I am a teacher. Teaching literature to eleventh and twelfth graders, it is no surprise to many that students can be difficult to engage with Shakespeare, Homer, or Virgil. The language is difficult to decipher, the story — as a result — is difficult to discern, and the purpose for reading dead, old guys is too subtle. The stories do not have to be, though. Five tips can make any literature interesting to students.
1. Story first. One of the first difficulties your students face is trying to solve the three above problems at the same time. Give the story first. Let them read a modernized or children’s version of the story, even watch a movie if available and appropriate. Not only will spoilers not ruin the reading for them, it will actually help them to focus on one task at a time.
2. Focus on the language. Once they know the story, they can focus on deciphering the older, more poetic English that is so unfamiliar to them. This is good; it stretches their minds and raises their level of thinking in ways modernized English does not-especially in a world of texting and Tweeting shorthand. Deciphering the language is less daunting if they can do it without having to discern the story at the same time.
3. Give them purpose. The purpose of reading these stories is not always apparent. Give them something to look for. Invite them to ask a question they need answered by the text. Should Hamlet have listened to the king’s ghost? Should Achilles have withdrawn from battle?
4. Invite them to explain. Students are often unimpressed by the teacher who can tell them everything a story means. That’s your job, but it won’t be theirs. Instead, ask them questions about their question. Have they picked a side on whether Hamlet should listen to the king’s ghost? Why that choice? Details about setting, characters, and plot will come out in these discussions.
5. Let them engage one another. When trying to answer their questions through discussing the text, they will go to great lengths to persuade their peers (an important point because that is more interesting than persuading you), which will drive them back to the text again and again.
As I’ve practiced these five tips, I’ve found the students are more interested in and more capable of grasping these works. They end up reading the text more closely because they want to persuade their peers of a point. The conversations that are had, and the understanding that is gained, makes teaching a joy-the joy that drove us to become teachers so long ago.