Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
These Are a Few of My Favorite Things
Even though my oldest daughter wasn't born until 1995, she is a child of the '80s and loves '80s music. Maybe it's my fault: I graduated high school in 1983 and college in 1987, so the '80s was my formative decade. I probably influenced her choices subliminally—my car was always tuned to the '80s channel when she was strapped into her car seat and too little to change the channel. Now, however, she shares my love; even though I admit I don't necessarily share her love of some current artists she plays while we're on the road.
Our culture is built on shared history and experiences, and now that she's old enough I'm getting to experience some classic movies again, like when we sat down to watch the John Hughes movie "Sixteen Candles." It's funny how some things stand up to the test of time while others simply wash away.
It's this shared culture that's important, though, which is why as much as I preach individual choice in reading, I do believe there should be some literary works that everyone in middle and high school reads and experiences. Here are some of my top choices and my favorite things to teach.
- "The Gift of the Magi" (O. Henry) Referenced everywhere, including a recent episode of "Glee," it's true that while everyone knows the short story, far fewer have actually read it. This story of love and sacrifice is worth reading. Plus it leads to a great debate and discussion on the meaning of wisdom and whether O. Henry, who wrote the story in practically no time flat, was correct in his assertion.
- "A Retrieved Reformation" (O. Henry) and "The Necklace" (Guy de Maupassant) These two short stories, one of a reformed safe cracker and one of a woman who dreams of life above her means, are fun to teach for their stunning surprise endings and use of irony. Afterwards, especially in "The Necklace," have students go back and look for all the foreshadowing. For "A Retrieved Reformation" you can have them write and predict what happens to Jimmy Valentine next.
- To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) This perennial classic novel that just celebrated its 50th birthday presents a clear picture of a life many of my students can't even imagine. Not only is it a fabulous way to discuss and teach point of view, vocabulary, and ethics, but in a 2008 nation that elected a black president, it's a springboard to investigate racism and the prejudices that still exist today in current media and life. While I don't show my class the movie (as it's different from the book), the movie can stand easily on its own in a film class.
- Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck) The first thing students notice about this novel is that it's short. But this story of two migrant farm workers is anything but skimpy, and after teaching it to a bunch of boys during summer school credit recovery this past summer, I can say it's a story that remains timeless in its themes and characterizations.
- "Mother to Son" and "A Dream Deferred" (Langston Hughes) "Mother to Son" is a fabulous example of an extended metaphor poem, but better than that it's a fabulous look at the hard work a person must endure when traveling on the staircase of life. Students can relate to its theme, and when looking at the deeper meaning and historical content, the poem works well when tied in with To Kill a Mockingbird. "A Dream Deferred," a poem that asks what happens to a person's dreams, goes well with Of Mice and Men. Both poems are easy to comprehend and apply to students' own lives so that students can see not only the message the poet was sending society, but also students can personalize the message to their own circumstances.
- "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (James Thurber) is again a short story everyone seems to reference but one few of the current generation have read. While in this day of all-weather tires, many students can't comprehend some of the older references like putting chains on, they easily see how a henpecked husband escapes into his dream world. Better yet, they know how they escape into their own daydreams. It's a fun story to introduce students to all the elements of plot as it follows a standard plot curve. It also has great man versus fate conflict, as no matter what, just like most of us, Mitty is fated never to finish those great dreams of his.
- "The Miracle Worker" (William Gibson) I love this play which tells the story of Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan. Amazingly, I've found that many students haven't heard of Helen Keller. I find the play is a very nice way to round out the year and that students even enjoy the black and white movie, which is true to the story.
- "The Hollow Men" (T.S. Eliot) and "The Road Not Taken" (Robert Frost) Both of these poems changed my life when I read them in high school, so maybe that's why I wish everyone would read them and why I share them with my students. While I admit many times I simply skim the surface with students when teaching "The Hollow Men" (as this poem is so full of imagery and literary techniques analyzing it completely can take a while), the important thing is the theme. It insists man take action rather than being impassive. Recently a colleague and I discussed a conversation I'd had with my state representative. He asked me if I really thought it would help. I told him I couldn't just sit by and do nothing. I am a man of action. "The Road Not Taken" is also one of those poems that get students thinking. Faced with many decisions, the poem clearly illustrates the individuality of making choices.
There are many more literary works I consider positively worthy of being taught in a classroom, but these are my favorites and the ones on my essential to-do list. At my school Elie Wiesel's Night is taught in the tenth grade, and in this day and age of Holocaust skeptics and deniers, it's a novel I feel must be taught even though I'm not able to teach it.
Our culture is formed by shared experiences, and as teacher we are able to play a role in forming that culture. It gives us a common bond—a common experience. I'd love for you to share your favorites in the comments section.