| By Nicole Albrecht |
The look in my students’ eyes, when I would pass out the first set of novels for the school year, would convey an array of emotions from fear, apathy, excitement, genuine interest, and, my favorite, rebellion. Introducing a novel to a high school English class can be a teacher’s worst nightmare, but I enjoyed every minute of it because it was a challenge to me. A challenge to change their mind about not only reading in general, but how they see the world after they are finished reading a particular work. I didn’t always feel this way about introducing a novel to my students, in fact, in the beginning of my teaching career, I would lose sleep for several days prior to introducing a novel. I felt this way because I knew how it felt for students to “fear the novel” and I remembered how I felt when my own high school teachers would introduce one.
I grew up with a love for reading—it was a chance to experience life from another perspective, to walk in someone else’s shoes, and upon finishing the story, become a new person with a new way to look at the world. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I started to loathe reading novels and I actually stopped reading altogether during this time.
The first piece of literature that left a sour taste in my mouth was William Shakespeare’s, Romeo & Juliet in my freshman year, followed by Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights when I was a Junior. By my Junior year I was so exhausted with all the required reading in my English classes, that by the time Wuthering Heights was plopped on my desk, I had already shut down. Wuthering Heights, with it’s complex narratives, lengthy and descriptive sentences and confusing characters made me an angry reader. My anger eventually channeled inwards towards my teachers because I knew then what I was missing to truly understand and appreciate the novels I was reading and my teachers were not providing it for me. This missing piece of the puzzle, I would come to recognize once I became a teacher, was context.
Context is essential for students to not only understand what they are going to be reading, but to help them as they work through a difficult piece of literature. There is more to context than just providing an author biography and a historical background of the novel. Context is complex and consists of several categories such as social, historical, cultural, author vs. reader, and ideological. Several other elements consist within context such as, language and dialect, symbolism, vocabulary, setting, character lists, and their descriptions. All of this context is imperative for a teacher to cover with their students before reading any piece of literature; most of this context was not provided to me when I was in high school which lead to my frustration with Wuthering Heights.
So, what are students reading today that they will need this context for? When recent data was pulled from GVRL to reveal the most searched topics, the results echoed not only my own required readings from when I was in high school, but also pieces of literature that I taught myself when I was a teacher. The most common results were the popular works of Shakespeare, the poetry of Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson and the novels, The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, Frankenstein and of course, Wuthering Heights. It is wonderful that students are still reading the classics, but alarming when thinking about whether or not the students are being provided with the right context to understand what they are reading. Fear not! The answer to this can be found inside of the Gale’s For Students series.
The series consists of Novels for Students, Drama for Students, Poetry for Students, Short Stories for Students, and Shakespeare for Students. What this series provides, for students and teachers, is that context needed when preparing to read a piece of literature—it can even be used while students are in the process of reading. From providing the simple context such as summary of the work, author biography, and historical background to the breakdown of chapters, analyzation of characters, themes, style, criticism, media adaptions, and topics for further study, the For Students series fills in those gaps—those missing links that are extremely important for a student who is trying to understand a required reading in class.
So, do students really benefit from using this series? Student, Taylor Tompkins, thinks so. She used the For Students series when she was in middle school, but ultimately didn’t see the impact of it until she was in high school. When reading, The Great Gatsby, Taylor felt that she was much more prepared for classroom discussions after using Novels for Students and she had a better foundation upon reading the novel, which lead her to appreciate it more. This is exactly what teachers want for each of their students and the For Students series provides that.
I know that some may feel there is a conflict of interest if I state that the series would have helped me in high school, but the truth is: it would have. I would have benefitted from it not only in high school, but in college as well. My college professors were a bit more thorough in their delivering of context than my high school teachers were, which brought back my love for reading then, but being able to have this information so accessible to me would have made understanding the complexity of classic literature that much simpler in high school. And ultimately when a student can understand what they’re reading, they are able to pull those details from the text that are the main objective for most teachers: those life lessons. The theme of a piece of literature is often the main drive behind the author’s purpose of writing it in the first place. These life lessons, that can be hidden in a piece of literature, change people and the For Students series can make that happen.
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