Every year, for some time now, I have made the habit of beginning the school year presenting Teaching The Classics to my small group classes. Just yesterday, someone asked me again, why? And how does that work exactly, since it appears to have only six lessons?
Teaching the Classics introduces literary analysis. It truly introduces the student (and many times the parent) to the world of thinking about and writing about great literature. It does this by applying each lesson and Socratic questioning to children’s stories and poems such a “Peter Rabbit,” “A Bargain For Francis,” and “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.”
The Key is the Appendix
Sometimes, these lessons are a review of plot structure, character, conflict, and themes. More often than not, students don’t know many literary devices outside of alliteration, rhyme, similes, and metaphors. The Socratic questions in the Appendix of the Teaching the Classics Notebook, list a method for students to question themselves while reviewing the meaning of more complex literary devices such as juxtaposition, anaphora, and epistrophe.
Teaching Students to Ask Themselves the Questions
The questions probe the student to think deeper about the text. Whereas, it may be simple enough to ask a student about the setting, in which they may rattle off the time period and country, the book asks more advanced students to probe further. Now the student must ask themselves, does the hot tropical climate contribute to the events in the story? Is this climate/setting symbolic of something even greater? How does this differ from what is normal? Think of stories with extreme settings and how that setting contributes to the plot. The jungle setting of “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” contributes to the story and gives a deeper picture of an English family living in India. I remember reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novel “The Long Winter” aloud to my children. We were all cold and we could feel their desperation and hunger. How did that setting contribute to the setting, plot and even characters of that story? Or the powerfully dreadful heat in “A Passage To India?”
Context is King
Although students were familiar with some devices and setting, they were stumped when I asked them about context. Quizzical looks peered from every face. Then, nearly word-for-word, I reenacted Adam Andrews insightful lesson using “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” This lesson, so important for understanding authorship, their motives, and meaning, is best taught by Mr. Andrews. Interestingly, having graduated from UCLA with an English degree featuring British Studies, I didn’t truly understand the depth of context and authorship until listening to this lesson. You notice, I’m not giving the whole lesson away here. You truly must get your hands on the program and add it to any of your literature teaching today.
Helping Students Connect the Dots
Once I’ve worked through these simple lessons with my students, we begin the study of great literature. As we read, I can reach back (and I often do) to these key ideas we brought up at the beginning of the year. Because of our lesson in context, my students were able to research and better understand the motives and purposes of the author. How rich to understand that “The Cay” was written by someone who personally knew and was influenced by Martin Luther King Jr. Interestingly, students realized “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” was conveniently written after the civil war. Students examined the society of Jules Verne which clarified his progressive views for a traditional time in “Around the World in 80 Days.” Students learned not only about the stories themselves, but the stories behind the stories; a richly colored fabric which started with a single thread. So begin your year with what may seem like a simple program, but know it will prove to enrich and decorate your literary world forever.