Sunday, June 29, 2014

Does Going Online Help Students Appreciate the Classics More?

Digital Dickens you say? Source
Turning students towards online access to primary texts

Ever since I can remember, I have always enjoyed reading classic literature - from Swift and Defoe to Sterne and Dumas. As my enjoyment of studying the English language became stronger in high school, so did my interest in writing. The connection between the two grew inexorably, eventually leading me to the teaching profession itself.

It's a typical English teacher's story, told by a typical English teacher.

Not every person, however, has the same interests. This is natural, encouraged and expected. Many students flock to maths, science and business; some to art and PE. We are all unique in our interests and passions. Nevertheless, I have always believed in a balance between all subjects. As a student, I made an effort to dabble in many different subjects - Geography, Social Sciences, Astronomy. I have always felt that our students need to have a certain understanding of most of the subjects we teach in school. A good, basic comprehension. You never know what knowledge or skills you will need in the future. For example, for some reason I have constantly found myself using math over the years. Did I study it in Year 13 in school or university? Absolutely not. But there it sits, needing to be used, as if to say gloatingly: "You know you need me." So I crunch the numbers, add, subtract and multiply. Another skill.

Studying literature may seem pointless to many, but I believe it has such an importance in our lives today and for the future. Many ask, "Why is it important to read a story about something that happened to a fictitious character in a setting that is 150 years old?" In itself, this is a true statement, logically makes sense. But there lies a richness in classical literature that explores so many themes, issues and topics that echo in our world today in the 21st century. It is one thing to say that, but quite another to make our students understand and grasp this themselves.

The classic approach struggles to say the least. A paperback book intimidates all those who first glimpse it. A Dickens novel looks very much daunting. Take 'Bleak House' for example. Its size is staggering, littered with such rich, descriptive writing. Still, not very appealing to your average 16 or 17 year old. We read the books aloud, ask comprehension questions, sprinkled with critical ones, and it can all be hit or miss depending on the class we are teaching, as well as the individuals. At the end of the process though, the students always feel like they are being forced to read the literature we give them. They ultimately struggle to identify with classic authors. What is the best approach then?

In a recent Guardian article by Roger Walshe, he writes about a survey which concluded that "94% of teachers reported that students rely on online sources when conducting research." It seems staggering, but completely makes sense. Why read a 150 page chunk of 'Pride and Prejudice,' one night, highlighting and taking notes - the proper way - when I can just 'sparknotes' that, finding all the answers, character analysis and plot summaries that I need. Yes, I kill the thrill of discovering the plot twists as I go, but at least I won't get zero on my homework.

It's the unfortunate truth - many students don't mind killing those precious moments of literature exploration, as long as the work is done.

One reason springs up: According to another survey by Walshe, "82% [of]...students struggle to identify with Victorian or Romantic authors..." In their opinion, the resources teachers are given are uninspiring. Walshe suggests exposing students to more authentic primary sources, such as letters, manuscripts, newspaper reports and notebooks - "student respond to the aura and authenticity of the real thing." It's one thing to imagine Dickens writing "back in the day," but an entirely different thing to see some of his old manuscripts and drafts, observing words crossed out, corrections made, realising that even a great author such as Charles D. made mistakes in his day.

But how to get a hold of these original sources that have always been in the possession of those chosen few historians and literary academics who have the privilege to handle and study them. Walshe has a solution for this as well: Discovering Literature. In his own words, it is a "digital gateway to more than 1000 of our greatest literary treasures, from the manuscript of Jane Eyre [to]...newspapers, maps, photographs and other supporting materials which bring their lives - and works - to life."

I think it's a brilliant resource. It enables students to learn about classic literature through the use of material that "brings to life the social, political and cultural world of the author." Perhaps with these original materials, we as teachers can inspire our students, and ourselves, to see classic, old literature in a new, more relevant perspective where each student can find something significant they can identify with - whether personal or social. Otherwise, we run the risk of losing classic literature to the inevitability of time and the digital landscape of our modern society.

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  1. Well, I think it still depends on how the students are interested on Classic's. I know some of them still appreciate classic. Thanks for sharing.

  2. My pleasure! You're absolutely right. It's so refreshing when I run into a student who tells me they have read Jane Austen or Daniel Defoe, or when they simply ask me to recommend a good, classic book. Happy readings!


Thanks for sharing your two pence!


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