Books I Loved to Teach
Posted on August 15, 2013
It’s already August, and pictures of first days back to school are popping up in my Facebook feed. I miss being a part of the beginning of the school year – decorating my room, prepping the first few weeks of lessons, and gearing up to share my love of writing and literature.
So in honor of those English teachers in their first days of school and the students who are about to read these books for the first time, I thought I’d give a small list of my favorite books or works I loved to teach.
To Kill A Mockingbird: If I had to pick my favorite, it would be TKAM. Not only does it have my favorite character ever in Atticus Finch, it has many facets of history involved. It’s got the Great Depression as its setting, but it also touches on the Civil Rights Movement as the inspirational time period when Harper Lee wrote it. It’s a coming-of-age book, but it lays bare so much of humanity, both the good and the awful. The book remains timeless because we can relate our own current issues to the book. And who doesn’t want to be the kind of hero that Atticus Finch is? Plus, Gregory Peck is cast perfectly as Atticus in the wonderful film that even though it’s black and white always managed to affect my students.
The Odyssey: The journey of Odysseus to get back home after the Trojan War has inspired so much literature and story lines that I love showing students how it all began with Homer’s epic poem written in the 8th Century BC. Students hate reading the classics and anything that old. But they come to see how conflict drives a story as well as get to visit with some awesome monsters. And with the Percy Jackson series being popular, it’s great to show them the original adventures. Plus, I used to draw a mean stick-figure recap on the white board!
Cry, The Beloved Country: Alan Paton’s book brings home the idea of racism in another part of the world and introduces students to the concept of apartheid. They can connect to the letter writing and communication as well as the dysfunctional relationship between father and son. It features the clash of tradition with modernity. The movie with James Earl Jones usually punctuates the importance of the text with students as they can connect the visual of the country and its struggles with the words.
Londonstani: In fairness, this is a book I taught in Intro to Literature at university due to its graphic language and scenes. However, Londonstani is one of those books that affected me so much at the end, I actually threw it across the room (poor book). I won’t give anything away other than it’s about identity. Guatam Malkani wrote it using “Rude Boy” dialect because the language is just as important to the story and the identity of Jas. It takes a bit to get into it, but once students do, they ride the journey to the end. I can always tell who’s finished the book because the student would come up to me wide-eyed and eager to discuss.
Shakespeare: Yes, I am that geeky English teacher who loves Shakespeare. I’ve made the pilgrimage to The Globe Theatre in London and watched a play there (Romeo and Juliet). I’m a Stratfordian, meaning I believe Shakespeare is Shakespeare and not Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford like in the movie Anonymous. When I taught a unit on Shakespeare, we’d break out the sonnets to see how he carefully constructed his ideas about love. We would throw Elizabethan insults at each other. And I would get them to see beyond the words that are at first hard to understand how his plays are always about humanity, and really as humans we haven’t changed that much. Shakespeare makes dirty jokes (bless the 9th grader who picked that up right away for Romeo & Juliet and pointed it out to the whole class). And his story lines are still used today. Imagine the surprise of the class when I revealed Twilight: New Moon was actually R&J as is Warm Bodies that has a current movie adaptation. And don’t get me started on Hamlet. It’s by far his best work, and I loved seeing my students argue over whether or not Hamlet was truly mad.
Just coming up with this short list makes me realize I have so many other favorites. I suppose I’m a lifetime English geek because I can see the context of the works and how you can pick a book from any era and connect it not only to its time period but also to our own contemporary lives. While I’m writing, I don’t have those thoughts in my head or any lofty mission to convey something bigger. But I hope I do capture something about humanity in whatever I write. As a former English teacher, I hope the students who read the books for the first time can see past them being assigned as homework and find something special for themselves.