This is a blog post that will probably cause a lot of debate. If you asked one of my best friends what she thought of Jane Austen, she would swoon (probably from the laces being too tight under her empire wasted regency era dress). Me, I think it they work miracles to help me fall asleep!
I am not a fan of the "classics" and use them very infrequently in my curriculum. There's a scene in the Netflix series Ginny & Georgia when young Ginny is given the curriculum for an advanced English class and it's implied that she won't be able to keep up with the strenuous reading list. She's quick to point out that of the 16 titles, fourteen of them are white males, and the one African American will line up perfectly with Black History Month. She asks the teacher if he will be able to teach to her needs.
There are so many amazing books being written that tackle the same messages, teach the same lessons, and yet have settings and characters that today's kids can relate to, while embracing diversity and tackling topics in a more relevant manner.
Shakespeare is one of my favorite examples for this.
When I teach Shakespeare to my high school students I always pair it with a modern retelling. For example, did you know that Romeo and Juliet is much more interesting when Romeo is a zombie?
First we read Shakespeare's version of the play, studying it in depth. We do the typical lessons that you see in public school, but that is where typical ends.
After reading Shakespeare's version, we dig into Isaac Marion's Warm Bodies. This novel has all the same characters (Romeo, Juliet, the nurse, Lord Capulet, Friar Laurence, Tybalt), with the one exception being that Romeo is a zombie. It gives the story quite a twist when the warring families are literally fighting a war.
How exactly is a human Juliet supposed to fall in love with a zombie Romeo?
It's a much more captivating story, in my opinion, about the power of love. Shakespeare's story has two teenagers go on a murder spree that ends up with a thirteen year old girl getting married, a minister helping them, six people die, and two of those are the main characters killing themselves.
How is that a love story?!
Another of my favorite Shakespeare plays is A Midsummer's Night's Dream. This one isn't taught often in public schools, unless it's part of the theatre program. It's got a massive cast of characters, and even a play within the play. It's essentially three stories in one with a troublemaking Robin Goodfellow (Puck) winding them all together.
What I love about this play is the Faeries! Shakespeare essentially pulled from the folklore of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales related to the Fae and created a mythology that has stood the test of time. The characters he created in this play (and used in Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, and a few others of his), became legends of their own. Queen Titania and King Oberon became the standard rulers of the Seelie Court. Queen Mab ruled the evil Unseelie Court. And Puck caused mischief across them all.
The Iron King by Julie Kagawa is just one such example of literature that used the characters that Shakespeare created hundreds of years earlier. She took those characters and imagined what the land of Faery would be like in modern day. How would they be adjusting to modern problems like pollution, our reliance on metal, and technology?
As we read this book, students try to find all the connections to Shakespeare's original creations and analyze how they have been modernized. We look at the themes of modernization and change, not just on the setting, but also on the characters themselves.
Students also have to look to the past. There are very distinct rules for how humans stay alive in the world of the Fae. Faeries like Robin Goodfellow are known for tricking us, trapping us into one-sided bargains or tempting us with poisoned fruits. Students will do research into the legends and myths of faeries from around the world to create a survival guide, using references from A Midsummer's Nights Dream and The Iron King, for how to survive in the NeverNever.
I have my last Shakespeare unit coming up next month. It's still in the planning stages, so I can't give you all the details yet. I'm teaching Hamlet. One of those plays I was required to learn not only in my high school English class, but also in Drama class.
I remember my drama teacher assigning roles to everyone, then telling us to lie down on the ground. She said, "you're all dead, the play is over."
Once again, I plan on pairing it with something modern. The student I'm working with right now is a huge fan of science fiction and anything having to do with space exploration. All of his creative writing stories seem to involve aliens or AI or AI aliens. So, this is what I'm combining Hamlet with:
What are your thoughts about the classics? What pairings of classics and modern literature can you think of? And are there any classics you feel desperately need to be replaced?