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How to Make Classic Literature More Relatable for Students

When English composition students struggled to connect with characters from Shakespeare, Milton, Tolstoy, and more, Melissa Long, MA, made them relatable.

When English composition students struggled to connect with characters from Shakespeare, Milton, Tolstoy, and more, Melissa Long, MA, made them relatable.

Happiness may be the overarching theme of Melissa Long’s English Composition class, but many students are anything but happy when told they will need to read—and write about—classic literary works. Long can sympathize (even if she does not share their view). Like many of them, Long worked full-time while earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English. Tackling coursework at the end of a long day of labor can make it even more challenging to untangle Tolstoy and make sense of Shakespeare.

“It’s hard to get students to think that literature from, say, 19th-century Russia is going to be relevant to their lives,” Long says. “How can they identify with these characters?”

To answer that question, Long has put many of her lessons into the context of pop culture—reality TV, mock trials, talk shows, and more—to help students connect with the characters in classic literature. These interactions provide students with a familiar way of diving into people’s inner motivations, leaving them more motivated to engage in writing about them later.

Below, Long shares four of her favorite approaches.

4 lessons for putting classic characters into modern context

While reading various literary works is generally a solo endeavor, Long has developed a series of participatory in-class group exercises that help students understand more about the characters they are studying. This enables them to begin to draw out the life lessons from these major works—and put them into writing in their composition assignments.

Here, Long shares an overview of four such exercises.

A reality TV show: “Keeping Up with the Ilyiches”

Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich is about a dying man’s quest to understand the difference between an authentic and an artificial life; his struggle is underscored by the antics of his socially climbing wife. To make the story relatable and put it into a modern-day perspective, Long’s students produce a reality TV show similar in style to “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”

While they are reading the novella, students create a graphic organizer for each character, which informs the episode they produce. For this, they slot observations into four key buckets: description, quotations on happiness/unhappiness, impediments to happiness, and philosophies that might help the character find happiness.

“I try to push them to think about if the Ilyiches were a family living in America today and had a reality show: What situation would they deal with in today’s world?” Long says. “For example, students might have the wife complaining about the interior decorator who’s coming over and the husband’s not there for the appointments. They really put it into modern terms.”

Finally, the students write a literary analysis essay that concentrates on a single character from the novella, explains his or her impediments to happiness, and suggests how he or she might overcome those hurdles by adhering to a particular philosophy from Richard Schoch’s The Secrets of Happiness (a text they read earlier in the semester).

A mock trial for Satan—or the boys in Lord of the Flies

After reading William Golding’s Lord of the Flies or John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Long has students divide into groups so that everyone is either a character or the lawyer of one of the characters. Long acts as the judge for the trial.

For Lord of the Flies—which is about a group of marooned young boys who turn on each other—each of the surviving boys is put on trial for the murders that happened on the island. “The trial leads to an examination of human nature,” Long explains. “We connect our findings to readings on human psychology (specifically, chapters from Lauren Slater’s Opening Skinner’s Box) that then informs an argument essay that the students will write.”

With Paradise Lost, which examines the origins of humankind’s existence, students must decide who is culpable for the fall of man. First they assign a percentage of responsibility to Adam, Eve, Satan, God, and/or anyone else they deem necessary, as represented in a pie chart. Then the class conducts three different trials: one for Adam, one for Eve, and one for Satan. Each acts as the defendant, with God as the plaintiff and Long as the judge. During the trial, the defendants argue for a lesser sentence (or less culpability). Students then reflect on what happened in the trials and reexamine their pie chart, making changes if they deem it necessary. The final assignment: Write an argumentative literary analysis essay answering the driving question, “Who is responsible for the fall of man in Paradise Lost?”

A talk show with Othello or The Other Wes Moore

Here, Long invokes Oprah herself to explore the messages of Shakespeare’s Othello (a tragedy centered on adultery and jealousy) or the New York Times bestseller The Other Wes Moore (in which business leader and war hero Wes Moore juxtaposes his life story with that of another man who shares his moniker and much of his background but grew up to be a murderer).

“We have a talk show in the style of The Oprah Winfrey Show, and we examine the characters and look for their motivations,” Long says. “Each student either plays a character or a talk show host assigned to that character. We also take questions from the audience.”

After the talk show happens, students write an essay examining the motives of a specific character, tracing the evidence for their argument with direct quotations from the text.

A dinner party based on Kenneth Burke’s analogy for life

Long created what she calls the “Synthesis Project” because students often struggle to put many sources together and include their own voice in the mix.

How it works: First, the class examines philosopher Kenneth Burke’s dinner-party analogy for life, in which the “visitor” arrives to a party already in progress, takes a while to catch on to the conversation, and then takes part in the festivities before departing and leaving the conversation still in progress. Then comes the fun.

“I ask students to think of their own dinner party and invite five guests—ones from sources or texts that we have read as a class or that they found in independent research—and draw the interaction,” Long explains.

From there, the Synthesis Project involves three main deliverables:

  1. The students write a traditional, formal synthesis essay explaining each source’s position on a driving question and using quotations and paraphrases for support.
  2. They create a visual representation of this conversation. “Students get very creative with this section,” Long says. “They’ve turned in posters, dioramas, text message screen captures, models, and more.”
  3. They represent their dinner party in a piece of fictionalized creative writing: a short story, script, graphic novel, epic poem, or another idea that gives each source a character and imagines how the characters would interact.

Help students learn from an extended approach

Though this assignment is complex, Long feels that students appreciate—and learn from—the extended approach.

“To be able to quote C.S. Lewis in an essay is one thing, but to be able to imagine him as a person sitting down to dinner with the Dalai Lama, Gretchen Rubin, and Epicurus to discuss a question, the students are able to mentally add dimensions to these sources and analyze them deeply,” says Long.

“Students have admitted that in past research papers, they have skimmed a text and pulled out a quotation because the assignment required one. With this assignment, students engage with the sources and see that the ideas they present are living and multifaceted. Students take real ownership of their work because it is produced from a strong understanding of the readings on which it is based.”

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