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Pop Fiction No Match For Classic Literature

Voice of ExperienceEducator Kathleen Modenbach reflects on the growing trend of assigning pop fiction in place of the classics; many teachers do it to keep students happy. Modenbach suggests that teaching classic literature is well worth the extra effort on students' and teachers' parts.

I just finished reading John Steinbeck's East of Eden. Although I've read and taught other Steinbeck novels, I probably never would have picked up this one if Oprah's Book Club had not chosen it. Thrilled she had picked a classic, I read it with my adult reading group and loved it. It reminded me how important it is for English teachers to teach the classics.

True, some classics are required by school districts, but, increasingly, I see teachers making substitutions. In a time when some of my colleagues are turning away from the classics and assigning pop fiction novels because they're easier to read and kids like them, this Steinbeck novel led me to reflect on the advantages of "plowing through" a classic work with students.

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Why wouldn't kids be more interested in "pop fiction"? Given a choice, they'll likely turn down the classic. Newer, inexperienced teachers, without a broad literature background, may feel more secure teaching modern literature. I've also seen teachers cut out the classics because they're tired of hearing their students complain about them -- but at what cost?

Even though teaching the classics might require a little more teacher and student effort, I think that extra effort is totally worthwhile. Classic fiction stories are just as interesting as their pop counterparts, if not more. The classics provide a great opportunity for higher-level learning because their plots are often more complex and the character development often is richer. The classic works have been around for a long time; their lessons are timeless.

So, when my juniors moaned as I told them we were going to read Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, I still pushed ahead. Everyone loves a good story, I figured. I "hooked" them with the classic's story line: "Hester is a girl who faces a pregnancy in a Puritan society," I told them. "Alone, she protects the father's identity from a judgmental society."

Now what teenager could resist that?


Once hooked, my students want to know more and read more. I can guide them through the story, slipping in some of the higher-level lessons. Together, we reap all the benefits that reading classic literature offers through activities such as the following:

  • Making comparisons. My students had already read Arthur Miller's The Crucible, a required reading that is set in the same time period, so they had an idea of what Hester faced. In Miller's play, students learned how extreme religious beliefs caused lies to destroy innocent people. (That, on its own, can lead to some pretty interesting comparisons to today's world; some things haven't changed much.) Through discussions about their own experiences, and reflection about The Crucible, my students were able to relate to Hester's situation.
  • Writing. I am able to challenge my students to write in-depth essays to support themes we have discussed in class; or perhaps they might choose to develop longer essays comparing The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible.
  • Modeling good writing and grammar. Hawthorne's half-page, complex sentences didn't "wow" my juniors, but we read a few key paragraphs together and discussed themes and vocabulary. We then connected the themes to events in the story. Students also defined select vocabulary from the novel. Struggling readers especially benefited from that.
  • Higher-level learning. Classics such as The Scarlet Letter enable me to teach about the characters' relationships and motivations. By analyzing and making inferences, students can learn to judge characters' good or evil tendencies.

After finishing the novel, I arranged students in small groups. Each group discussed the four main characters and chose one character students felt was responsible for the most suffering in the novel and one character students felt represented "good." When each group presented its findings to the class, we had a very lively discussion. Scholarly arguments even broke out between groups as they attempted to justify their picks.

Now isn't that a teacher's dream? What more could I possibly ask?


Don't get me wrong. I also find time to work current literature into my curriculum. I assign high-interest and recreational reading now and then. In addition, my district assigns required summer reading for each grade level, which includes a wide range of popular fiction titles (as well as some classics.) In addition, most anthologies used in schools include a wide choice of modern and classic short stories and poetry.

Another thing I like to do is to match a classic work with a more modern piece of literature that contains similar themes, or with its modern counterpart in movie form. Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story, for example, though set in very different times and places, present similar plots, character types, and situations. The Taming of the Shrew and Ten Things I Hate About You, as well as Jane Austin's Imma and Clueless, are other good matches. Students easily relate to the movie characters' up-to-date dilemmas; it helps them better understand the classic themes. They write essays comparing the two versions. Later, they will be better prepared to tackle a comparison of two pieces of classic literature, as my students did with The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible.

But pop fiction in any form is no substitute for the classics. Even struggling readers, who may not read the whole novel, learn much more by tackling a classic.

Recently, one of my juniors viewed a movie version of The Scarlet Letter and announced to the class that it was terrible. "They got the whole thing wrong," he said. In his mind, he truly understood Hawthorne's central themes. I think he made my point.

Kathleen Modenbach is an English teacher in Louisiana's St. Tammany Parish Schools. She teaches at Northshore High School and writes for The Times Picayune in New Orleans.

Article by Kathleen Modenbach
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