Teaching the Classics in Middle And High School

Even though kids consider classics to be “old”, they have stood the test of time because of their outstanding quality.

The characters, settings and conflicts of these pieces are relatable even hundreds of years after they were published. As teachers, it’s up to us to show students that these texts are truly gems.

In order for students to really appreciate these works of art, they need to comprehend the plot and make connections to the themes and characters. Below are some suggestions for teaching classic pieces of literature to middle and high school students.

Choosing the right text

For many teachers, our curricula dictate which texts we teach. While we may not have much wiggle room when it comes to choosing what woks we use, we do have control over the right type we use based on our student population.

Use the original work. During my time in public schools, I always used the original version of the text. To differentiate, I provided reading comprehension questions to my students and spent time reviewing major characters, plot events, symbols and themes. I also provided students with graphic organizers for writing assignments and to record their notes.

The version I used with my students.

Use alternative resources. Companies are constantly creating new materials to support teachers and students. Personally, I have my own preferences of the alternative texts I’ve used, especially with my struggling readers.

  • Great Illustrated Classics. This is by far my FAVORITE resource to use when working with my population of readers. I remember going to a bookstore out in Pennsylvania with my grandparents growing up and seeing the huge display of these books in the front of the store. It allowed me to read Oliver Twist as a fourth grader because the works are geared towards younger readers. The vocabulary and sentence structure are more simple, and some small details are changed, but the characters and plot events are the same. I will admit, that there were words I didn’t know in the book, but I was able to independently read and understand the books.
  • Textbooks. Years ago, when I did sixth grade curriculum writing, I was super excited to read The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. I was a little surprised to find that the textbook we were using did not include the novel, but rather it had a play version. I did supplement parts of the plot by reading aloud the novel, but my students really enjoyed the play and were able to practice recognizing and interpreting the various literary devices.
  • No Fear Shakespeare by SparkNotes. Unfortunately, I just missed these amazing helpers as a high school student. Many students are so put off by Shakespeare because they get confused with the Old English language. No Fear Shakespeare takes the stress out of figuring out this older wording, allowing kids to comprehend the plays, with minimum effort. Through sparknotes.com, teachers and students can access side-by-side Old and Modern English versions of Shakespeare’s works. FULL TEXT versions :)!
SparkNotes’ No Fear Shakespeare- The Prologue from Romeo and Juliet

Supplemental Aids

Educator’s know that all students learn differently, which is why it’s so important to present information to classes in a variety of ways. Providing different activities to keep students engaged is essential in the classroom.

Unit Plans/Reading Guides. There are TONS of pre-made activities floating around online. A simple Google search will provide you with thousands of results, some free and some you can purchase. Teachers Pay Teachers is a phenomenal resource that always pops up on my Google searches.

I just finished reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with my students, and I used the vocabulary, reading questions and activities from this awesome free reading guide. I LOVE the police report activity for chapter four and made sure to use it with my class. I also paired it with a sample police report and did a mini lesson on formal writing.

Audiobooks. It’s no secret that I’m a HUGE fan of using audiobooks with my students. There’s something magical about listening to someone read a story. YouTube is full of free versions, and I also use Audible if I can’t find exactly what I want on YouTube. For virtual teaching, I prefer to use YouTube so I can post/share the link with my class in case they’re absent or want to go back and re-read. I used this version for Jekyll and Hyde (I did speed up the reading a smidge, which made a big difference).

Film Versions. Again, I LOVE using films and TV shows with my students. Being able to see the story in a visual way helps many with reading comprehension. A popular teacher favorite moving pairing is using The Lion King when teaching Hamlet. As with any form of media, always make sure to check the rating and content before showing a film version. I was all excited to use a Jekyll and Hyde movie on YouTube, until I saw in the comment section that some kind person mentioned an inappropriate scene. Needless to say, I went with a cartoon version instead for my students.

Activities for Teaching the Classics

Every classroom looks different and every teacher is different. What works for one teacher will not work for another, so the ideas listed below are just that, suggestions on how to read classics in the classroom.

  1. Act out scenes (readers theater). I have personally seen this in action with Shakespeare and it’s engaging for students. While kids can read aloud from their seats, there is nothing wrong with taking it up a notch. Include props, have students create a mini set, take a trip to the auditorium and read on the big stage.
  2. Have kids teach the class. Who says the teacher always needs to be at the front of the class? Allow students to get hands-on and create a lesson. Whether kids work individually or in groups, assign them a concept and give them freedom to teach it. I would suggest giving them some creative freedom with this choice and a rubric, so they know what the expectations are.
  3. Virtual field trips. Since field trips may not always be realistic, having a few virtual options is always a great choice. These can be done in-class or for homework and can provide students with some new information about topics relating to the classic text.

Importance of Theme

As with any text, teachers know to focus on plot, characters, conflict, figurative language, quote analysis, etc. We know these works are classics for a reason, and our goal is to show students how magnificent “old” books can be.

Universal themes are truly fantastic, as they can be found in any text, so incorporating these themes into class discussions, writing prompts and homework help students of all ages realize that even though the story is not modern, it deals with similar themes as books today.

Love, good vs. evil, jealousy, friendship, family, etc. can all be seen in classic literature.

For instance, one of my favorite themes of all time is good vs. evil. This can be seen in The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde quite clearly AND it is also seen in the Harry Potter series (especially book seven). Giving students copies of quotes from both works and asking them to write a comparison paragraph explaining how the theme is used and its meaning is a great activity to help students make connections with a classic text.

Classic pieces of literature are timeless for a reason. With modern technology, creative thinking, and the right resources, students of all ages and skill levels can read and enjoy these works of art.

Little Reading Coach is a certified Teacher of English (K-12) and Reading Specialist (P-12) offering online reading,  writing and home-based learning support tutoring services for students in grades 6-12. For more information head to my website.

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