Thursday, October 2, 2014

On Teaching Dickens to the Mob

Ask nearly anyone and you will hear that any study of any book by Dickens in any high school class was the worst of times. Many will tell you that they never picked up another book by Dickens again. Even the name of the author elicits a visceral response. My own son*, an avid reader and a fan of Dickens, was horrified by the treatment of Great Expectations in his high school class. So, when I heard that I would be teaching A Tale of Two Cities for the homeschooled high schoolers in my coop class, I was excited (such a wonderful book!), but nervous, too.  Would my method make the students hate Dickens? Would my small mob of students send Dickens to the Bastille, and call for my execution? Could anything save Dickens form the classroom treatment?

I'll have to get back to you on that.

The coop meets once a week.  I set aside three weeks for our discussion, one for each book within the book. Since this is the first novel we are reading this year, I thought the students might have started reading it over the summer. Some did. Most finished. Those who did not were close enough to finish shortly after our planned last day of discussion. That's one small success.

But that may have been the only success at that point, and I'm sad to say it. Discussion was forced and slow at times, with only brief, punctuated expressions of real understanding. Despite Dickens' long drawn-out character descriptions, the students had a hard time identifying the heroic figures. One student--a voracious reader--did not recognize which character is executed, and blamed the author's overuse of the pronoun "he" towards the end of the novel (perhaps a valid complaint!).  At that point I realized I had to radically change the way I "taught" Dickens.

There is no secret formula, though with my own homeschooled kids it seemed simple:  Read or listen to a book together, talk about it, share passages, compare it with experience or other reading, etc. It's very natural to learn this way; leisurely reading and discussing promotes deep understanding. This does not work well in the classroom due mainly to time constraints. The students had clearly rushed the reading just for the sake of completing it on time. Of course, this is the nature of classrooms everywhere, and not the fault of the students at all. But for encouraging the sheer joy of reading, this method is fundamentally wrong. Moreover, though I have known these students for many years and despite having had countless quick book discussions with some of them, and deep discussions of Shakespeare with others, conversation was not at all spontaneous.

I needed these kids to love Dickens; this was personal.

With some flexibility in the class, I was able to expand discussion for another two sessions. Yesterday was the first of the two.  But would anything be better? Only if I changed my approach, I thought, but how? I walked into class with no plan, but began to ask questions, as usual.

Did we read this too quickly?
All agreed.
Would you read this book again?
A few weakly raised hands. If I had more time, one girl said.
And there was one emphatic No from the Usual Suspect.
Why not?
It's too long!
Have you ever read any Dickens before?
Yes, I read A Christmas Carol. It was shorter.
So, would A Tale of Two Cities been better if it were shorter?
Yes! Yes! Yes!

Light bulb moment.  They were excited about something.

What would you have left out?

Aha! The classroom mob awakened!  Recalled to life, perhaps?

Shouts and discussion.  Intense descriptions of passages in detail. Arguments for keeping certain passages. The Usual Suspect complained that he read a long passage thinking it was so long so that it might foreshadow some other event, but was disappointed when it seemed did not. Another student countered that it did, in fact, foreshadow, and US had simply missed it. Where was the reprise?

30 minutes of debate raged on before we ran out of time. Clearly, they knew the book better than they (and I) thought they did. Clearly, they got it. Clearly, they needed more time to ruminate. I declared another week on the book, asking the students to bring their favorite passages to class, and to be prepared to defend their choices. I anticipate continued excellence and enthusiasm.

We concluded the class with a reminder that the book, like many in the era, was serialized in 31 weekly installments.  Imagine 31 weeks to discuss the book! Too much? Maybe, but three weeks is the worst of times.

*The one who attended high school.
Illustration source:


Allison said...

So had me smiling. Bravo!

All Saints Academy said...

That is the way to teach TOTC!. It is just too long for a decent classroom treatment.

MacBeth Derham said...

Glad you enjoyed it. :)