing community. How might we bridge the gap between education K-12 and collegiate teaching texts? How might you advise teachers of Creative Writing to go about choosing their texts and finding a balance between literature time and writing time in the classroom?

Have you ever presented at AWP? We need you!

I walk away with a new and enthused perspective on the teaching of classic literature after exploring Jago's thoughts and insights in Classics in the Classroom: Designing Accessible Literature Lessons. I applaud her for a scope of relevancy and rigor in the classroom, as she explores practical approaches to the teaching of difficult texts and aligns their importance with skill and the teaching of universal themes. I wonder, though, if her philosophy and thoughts have changed when considering young adult literature in the classroom? I am facing many reluctant readers in my classes, and I'm trying to foster and nurture a reading culture. Can this be accomplished through the teaching of classic literature alone? Does she have suggestions for pairings of contemporary pieces to the classics?

Presented By:

Tracy Becker and Andrea England

Tracy Becker is in her seventh year as a high school English teacher and is earning a master's degree in English education at Western Michigan University.
Andrea England teaches poetry writing and is a 3rd year PhD student at Western Michigan University.