So many times I am asked by my students, “Why are we reading this?” “Why do we still have to read Shakespeare?” “Does this really matter?”
Oftentimes these questions are in relation to the novels and stories that we are reading in class. Since I teach sophomores, juniors AND seniors, every time I start something new in any of these classes the students ask the same questions.
Lately though, I’ve been noticing an increasing trend in pop culture to reference the “classics.” For me as an English teacher, I find the references exciting since I can go back to my students and tell them that the novel we’re reading in class was referenced on “The Daily Show” by Jon Stewart or there is a modern adaptation that just came out.
The most rewarding part for me though is when my students figure out these references for themselves…or they become excited when a new movie is being created based on the book they’re studying.
My most recent examples of this do actually include a reference on “The Daily Show,” just Tuesday night in fact, where Jon Stewart referenced A Brave New World when he mentioned the use of “soma.” Of course I had a nerdy English teacher moment when I actually became excited by this and immediately thought of the group of seniors I had last year and us studying the novel in class together and wondering if 1) any of them were watching the show and 2) if those watching the show picked up on the reference.
I also have had great joy as a teacher explaining to my students how Shakespeare has influenced many modern movies such as “10 Things I Hate About You” which is The Taming of the Shrew and “She’s The Man” which is Twelfth Night Or, What You Will. I always get a kick out of seeing the looks of recognition as the students realize they have been enjoying Shakespeare for years, and not in the Romeo and Juliet form.
Lately though, my juniors have become excited with the soon-to-be released movie of The Great Gatsby. Not only have my students been talking about seeing the trailers in theaters, but they have also told me about merchandise for sale that says “I Party with Jay Gatsby” and how they can relate all of this back to the book we are reading in class. They are excited to tell me about the throw pillows and shirts that are The Great Gatsby. They want to share how they recognized specific scenes in the trailer and knew exactly which part of the book they were from.
Despite all of these things, I think one of the greatest moments I have had so far in relation to the question, “does this really matter?” would be my experience this year with one particular student. This student was part of my group last year that read the novel Night. She was so moved by this story of the Holocaust that she has, on her own, continued to read about the events of that time and has become very passionate about it. This has been my goal as a teacher…to give students information or present them with a topic that inspires something in them to learn more. I want my students to have those experiences where a passion is awakened in them to read more, learn more, do more.
So no matter how many times I hear these questions, I know that there will always be the same answer…Literature DOES matter. These books tell the stories of imagination, our history, and the formation of our cultures and countries.