"For someone—anyone, even the author—to be set up as the arbiter of what a book says to a reader contradicts everything we know about reading” (Jago 101).

With Rigor for All: Teaching the Classics to Contemporary Students by Carol Jago

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Review of Book

Presented by:Steffany Maher - steffanymaher@hotmail.com
Steffany Comfort Maher
Steffany Comfort Maher

Taught English at Springport High School in Springport, MI for 5 years
Currently teach English at PIONEERS Homeschool Co-op in Jackson, MI
Am a graduate student at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, MI
Have been a stay-at-home mom for the last 8 years

Carol Jago is adamant that the classics should be taught to all students, not just our honors students.

She makes an excellent argument throughout this book for why everyone should read the classics:
  • they have "weathered the test of time" (2)
  • they challenge us
  • they make us grow as readers and as people
  • they are enduring stories
  • they help us to understand allusions to literature and to communicate intelligently with others
  • they are "stories that tell the truth about human experience across both time and culture" (6)
  • they present issues that are relevant to us today
  • they help us to better understand and sympathize with those who are not like us
  • they give us a sense of accomplishment when we are finished

Odyssey (Barnes & Noble Classics Series) by Homer: Book Cover
Odyssey (Barnes & Noble Classics Series) by Homer: Book Cover

According to Jago, our job as teachers of English is to teach our students how to read, relate to, learn from, and express their critical thinking of classical literature.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: Book Cover
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: Book Cover

Beowulf (Barnes & Noble Classics Series) by Anonymous: Book Cover
Beowulf (Barnes & Noble Classics Series) by Anonymous: Book Cover

In With Rigor for All, Jago addresses many of the problems that educators encounter when teaching the classics. She also offers solutions and practical advice from her own classroom teaching experience. As teachers, Jago explains, we should:
  • prepare our students for the difficulty of the text
  • teach them how a story works
  • help them to make connections beyond the story

Some of us, Jago maintains, need to rethink the way we teach:
  • How do we motivate our students?
  • How do we evaluate them?
  • How do we conduct discussion in our classrooms?

Challenging common teaching methods, Jago offers suggested alternatives, always backing up her suggestions with her own student examples as well as outside research.

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Ultimately, Jago believes that our goal as teachers is to develop a joy of reading and accomplishment in young adults who can not only understand their reading of a classic, but also respond critically to this reading and share their views on the text with others in a respectful manner.


Jago's book is a practical guide offering solutions to problems encountered when teaching the classics. Because of the set up of the book, though, reading it can feel rather disjointed. It is organized by issues, so it jumps from problem to problem and then gives possible solutions to those problems. Thus, a solution in chapter 7 may be much like a solution in chapter 3, so if, for example, I am taking a solution from the book and applying it to my classroom, I may need to look in several places to get the full idea down. That being said, though, each of the problems addressed are ones that I have met while teaching, and Jago's solutions seem practical and applicable.


Maintaining the importance of reserving classroom time for teaching the classics, Jago defends her case against those who would replace at least some classical literature with young adult literature. She states that there is a place for YA literature, but it is not in the classroom. Teachers should encourage the reading of it outside of school for pleasure. She argues, "If students can read a book on their own, it probably isn't the best choice for classroom study. Classroom texts should pose intellectual challenges to young readers" (3). While Jago makes a strong case for classical versus young adult literature, I find her solution to the classical versus multicultural literature debate to be overly simple.

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It doesn’t have to be “either/or,” she argues. “The solution is obvious. Students must simply read more books” (134). Our students, Jago explains, would certainly have the time to read twice as many books per year if they stopped "staring into a television or computer screen" (135).----My question is: Will they?


Jago presents the philosophy of intrinsic rather than extrinsic motiation, including the issue of whether or not to assign grades. She does admit that she struggles with this issue and believes that students need to be held accountable for their reading. In her struggle to find a better way of evaluating students, Jago has created several methods other than quizzes or objective tests for evaluating whether or not (and how well) students have read the assigned pages, and she includes these in her book. When I read this portion of the book, I find myself wanting to ask the author several questions.

QUESTIONS for CAROL JAGO: external image question-mark.jpg

  1. If you use these methods of evaluation in your classroom and do not assign grades, how do you assign a grade at the end of the semester? Or if you do assign grades that are “subjective” – as in you are judging how much of the reading they’ve done by how detailed their responses are in class – how do you assign these grades? Do you have some sort of rubric for each assignment? And how do you support these grades when concerned parents come to you and ask why their son is getting a C?
  2. How much reading do you usually assign to your students? How many of your students do you think are actually reading it all?
  3. You wrote this book several years ago, what has changed for you since then? Do you still teach the same way? Have you changed some of your ideas or even your philosophy of teaching since then?


Ultimately, this book has been an excellent resource for me. Not only does Jago give practical ideas for the classroom that have been successful in her own, but she also points to other resources:
Rationales for Challenged Books is a CD-ROM created by the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association. You can also check out NCTE's Anti-Censorship Center here
For further reading, Jago's Works Cited page includes excellent resources, such as:

Rabinowitz, Peter J., and Michael W. Smith. Authorizing Readers, Resistance and Respect in the Teaching of Literature. New York: Teachers College Press, 1998. (Click here to read a summary.)
Reid, Louann and Jamie Hayes Neufeld. Rationales for Teaching Young Adult Literature. Portland, Maine: Calendar Islands Publishers, 1999. (Click hereto read a summary.)


I find myself relating to Carol Jago throughout my reading of With Rigor for All, but this is especially true in the last reason she gives for reading the classics.
Doug Maher
Doug Maher

“The classics also teach us about ourselves. I used to think of reading as an escape. Anyone’s life was more interesting than mine. But the more I read, the more I found myself inside those books. For the duration of the novel, I became Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye and saw things in their character, some good, some not-so-good, that were inside me, too. There was no escape” (145).

I want my students (and my own children) to experience this as well—to know that when we read the classics, we learn about life, about others, about the world around us, but perhaps most importantly, we learn about ourselves.