When it comes to classic books, students often ask me, "Why do we have to read Shakespeare or these other old books?" It's my goal to help them discover the timeless lessons these books offer, which help students gain an understanding of the world and the human condition. Classic literature helps them flex their creative muscle and develop critical thinking skills. Here are some especially powerful books my students love.
We read Shakespeare's Macbeth sophomore year, and I'm used to hearing groans from my students when I first introduce it. To get them a bit more interested, I often begin this unit by telling the classic true story of figure skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, who were both talented Olympic hopefuls. When Kerrigan's knee was brutally clubbed after practice one day, and it was determined that Harding's ex-husband was behind the attack, the public went wild. With this in mind, the class discusses whether ambition is a desirable trait. After reading Macbeth, we talk about how, if left unchecked, ambition can become dangerous and destructive. My students can connect what they learn with contemporary politics and the role ambition plays as a motivator for modern-day politicians.
2. The Catcher in the Rye
When I was in high school, I chose not to read J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye because I thought it was about farming. Big mistake! As an angst-filled teen, I would have loved Holden. Even though my students' backgrounds are very different from the wealthy, prep-schooled protagonist, they still relate to Holden's war on phonies, his obsession with sex and death, and his distrust of adults. They also connect to his quest to find meaning in the world.
Catcher in the Rye still speaks to alienated teenagers, who often view Holden as a kindred spirit. In one class, for example, students remarked that being a phony is still something students are very concerned about. They dislike people who say one thing and do another, or pretend to be something they are not, and they fear being seen in that light. "Being called a fake," Jo told me, "is still one of the worst things someone can call you."
3. A Doll's House
My students usually love to read plays, but when they begin Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, there's not much they initially like about spoiled, arrogant, and frivolous Nora. But as the drama unfolds, they become sucked in by the explorations of trust and betrayal. They relish discussing the gender politics that surround this protofeminist play, and they end up having a newfound respect for Nora.
At the beginning and end of the play, I have students make a list of the desirable traits they seek in a mate. While they initially choose characteristics like "good-looking" and "fun," after reading the play, "trust" and "respect" dominated nearly every list. A Doll's House reveals how far we've come with respect to gender equality, as well as how far we still need to go, and its themes prove especially timely for this generation of teens.
4. A Raisin in the Sun
"What happens to a dream deferred?" This really resonates with my students, who often face discrimination and prejudice because of their racial, ethnic, and/or religious backgrounds. In addition to racial discrimination, Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun deals with the issue of feminism quite effectively, and many of my first- and second-generation immigrant students relate to its questions about assimilation, acculturation, and accommodation. My undocumented students also connect to the themes of the play—especially the poem from which it draws its name. Many of these students came to the U.S. when they were young and now worry that their dreams will be deferred.
Some of the best discussions I've ever witnessed in a classroom have taken place after reading this play. For example, students of color report identifying with the Younger family because they still don't feel welcome in certain neighborhoods. One black student recounted a story of being called a racist name while playing basketball against a team in a wealthier and predominantly white community. "Even the referee, who heard it, ignored it," he said. My student and his coach filed a formal complaint, and while the referee maintained that he hadn't heard the slur, the player from the other team did receive a suspension. Despite this tiny bit of justice, my students confirmed that this sort of discrimination happens all too often.
5. Long Day's Journey Into Night
Though Leo Tolstoy said, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," there's a universality to the themes in Eugene O'Neill's play Long Day's Journey Into Night, which is about the devastating Tyrones. Family is at the heart of the drama, and guilt, blame, and eventually forgiveness saturate nearly every page. In addition, the corrosive effects of Mary's morphine addiction on the Tyrone family is unfortunately familiar to many. Readers can see that love can't always overcome the issues that surround troubled families, but the play's ending provides hope—after all, the night does come to an end and tomorrow is another day. Reading this play often helps my students, especially those that have family members and friends struggling with addiction, cope and see hope for the future.
Reading is still one of the most effective ways for students in engage with one another and the world. Reading classic books helps them better understand themselves and each other, and it helps them answer the difficult questions that life presents. I'm quite certain that these five pieces of classic literature will continue to provide timeless lessons for teens, regardless of their background or generation.