The Great Gatsby and Jersey Shore

Many students avoid reading the required texts in high school English classes.  Thanks to Sparknotes, students can easily find thorough summaries and analysis of chapters of everything from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to A Wrinkle in Time.  Even before Sparknotes was available, students found various strategies to slide by without reading: talk to friends who actually did the reading, purchase the Cliffnotes pamphlets, or just listen in class and piece the book together. 

Although I cannot remember all of the books I read in middle school and high school, I’d like to think I read most of them.  One book I definitely did not read was Giants in the Earth by O. E. Rolvaag.  Anyone remember that one?  Hint: Tish-ah! Tish-ah!

Now as an English teacher, I have accepted the challenge of presenting classic novels like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye to students in way that entices them to be read.  Typically, a timeless idea, theme, or “essential question” emerges that still relates to teenagers. 

For example, my American Literature class of juniors is just about to start The Great Gatsby, so I first posed the question, Does money buy happiness? 

Pulling out the beliefs students have about money, happiness, success, and “things” puts them in a certain frame of mind.  I also draw lots of connections between the 1920s and Jersey Shore.  This also sets them up for better understanding the general feeling of carelessness and decadence of the 20s.  When I first taught this book five years ago, I compared Daisy to Paris Hilton.  I’m sure there will be some other careless female celebrity who I’ll be comparing Daisy to five years from now. 

Pop quiz: What is the definition of archetype? (see answer below)

I have no idea if this is how my teachers organized their units around texts, but this seems to work for my students.  I do recognize that no matter what I do, how well I frame a new piece of literature, or how excited I am about a book, some students will not read.  This makes me sad because the classic texts like Of Mice and Men and Romeo and Juliet unite people and provide a shared experience.  Also, consider how many allusions to classic texts are in media; The Simpsons, Family Guy, and Saturday Night Live have all frequently used books from the canon as a basis for an episode or skit.  If you ever have the chance to see the SNL spoof on Of Mice and Men with John Malkovich and Chris Farley, it is fantastic.  Sadly, SNL is amazing an taking down clips that appear on youtube.  Last year, I found it and showed it to my freshmen after we had finished the novel.  Two days later, it was gone. 😦

I’m certainly no expert on the classic pieces and admittedly have not read many of them.  The Sun Also Rises, The Grapes of Wrath, and Anna Karenina all wait patiently for me to pick them up. 

If I tried to read Giants in the Earth again now, I might actually enjoy it.  That’s the amazing thing about the classics; they are timeless and can be read again and again.  All of the stuff I have went through in the last twelve years, both good and bad, will change how I read and understand a book.  Now…if I could just find more time in the day to read….

Question: What books do you remember reading and loving in high school?  What books did you despise?

Answer to pop quiz: a “generic version of a personality” 

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