Making the Classics Live by Elizabeth McCallum
Most students today (in traditional schools) do not enjoy reading and read only what is forced upon them. Furthermore, they read in a desultory fashion to get the assignment done; almost certainly they would agree with Mark Twain that "a classic is a book everyone wants to have read but no one wants to read." A school teacher who is dedicated to the Aegean task before him will zealously lecture his class; he will say that literature allows us to better understand other people, that it provides vicarious experience, that it trains us to think more deeply. Most students will be unimpressed. However, there are some techniques we (as teachers or parents) can adopt that will significantly increase young people's appreciation for classic literature.
Supplement the basic textbook...
If you use a literature anthology, choose it with care, taking into consideration matters such as primary sources, cogent questions, useful commentary, and artwork, but do not slavishly adhere to any one textbook.. You are more familiar than anyone else with your children’s interests, their tastes, personalities, and learning styles; thus, you are the best person to select a literature book for them. There is no such thing as an ideal textbook, however, so whichever book you choose, supplement it with other selections. Survey other anthologies and major works in all the genres so that your family reads, in Matthew Arnold's words, "the best that has been known and thought in the world." You may also want to refer to the study guides published by Veritas, Logos, Progeny Press, and others in order to locate thought-provoking questions and essay topics.
Match children to books
This type of matchmaking takes time and effort. Take your children to the library and help them select books of interest to them; give them book catalogs to leaf through; show them books about books, such as 100 One-Night Reads by David and John Major or David Denby's Great Books. In these ways, you are whetting their appetite for reading.
Share your love for reading with your children. Tell them what books you are currently reading and what books are on your "must read" list. Share with them some of the books that have shaped your worldview and what kind of books you particularly enjoy. Your enthusiasm will be infectious, and, before you know it, your children will catch the disease. By all means, do not assign books reports or tests that make reading intimidating. They don't need to prove to you that they understand everything! We never do. When they write about books, grade their work leniently. Your goal is surely to keep them reading, so don't penalize writing deficiencies too severely, or they'll hate the whole enterprise.
Make time for your children to explain why they liked a particular book, or why they think others in their class will enjoy it. Suddenly, the atmosphere will become electric, and they'll be debating the merits of different books. Step back, and enjoy the teachable moment. Ask them to read a favorite passage and discuss its significance. The other children will remember a book someone else enjoyed.
Read with engaged minds...
The more they read, the more proficient readers they'll become, and the more they'll want to read. Train your children to avoid superficial reading and to read reflectively. Tell them that reading is entering into a silent conversation with an author: your mind meets his. Encourage students to think about and evaluate events described, actions taken, personalities involved. The more you can get a child to reflect on his reading, the better reader he will become.
Also help them to step back in time in order to enter the world of a particular book. It is inappropriate to judge a story in terms of our own lifestyles and prejudices. Readers must take Coleridge's advice and willingly suspend their disbelief in order to accept the conventions of a particular story. Encourage them to reread great books; they will never mine all the gold to be found in a great classic.
Use audio-visual aids...
Look for audio-visual aids that enhance the literature your children read. Music greatly increases the enjoyment of epic or lyric poetry, and audiocassettes and CDs are readily available at bookstores and libraries. Watch carefully selected excerpts of videos to increase understanding of key scenes from plays and novels. Of course, it is wise to preview the movie in order to ensure that it is faithful to the author's intentions and appropriate for family viewing.
If you are dedicated to the task of making reading a pleasurable activity,your children will enjoy great literature. They will learn that some of their dearest friends are the books you have introduced them to, and together you will create memories that will last for a lifetime.
About the author: Elizabeth McCallum co-authored The Book Tree: A Christian Reference for Children's Literature. She has taught for 26+ years and greatly desires to pass along to parents and teachers some ideas gleaned over the years.