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.


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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Look for an upcoming Christmas-themed book from St. Martin’s Press later in 2014. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday January 4th 2011, 1:44 AM
Comment by: Amy Alice C. (Macon, GA)
"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." Thank you for so profoundly stating this truth. As an ESL/EFL teacher, I am likely more acutely aware of the role of teacher in shaping and influencing culture and I think it is a role of the teacher that is taken too lightly or not considered at all when developing or selecting materials and coursework. I commend you for raising awareness for the job of teachers in shaping cultural identity of our young people.
Tuesday January 4th 2011, 7:55 AM
Comment by: Leslie V. (St. John's Canada)
I agree that shared reading can shape a generation, that well chosen literature is a springboard to discussion and a cornerstone for understanding our world. It concerns me that everything on your list--like everything my stepson reads in high school--is more than fifty years old. I read most of your list in high school--when those works were 30 years younger. There has been so much significant writing done in the past three decades, and the world has changed substantially; wouldn't it do our kids a favor to start introducing newer work more relevant to the world they know?
Tuesday January 4th 2011, 10:01 AM
Comment by: Cameron Reddy (Ann Arbor, MI)
I intended yo give this article five stars but my finger (I'm using an iPhone) goofed and hit 3 stars. I love finding out what people consider classic pieces of literature.
Tuesday January 4th 2011, 12:11 PM
Comment by: Esther D. (Virginia Beach, VA)
I enjoyed this list. Leslie V's comment is one that we teachers need to consider. As we are now part of a "global community," I think American students need more exposure to authors from other regions of the world, such as Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East. This will help our students gain cultural understanding, even if they are not able to speak as many languages as students from some other parts of the world!
Tuesday January 4th 2011, 11:57 PM
Comment by: paul B. (jackson, MS)
I love your list. It is certainly a great start. We all need to read more of the great works of literature.
Friday January 7th 2011, 3:02 AM
Comment by: Mo (Wanganui New Zealand)
As an art teacher I believe that reading informs thinking. I have tried giving a list of books such as; Kerouac's On the road, and russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, also Black like me and Women who run with wolves to name just a few but have meet with the statement - if i wanted to read i would have taken english. the sad fact is they don't read foe english much either and then only the ones that will give them the grades.
One day they may remeber one of the books and read it but i am happy if they watch DVD's of master literature.
Friday January 7th 2011, 3:31 PM
Comment by: Nora F.
Leslie V.: note that Ms. Dunaway says "some things stand up to the test of time while others simply wash away."
In addition to the works you were required to study in school and which were topical then but the present teaching of which you object to because they are now 30 yrs old-- if you received a well balanced education in literature then you undoubtedly also studied works from much farther back in the history of meaningful literature than a mere 30 years.
In other times and other societies it was considered essential to build upon the collected wisdom of the past. Note that I say 'build upon', by which I mean that we have expected newer younger generations to add their own hard work and individual valuable insights to what has gone before and to constantly re-view and to separate the wheat from the chaff.
You can't build anything on a vacuum .
Too many of today's parenting generation would toss away everything that has gone before them.
To avoid making blatant and unpleasant direct accusations I will just say that such a direction does not present itself as being either wise or humble--and nor does it truly serve our younger people, those upon whom we count to continue a progression of the human race.
Friday January 7th 2011, 5:53 PM
Comment by: Leslie V. (St. John's Canada)
Anonymous, I fear you misconstrued my point. Of course any good education must be based on a solid foundation of old and older works, but just as it is dangerous to throw away past wisdom, it is equally dangerous to presume that all wisdom stopped presenting itself in literature many decades ago. A solid and engaging curriculum should build on the past AND tie into the present, so that our youth understand the connections, and develop a desire to keep learning and reading good literature as they move into their future.
Friday January 7th 2011, 8:03 PM
Comment by: Nora F.
Leslie V you are right--I did not see, in your initial comment, the point you now make that "a solid and engaging curriculum should build on the past AND tie into the present, so that our youth understand the connections....".
What I thought I read was a statement to the effect of "...the world has changed substantially; wouldn't it do our kids a favor to start introducing newer work more relevant to the world they know....".

The "world" may have changed in many aspects but I don't believe human nature has changed all that much since Eliot, Twain, Yeats, Voltaire, Flaubert, Blake, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dante, Virgil etc. penned observations and directives which passed the test of time both in impact of style and in "relevance to the world".
I'm willing to bet that of works written in the past 3 decades maybe 5 percent of them will be deemed to be of lasting value 40, 50 years from now.
But then I am a dinosaur and as such my leanings (formed by those I consider to be literary giants --including some whose publications were contemporary with my own studies) are either not relevant to the world today's youth understand most easily , or I won't be around to collect on my bet....
Meanwhile I thank Ms. Dunaway for sharing some of her personal favorites from one of the eras she teaches. (I missed reading that she saw value only in literature of the early 80s and none in anything before or after.) It has been nice to be reminded of some of those works and why they are timeless.
Anonymous (aka Marksma)
Friday January 7th 2011, 8:03 PM
Comment by: Nora F.
Leslie V you are right--I did not see, in your initial comment, the point you now make that "a solid and engaging curriculum should build on the past AND tie into the present, so that our youth understand the connections....".
What I thought I read was a statement to the effect of "...the world has changed substantially; wouldn't it do our kids a favor to start introducing newer work more relevant to the world they know....".

The "world" may have changed in many aspects but I don't believe human nature has changed all that much since Eliot, Twain, Yeats, Voltaire, Flaubert, Blake, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dante, Virgil etc. penned observations and directives which passed the test of time both in impact of style and in "relevance to the world".
I'm willing to bet that of works written in the past 3 decades maybe 5 percent of them will be deemed to be of lasting value 40, 50 years from now.
But then I am a dinosaur and as such my leanings (formed by those I consider to be literary giants --including some whose publications were contemporary with my own studies) are either not relevant to the world today's youth understand most easily , or I won't be around to collect on my bet....
Meanwhile I thank Ms. Dunaway for sharing some of her personal favorites from one of the eras she teaches. (I missed reading that she saw value only in literature of the early 80s and none in anything before or after.) It has been nice to be reminded of some of those works and why they are timeless.
Anonymous (aka Marksma)
Friday January 7th 2011, 8:03 PM
Comment by: Nora F.
Leslie V you are right--I did not see, in your initial comment, the point you now make that "a solid and engaging curriculum should build on the past AND tie into the present, so that our youth understand the connections....".
What I thought I read was a statement to the effect of "...the world has changed substantially; wouldn't it do our kids a favor to start introducing newer work more relevant to the world they know....".

The "world" may have changed in many aspects but I don't believe human nature has changed all that much since Eliot, Twain, Yeats, Voltaire, Flaubert, Blake, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dante, Virgil etc. penned observations and directives which passed the test of time both in impact of style and in "relevance to the world".
I'm willing to bet that of works written in the past 3 decades maybe 5 percent of them will be deemed to be of lasting value 40, 50 years from now.
But then I am a dinosaur and as such my leanings (formed by those I consider to be literary giants --including some whose publications were contemporary with my own studies) are either not relevant to the world today's youth understand most easily , or I won't be around to collect on my bet....
Meanwhile I thank Ms. Dunaway for sharing some of her personal favorites from one of the eras she teaches. (I missed reading that she saw value only in literature of the early 80s and none in anything before or after.) It has been nice to be reminded of some of those works and why they are timeless.
Anonymous (aka Marksma)
Sunday January 9th 2011, 3:18 PM
Comment by: Cheryl S. (Cambridge, MA)
All of these are good things to read. However, I note that only one author is a woman. There are so many terrific works by women for students in the age range you mention that could be included. Over and over, we learn that a woman's point of view is different from a man's and certainly no less important. Hope you'll try for more balance in your next list.
Sunday January 9th 2011, 5:37 PM
Comment by: Nora F.
Oh dear me.
There are very reasonable explanations for the fact that historically most published literature was by men--
they are same ones as explain the preponderance of male composers, male musicians, male politicians, doctors, etc., (and why I was denied the opportunity to work outside the home.).
Those conditions have changed--part of the outer changing of the world as noted by an above commentator.
The teacher whose sharing initiated this discussion merely said that her favorite era to teach was a certain period prior to the present one.

While some of those responsible for teaching our young are busy demanding focus on what is temporarily au courant and so anxious to be politically correct, you might also focus your defensiveness on further "representation":
In addition to demanding that at least 50 % of the works be by female authors (probably more, just to affirm the action), why not also insist that 20 % of them be Hispanic, 10% of Asian descent, 15% First Nation, maybe 40% black.....Also deny teachers any opportunities to follow specialized interests.
In the process you will be denying my grandchildren the best in the history of literature. In the long run that will probably be okay: Mother Nature seems to be extraordinarily forgiving whenever a particular species stops going from strength to strength and suffers an evolutionary slowdown--but from my own myopic little point in time I find it more difficult than does she to be so accomodating.
Let us blame my antiquated education for teaching me which things should matter......

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Michele Dunaway argues that the art of letter-writing has been abandoned.
To get students excited about books, choosing the right literature is key.
Michele continues her discussion about how to get students excited to read.