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Why Teach Classic Novels In Homeschool?

Updated on December 29, 2013

In my classes for homeschool students, I teach Language Arts using classic literature. So what exactly makes a book or poem classic? Why teach classics? Once you decide you are going to teach classics, how do you approach them?

Simply stated, books become classics by standing the test of time. Most bestsellers lapse into obscurity after a blitz of popularity, and some books that didn’t sell particularly well right after publication are recognized later. By definition, classics have been around for awhile.

Longevity translates to three facts about classic novels:

  • The writing itself is high quality.
  • The story does not take place in the present.
  • The content is valuable outside its own immediate time.

The first two make classics challenging for students. The third is the key to engaging them.

Novels are the backbone of an English curriculum

In this hub I focus on novels, because they are the foundation of a literature curriculum. Although novels are fairly new on the scene, dependent as they are on cheap printing and paper, these relatively long works have become the dominent form of literature in our culture. When is the last time you bought a book of poems to read for fun? But I will bet you bought a novel, or borrowed one from a friend, or go to a book club that reads a novel every month. So I start the curriculum off with a set of novels, along with a drama or two, and then add short stories and poems. I like to connect the shorter works to the longer ones if at all possible. Here are a couple of examples:

  • When teaching The Great Gatsby, I start off with Fitzgerald's short story Winter Dreams. Then we can look at differences and similarities between the characters and themes in the two works.
  • While teaching Homer's Odyssey, I bring in poems about Odyssey's characters. In particular, looking at how the perception of these ancient characters has changed over time is very interesting.
  • When teaching Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, I also have them read Steinbeck's The Pearl, a novella of less than 100 pages. When read close together, the themes of working people overwhelmed by larger economic forces in these two very different settings is powerful. Also, I point out that both stories end with the death of a baby, and see what students make of this parallel.

Why are classics hard?

A book doesn’t make it to classic status without high quality writing, and in many cases that means varied vocabulary, complex sentence structure, use of symbolism, and layers of meaning. All of these elements can challenge students, especially when first exposed to classics.

For all the talk about multiculturalism, learning about how people in the past lived and thought is neglected. As Sherlock Holmes said, “The past is another country, they do things differently there.” It may be a country we came from, but young people focus on now. I don’t see this as a character flaw; their brains and their bodies tell them that now is the main concern. Our job as educators is to bring the past to them, to make it relevant. (Or in the case of a science fiction or fantasy classic, our job is to help them make sense of an alternate world, which is grounded in the concerns of a past time.)

Appeal to students' interests

One way to draw students into the world of the classics is by appealing to an existing interest. Build a bridge between now, that time so important to them, and classic literature. As much as any group, writers stand on the shoulders of giants. Today’s bestsellers didn’t spring fully formed from the head of Barnes & Noble: they owe a debt to a long tradition. Start with interest – perhaps modern books your students find engaging, or current events that interest them – and work your way backwards.

For example, many young people enjoy Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. The novels are valuable reading on their own for Tolkien’s masterful use of language, and for the interesting questions they raise, and they are considered classics. But you can also use Rings to teach your students a little aboout Icelandic Saga. The rhythms and themes of Lord of the Rings derive from the Sagas, prose histories written in the 11th and 12th centuries about the people who had explored and settled Iceland, Greenland and Vinland. The Sagas are an important part of Western literature, influencing our culture right down to the present. Hearing that people in Iceland wrote some stories 900 years ago probably won’t strike your student as terribly relevant, but if you start with The Hobbit, and then add in the information about the Sagas and why they matter to Middle Earth – well, then you have their attention.

Before Tolkien: 11th century Icelandic Saga

A viking era book containing Norse sagas.
A viking era book containing Norse sagas. | Source

Give them more information

Another way to capture interest is intriguing information about the world of the novel. For example, a little instruction about the Depression Era South raises the stakes and the tension level for students reading To Kill a Mockingbird. A brief lesson about the realities of the Jim Crow Laws brings a multitude of details from the novel into focus, things students might simply pass over without this context. And the simple fact that during the decades between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Act, 4,742 Black people died by lynching in the American South ratchets the tension of the nighttime scene in front of the jail from quiet to explosive.

On a lighter note, Aunt Alexandra of To Kill a Mockingbird has a famously sour temper which gets even worse on Sundays - a result of wearing a corset to church. So treat your students to a little historical tour through the inanities of corset culture. Poor Aunt Alexandra's snipping and sniping will suddenly make alot more sense.

"18 inch waist, I'm almost there!"


Rock the classics!

Remember that students will get so much more out of classics with your support. Help with some of the unfamiliar vocabulary. Toss in some intriquing historical tidbits. Round things out by anchoring this particular classic in the world of literature by mentioning things like author, time period and genre. Introduce them to the world of classics - you will be glad you did!

Classics I Recommend for Different Grade Levels

Middle School
Early High School
Late High School
The Hobbit
The Count of Monte Cristo
The Grapes of Wrath
A Wrinkle in Time
The Great Gatsby
Homer's Odyssey
The Good Earth
To Kill a Mockingbird
Pride and Prejudice
Tales of Edgar Allen Poe
Lord of the Flies
Chronicles of Narnia
Romeo and Juliet
The Giver
David Copperfield

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