Alexandra van Milligen teaching at KIPP Collegiate High School

Classic Literature in a Contemporary Classroom

Author: Alexandra van Milligen | MTR Class of 2015

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Ms. van Milligen teaching at KIPP Collegiate High School during her Residency year.

“Find the juiciest part of the story, and use that to market it to the kids.”

This was the advice given to me by my instructional coach when I found out I was teaching The Scarlet Letter, a book I hadn’t read since I was high school. My kids aren’t going to like this, I thought. A bunch of extremely conservative white people living in 17th century Boston? Like many of the books on my curriculum, this is going to be a hard sell.

How can we engage our students in literature that, to them, seems out-dated and culturally irrelevant? In a world where “fun” and “passive entertainment” are synonymous, how can a novel about a Puritan seamstress compete with The Hunger Games?

Through conversations with my coach, I realized we need to convince our students that The Scarlet Letter isn’t only about a Puritan seamstress—it’s also about shame, lust, loyalty, and revenge. If you want students to fully engage with a text, it’s important to first engage them in the elements of the texts that transcend cultural and temporal barriers.

Here are some ways I do that in my classroom:

Part I – Visualizing Complex Concepts

  1. When introducing a new novel, identify between one and four timeless central ideas. If, for example, I’m teaching The Great Gatsby, I’ll focus on success, identity, heroism and the American Dream. These concepts should be at least a little ambiguous to leave plenty of room for students to bring in prior experiences from other books, history, current events, and their own lives.
  2. Formulate an essential question for each concept. For example, I might ask, “How can you tell that someone is successful?” or “Can anyone be successful?”
  3. Give each student a manilla folder and a marker. Have students write a central idea in the center of each page so they are left with room above and below the term.
  4. Once the folders are set up, give students three silent minutes to use the space below the term define the first idea (“success”) using only pictures. Students should use only the marker given to them.
  5. Have students pass their folders one person to the left (or right, or ahead, or behind). Say, “When you have a new folder in front of you, I want you to silently, interpret the picture and compose a single sentence in which you define the term in the center of the page. On this page, your sentence should start with ‘Success is….’”
  6. Take five minutes to discuss the central idea in a large group setting. Have students compare the picture they interpreted to the one they drew.
  7. Repeat steps 4-6 without passing folders back to the original owners. By the end of the exercise, every folder should have four students’ thoughts represented.
  8. At the end of the exercise, explicitly connect the activity to the novel.

Part II – Identifying Foundational Beliefs

  1. Use essential questions generated in Part I (step 2) to create a graphic organizer in which students can a) articulate beliefs, and b) justify with evidence.
  2. Give students clear instructions on what “evidence” is. Many students will be tempted to simply rephrase the question (e.g. “Anyone can be successful in America, because anyone can get what they want in life.”). I use the acronym “CHORES” to help my students think of evidence.

C – Current Events (e.g. “Last week in the news…”)

H – History (e.g. “In 1920…”)

O – Own Experience (e.g. “My mom always says…”)

R – Reading/Literature (e.g. “In Lord of the Flies…”)

E – Entertainment (e.g. “In the movie The Hunger Games…”)

S – Science/Statistics (e.g. “95% of doctors tell us…”)

  1. Use a think-pair-share format to give students time to generate and justify their own opinions before moving into a large group discussion.
  2. At the end of the unit, have students answer questions again–this time from the author’s perspective. At KIPP we call these themes “lasting understandings.” I like to have my kids make posters with a novel’s lasting understandings to put up around the room. It reminds them of the power of literature to change our perspectives.

These activities gives students a forum in which they can visually and linguistically process the big ideas presented in a canonical work. Much like a gallery walk, it allows students to have a silent discussion with their classmates. It also forces students to form independent thoughts before being swayed by the ideas of the group.

One of my favorite teaching moments took place this semester as a student finished the second chapter of The Scarlet Letter. He closed his book, shook his head, and said, “When you think about it, they really just like us.”

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