Sunday, July 14, 2013

Why Dickens?

I had several reasons for deciding to use A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens with my 8th graders. Years ago I had read this article in English Journal about teaching Great Expectations over the course of a school year, and I had always wanted to try that approach. I had dropped Call of the Wild and Tom Sawyer from the 8th grade curriculum when I took it over and only kept whichever Shakespeare play I felt like teaching. We had moved To Kill A Mockingbird to 7th grade. Parents and administrators were generally happy with our progress, but I would still occasionally get that look that asked why I wasn't teaching more real books. We had also combined our reading and writing courses with social studies, and were working toward an integrated course that we called humanities, which meant that every choice was up in the air, and so I was looking for readings that supplemented our study of history, government, geography, and current events.

Do you see where I'm going with this?

I would like, at this point, to claim that my proposed 8th grade humanities theme of Revolution led me directly to A Tale of Two Cities, but I totally missed the obvious. Instead, I knew that I couldn't teach Great Expectations because the high schools teach it pretty regularly. (After this first year, I realize that reading the book twice wouldn't actually be a bad thing in the long run, and might be awesome, but that's a topic for another post.) I picked TOTC because most of Dickens' books were too long, even for a year-long course. It was only later that I realized that the conflicts that led to the French Revolution, and even the idea of a revolution itself, would fit perfectly with the other themes of our course.

And why, ultimately, did I decide to add Dickens after years of choice, YA, and more choice? Honestly, I did it to shut people up stop the questions. Because no matter what the kids' test scores were (very high), no matter how many placed into honors (a lot), and no matter how many 14-year-old boys embraced reading reading and more reading, I was still getting questions, and I knew that telling people we were going to read Dickens would stop the questions.

And it did.

Now the challenge was to read it without killing all the things that were already working in our classroom.

Currently reading: Thirst by Mary Oliver
Why I'm reading it: Because she's one of my favorite poets. And today, as I struggle to understand last night's verdict, seems like a day for poetry.

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