January was a time to set the stage for the new year, a fresh start at the semester, and to delve into my favorite genres to teach: drama and poetry! I loved guiding my kids through difficult texts–and I always love a good excuse to say Don John the Bastard or gush about Lady Macbeth!
Day 54: “Burning the Old Year” by Naomi Shihab Nye
What It’s About: This is a poem about burning the minutiae of the previous year and holding on to the few things that last.
What It’s About: My favorite Shakespeare play! I’ve already summarized it, I believe, so here’s an explanation of this line: Lady Macbeth is coaching Macbeth to commit evil acts by looking sweet, but being venomous. Gah. Love that woman.
Day 56: You Can’t Take It With You
What It’s About: This is a depression-era play that is a basic meet-the-parents dilemma with a rich, conservative family and a tax-evading family of misfits. Think “The Birdcage,” but for the Depression. The lesson? You can’t take “it” (money, fame, glory) with you, so you might as well enjoy the little things and avoid taxes. A good story for those struggling with money.
Day 57: Much Ado About Nothing
What It’s About: Don John the Bastard’s first speech. I love thinking of Keanu Reeves performing this in the Kenneth Branagh version — he is such an emo Don John!
Day 58: Twelfth Night
What It’s About: One of the big themes in Twelfth Night is a question: how much do we really know the people we fall in love with? In this excerpt, Olivia hints at her love for Cesario (Viola disguised as a man), and Viola hints back that Olivia is barking up the wrong tree.
Day 59: “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
What It’s About: OK, this isn’t a book or a poem, but Adichie is a writer so I’m counting it as literary. In this TED talk, she speaks of a “single story”–when people go by the one-sided narrative that they have been fed about a people, instead of understanding their complexity as human beings.
We closed this semester with The Odyssey and world epics, then began transitioning into plays. And of course I had to throw in A Christmas Carol for the holidays! No read online links this time–I’ll provide them for my next round of whiteboards!
Day 40: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
What It’s About: A teenager searches for the truth behind his grandfather’s death, and finds out a secret about his family and a hidden community of children.
Day 41: The Odyssey
What It’s About: Following the Trojan War, Odysseus is lost at sea for 20 years. This epic poem from Ancient Greece tells of his adventures as well as the trials facing his wife and son at home.
Day 42: The Hobbit
What It’s About: The first story in Tolkien’s amazing Middle-Earth series, this book follows Bilbo Baggins and a group of dwarves who are out to reclaim a mountain from a dragon.
Day 43: The Epic of Gilgamesh
What It’s About: The original bromance, this ancient text is about Gilgamesh and his buddy Enkidu, and the lengths to which one would go to save his best friend.
Day 44: The Journey to the West // The Monkey and The Monk
What It’s About: If you’re interested in Chinese or Buddhist culture, you must read this story of Monkey and his journey to retrieve ancient Buddhist texts. Reading this gave me a much better understanding of Chinese stories, because it is such an essential part of their storytelling, much in the same way that the Bible is essential to Western storytelling. The original story is called The Journey to the West, but the translation I read in grad school is called The Monkey and The Monk. This translation is lauded as the most accessible translation-abridgment of the epic poem.
Day 45: The Epic of Sundiata
What It’s About: It seems that many epics are about good leaderships and societies. In this one, crown prince Sundiata is exiled from his homeland, learns about his subjects while he is in exile, then returns to take his rightful place as king.
Day 46: One Thousand and One Nights
What It’s About: This is a collection of short stories, and you will find different versions of this collection at every bookstore. Regardless, you will always find the same frame story: A sultan went mad after his wife’s infidelity and went on a vengeful killing spree against women by marrying a virgin every night, then killing her in the morning before she, too, could cheat on him. Scheherazade requested to be his wife, then set about a plan where she tells a story every night, then stops right in the middle of a cliffhanger at dawn. The sultan, hungry to hear the rest of the story, would extend her death sentence to the next night, when she would repeat the same thing. She continued this for 1001 nights, at the end of which the sultan’s mind was healed and he didn’t kill her after all! It’s an amazing tale of the power of stories!
Day 47: A Christmas Carol
What It’s About: This isn’t just a cheesy story about the meaning of Christmas. Charles Dickens was passionate about the welfare of the disadvantaged people of London, and incensed with the insensitivity he saw in the rich around him. Although set in Christmastime, this is more about caring for the needy in the coldest, starkest time of year.
Day 48: King Lear
What It’s About: An aging king attempts to divide up his kingdom amongst his three daughters, basing the lot sizes on who loves him the most. What follows is a tragic story of betrayal, madness, and aging as the daughters, sons, fathers, and siblings find each other as opponents.
Day 49: Oedipus Rex
What It’s About: Thebes is in trouble–the gods are punishing the people for an atrocious sin. Oedipus goes in search of the truth behind the sin, and finds out a terrible truth about himself.
Day 50: Antigone
What It’s About: The sequel to Oedipus Rex, this play is about his children. When his sons kill each other in the battlefield, his daughter wants to give them proper burial rites. However, the new king of Thebes denies one his rites because he died a traitor. Antigone and Creon go head to head in a philosophical battle over whose law is greater and deserves more deference: the law of the gods, or the law of man.
Day 51: Much Ado About Nothing
What It’s About: Claudio and Hero love each other, but their best friends hate each other. What better way to fix this than by ‘shipping them? This is a classic high school story of friends trying to set each other up, with one villain who’s trying his darndest to mess everything up.
Day 52: Twelfth Night
What It’s About: This story’s so confusing. Viola shipwrecks in a foreign land, and disguises herself as a boy to survive. When she is employed by the Duke of Orsino, he asks her to woo his crush for him. And his crush falls for Viola, because she’s dressed as a boy! Lots of confusion, lots of comedy. Watch She’s the Man to get a better idea of the story!
Day 53: Romeo and Juliet
What It’s About: I doubt this story needs explaining. However, if your understanding of this story is similar to Taylor Swift’s–THIS IS NOT AN IDEAL LOVE STORY. EVERYBODY DIES AND YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO NOT BE LIKE ROMEO AND JULIET!
For the final creepy week of October, I did two of my favorite works by two of my favorite writers.
Day 38: Macbeth
Publication Performance: 1606 (play)
What It’s About: A noble warrior hears a prophecy that he will become the king of Scotland. With the aid of his wife, he makes it so–through murder. This is my favorite Shakespeare work for so many reasons: (1) it’s short and action-packed, making it an excellent entry into Shakespeare for students, (2) it is constantly alluded to in pop culture (Breaking Bad, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) because (3) its themes of how power can corrupt and how guilt can corrode are timeless.
Read Online (Link to Sparknotes No Fear Shakespeare, a strong tool for first-time Shakespeare readers)
Day 39: The Cask of Amontillado
What It’s About: The narrator, Montresor, seeks revenge against his friend Fortunato by luring him into catacombs to judge the quality of his newest wine acquisition. This is often taught in 9th grade to teach irony, and because Montresor’s means of revenge excites even the most reluctant readers.
October’s been all about monsters and stories that give you the heebie jeebies! What are you reading for Halloween?
Day 31: The Fall of the House of Usher
Publication: 1839 (short story)
What It’s About: The narrator visits his ill friend, Roderick Usher. Usher and his sister live alone in a huge, rotten, creepy house. It feels very similar to the film Crimson Peak. My Gothic lit classes have covered this work to see an example of a classic Gothic setting, one which is still seen in today’s horror works: an expansive, but enclosed, space with several nooks and crannies for creepy ghouls and secrets to lurk. *shudder*
What It’s About: Sanger Rainsford washes up on an uncharted island and finds that its resident, General Zaroff, hunts people. Zaroff invites Rainsford to join him in his “game.” I’ve taught this work several times, but Zaroff’s explanation of his sport still gives me the chills.
Publication: 700-1000 (epic poem, told orally); 975-1010 (date of manuscript)
What It’s About: A classic hero’s tale, this epic poem recounts the adventures of Beowulf as he battles 3 monsters: Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a dragon. This work is often studied as an example of the effect of the Christianisation on pagan literature.
What It’s About: A child struggles with coping with his mother’s losing battle with cancer by day, and faces a monster that sweeps him out of his room by night. If you read this story, you must get the illustrated edition by Jim Kay. The artwork is absolutely amazing!
I could not find a free version of this book online.
Day 35: The Divine Comedy
Publication: 1472 (narrative poem)
What It’s About: Dante makes himself the main character as he travels through all the levels of hell, purgatory, and heaven in this allegorical tale of man’s journey to God. Most students study only Inferno, the account of Hell, because… well, it’s Hell and it’s exciting!
What It’s About: The Palais Garnier Opera House is said to be haunted by a killer ghost… but it’s actually a hideous but talented musician lurking in the shadows of the building. He preys on the young and impressionable Christine, who believes him to be the Angel of Music. The Phantom in the book is more murderous and less cuddly than the one in the musical.
What It’s About: An Eastern European vampire wants to move to England to make a legion of vampires. I’m reading this book for the first time right now–so far, it develops a creepy mood beautifully. While looking up information on this book, I found that this is an example of invasion literature, a movement in British literature that popped up in the late 19th century leading up to WWI. I love seeing how political climates (in this case, the fear that outside forces will invade England and change English culture) influence the arts!
These are part of my 2017-2018 project for my classroom: give book talks every day (or nearly every day), and letter a quote from each book on the board! I want to share examples of classic literature/good books with my students, with the hope that they’ll find beauty in words. Leave a comment if you’ve got a good book suggestion!