Why should teenagers read classics?

Classics Circuit: Dumas

Today’s post is a part of the Classics Circuit discussing Alexandre Dumas.

Specifically, I’d like to talk about how classic novels and authors can be relevant to our students, even those we consider to be “hard to reach” and who are normally given entirely different curriculum, foregoing the classics altogether. I’m going to be using the works of Alexandre Dumas to illustrate my point about how classic works can be useful – and, indeed, essential – in the lives of teenagers.

A bit of background:

I teach at an inner-city Toronto high school that is sometimes referred to as a “last chance” school. We cater to students who have not succeeded in mainstream schools for a variety of reasons, including attendance issues, low credit accumulation and literacy, behavioural problems, recurring suspensions or expulsions, and simply not adapting well to the structure and environment of large schools. There are approximately 200 students on the roll at our school (about 100 maximum in the building on any given day), whereas the closest other high schools easily have over 1500. This means that we tend to get to know our students very well, and it’s a much smaller, community-based atmosphere. It also means that the challenges faced by our students are amplified, making them loud and clear to anyone who steps foot in the building.

One of the first things that I was told when I started working here was that most of our students can’t read. There is a province-wide literacy test that all Ontario students must write – and pass – in order to graduate high school. Last year, 30% of the eligible students at our school passed the test. On the surface, that means that 1 in 3 students at our school are considered to have basic literacy skills.

That statistic is a bit misleading, though. In reality, far fewer than 1/3 of our students are functioning at a basic literacy level. This is because the number of “eligible students” does not include those students who:

  • have already written and failed the test, but have decided to take the grade 10 “Literacy Skills” course before attempting the test again
  • are exempt because of special education status, such as MID (Mild Intellectual Delay) designation; note that not all special education students are exempt from writing the test
  • have deferred the writing of the test for various reasons (such as ESL status, illness, etc.)
  • have already written and failed the test more than once, and have decided to take the grade 12 “Ontario Secondary School Literacy Skills Course” (OSSLC) as an alternative to passing the standardized test

Needless to say, then, that the students at my school are by and large working at very low literacy levels. As an estimate, we think that most of our students are reading at somewhere between a grade 1 and grade 5 reading level, despite being 14-20 years old.

What our students are typically given to read:

Students today, not just those at my current school, read a lot of books that we would never consider to be “great literature” by any stretch of the imagination. We have a tendency to focus on reluctant readers, basically giving in to let them read anything they want, even if not a single book they read in their entire childhood is a “classic”.

Take my workplace for example. A student here will not read a single piece of “literature” from the time they enter grade nine to the time they graduate or otherwise leave the school. We teach them English primarily using short pieces of text, newspapers, films, and maybe some children’s graphic novels and high-low books scattered about. It is an anomaly if a student reads a “classic” of any kind – from Shakespeare to Dickens to Twain to Atwood or anywhere in between. Instead, our students are given works appropriate to their reading level, not just for recreational reading but for academic reading as well.

The problem with some “young adult” fiction:

Now, I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with young adult fiction in general. It has its place, and some of it is quite good. If all of our students read things like Harry Potter or Twilight and then moved on to read “adult” books, even if only in the guided reading setting of a classroom, I would be happy. The thing is, though, that this isn’t always happening.

Part of the problem is that we assume that anything marketed as “young adult” fiction is going to be interesting to teenagers. There is a tendency, however, for some teen fiction to be … well, fluffy and overly simplified. More than once, I’ve heard a student say, “Miss, what is this, a little kid book?” In some cases, young adult literature – especially of the high/low variety – can be borderline insulting. What teenager is going to develop a love of reading if they feel insulted by the books we give them?

What students want from a book:

First and foremost, students want to read something that is interesting. They don’t want to read something just because it’s “classic” or has been famous for hundreds of years. They want to be entertained; if they’re not, then there are many other things besides reading that will draw their attention instead.

Students often want to read about people or situations that they can relate to. For example, at my current school, the books taken out the most by students are about characters who have difficult home lives, or those who live in poverty-stricken neighbourhoods, or those who are struggling with issues like teen pregnancy, substance abuse, or violence. Teenagers like to read things that let them know they are not alone, that other people suffer from the same problems that they have.

How classic books fit this bill:

No matter how old they are, “classics” deal with stories, characters, themes, and conflicts that are still relevant today.

Some readers want to read about subjects relevant to them, like I said above. There are plenty of classics that deal with broken homes, poor living conditions, murder, corruption … the list goes on! Even though the names and places might be different, and the time period has changed, the central themes, problems, and ideas are the same.

Other readers want to go to other places and times, to learn or experience new things or simply to escape real life for a while. Why do you think that Harry Potter and Twilight are so interesting to teenagers right now? There are piles of classics that will take teenage readers to different places and times, books that are just as exciting, interesting, and fascinating as some of the most popular “young adult” books of today.

This is not even to mention all of the other benefits that “classics” have for the next generation – and ours, as well. You can read about these benefits all over the place, including here and here.

Alexandre Dumas as a case-in-point:

I’m going to preface this by saying: not all teenagers can read Dumas. This doesn’t mean, however, that they can’t still learn from him.

The students at my school are a perfect example. I’d be hard-pressed to find a student who could decipher the surface meaning of most classics in their original form, never mind want to read them in their entirety. We can always do other things with them, though, like reading abridged or children’s versions of the stories, or even by watching the films and discussing the kinds of themes and issues that we would otherwise talk about in the context of the books.

Either way, though, the relevance is the same. The themes that Dumas weaves into his novels are quite relevant and interesting to teenagers today. I think that many teenagers would absolutely love the stories and conflicts that he presents, and I’d like to tell you a little bit about why.

Probably the most famous (among both the young and old) of Dumas’ novels is The Three Musketeers. Even if people haven’t read the story, or if they can’t name the musketeers, they’ve definitely heard the title somewhere. When you’re trying to “sell” this book (or film) to teenagers, there are certain things you can play up. You can talk about the fact that Dumas is writing about a time when France is in trouble, and try to attract students who are interested in political intrigue or assassination. You could also try to attract students by emphasizing the focus on friendship and betrayal. Finally, for some teenagers – usually, but not always, boys – you could focus on the swordfighting. There’s something for everyone! Once you’ve got them hooked, the magic of The Three Musketeers will keep them until the bitter end.

There are other, possibly deeper, themes that can be explored in The Count of Monte Cristo. Even if the students/teenagers are not reading the book in its entirety, or studying it on its own, you can use excerpts – or the film – to reinforce key concepts. Dumas’ work is a great forum for discussion about naming, death and suicide, politics, and the fairness of the justice and class systems. Even though teenagers obviously won’t relate to the literal situation of The Count of Monte Cristo, they can still relate to the overall ideas and conflicts, from love and happiness to justice, isolation, betrayal, and revenge. There’s something for everyone!

Summing it all up:

No matter where they come from or what they’re dealing with, teenagers of all backgrounds and skill levels can find something relevant to their lives in classics, and in Dumas in particular. I really think that we need to stop “dumbing it down” for our students, as we’re doing them a real injustice. They need to see themselves and their struggles as part of a bigger picture, knowing that they’re not alone and that others have come before them. It would also be beneficial for them to see how other people – fictional or real, for better or for worse – dealt with these same conflicts. They need something better to read than just high-low books that insult their intelligence.

We need to challenge them. That’s how they will learn and grow.

4 thoughts on “Why should teenagers read classics?”

  1. Wow, this post really made me think. As a Canadian, it is so sad that so many children don’t have the basic literacy skills. I do believe that children need to be challenged, and respected. If they feel that they are only given “children’s” books because they are a lost cause, that will never help them. They need books to inspire and challenge them. The right classic can certainly do that.

    This reminds me of the movie “Freedom Writers.” The students were given the books with missing pages, the condensed version and never given a chance. Once the books were explained in a way they could relate, they were much more willing to read.

    With that said, i’m a new follower. Your blog is great!

  2. Very thought provoking post. And I completely agree with one of your most important points — I think it’s critical to get students to get books that they can relate to. However, I think so many students are forced to read classics that they can’t relate to AT ALL, they wind up hating them. Sadly, I didn’t read many classics in school (crappy teachers, I’m convinced) but I have friends who absolutely hate certain classics that I love — but I didn’t read them until I was an adult. What 15 year old can relate to Ethan Frome, or Madame Bovary?

  3. What a great post! You make a lot of excellent points. I completely agree that to get anyone interested in reading you have to give them something that will interest them and that they will relate to. I wish I had read this or had a teacher like you in school because I avoided classics like the plague! I am really only getting in to them now, and very slowly. Have you tried this with your students? How have they responded?

    Btw this post reminded me of a section in this post over at The Book Lady’s Blog where she discusses the same thing.

  4. I can totally see Dumas’s Three Musketeers as something teenage boys would love! It’s so exciting. Totally see what Karen is saying too about reading it at the wrong time and thererfore hating classics. And in my opinion Three Musketeers does need an editor pretty badly. But I do hope there are versions of it that your high school students could love!

    I was just talking to a friend who teaches a speech/delayed learning class in junior high and she reads a lower-reading level abridgment of Three Musketeers with them. So apparently it is a great story for adaptation!

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