Romeo and Juliet, Jane Eyre, The Scarlet Letter—these books have been taught in high schools around the country for generations and served as a rite of passage for most high school students as they worked their way to graduation. But they have more in common than just that. All of these works were written prior to 1850. They rarely land among teens’ top-10 reading lists and are amidst the most searched novels on Sparknotes.
As classics such as those books continue to cycle through English classes, and students continue to turn to translators such as Sparknotes, Shmoop and Gradesaver, it is time that high schools replace these classics which according to the National Council of Teachers of English have been on an unfluctuating rotation since the 1960s with contemporary novels.
Common Core, the outline for which 48 out of 50 states structure their curriculum, has goals that can be summarized as: students should be able to cite strong evidence to support analysis of a text, analyze a theme and complex character development throughout a book. Students should have the ability to analyze an author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story. Nowhere in Common Core does it require certain texts to be taught.
The main argument against replacing the classics, is that the challenge of having to interpret and analyze texts from Shakespeare, Dickens, etc. is the true test and objective of reading these novels. After all, that is the main objective of the Common Core standards that were just listed. However, today’s students are a different monster. Armed with a smartphone and the world wide web, clarity and analysis of a difficult text is just a click away. As seen by teachers in Chicago’s District 214 public schools, a common theme among classes was that teachers were almost always having to significantly rephrase and interpret the texts at every level.
In math classes, there is a trial and update of textbooks with problems and new methods to better teach and engage students. In science classes, to help students comprehend topics, students participate in fun labs to help teach students in a fun and engaging way. In history classes, the watching of documentaries and analyzation of texts that dive into naturally interesting parts of history, interests students. But English classes have coveted the same rotation of books as in the ‘60s. An update would help students ability to analyze, so teachers can teach the important concepts that kids need to learn, without the aid of the internet.
It is common sense that a student who is interested and engaged in a lesson will learn better than one whose mind is concentrated on the liberation of the bell. Shifting to books that land on teen reading lists, but contain subversive themes, complex characters and intricacies which can be analyzed would greatly benefit the students. But most of all, students who can understand and get invested in a book to which they can more relate to and understand, accomplishes the goal of Common Core without the need to turn to the internet. When Glenbrook South English teacher David Knudson implemented the 2007 sci-fi novel Unwind instead of Hamlet, the problem went from kids being disinterested to kids who were reading ahead or had finished the novel within a week of starting.
Overall, classes can meet the Common Core standards with books that students are interested in, and teachers can implement the important lessons to students without the need for interpretation or the internet. The solution is simple—replace the classics with the contemporary.