Teaching the Classics: The Scarlet Letter
Note: This is the first in an ongoing series from Sandra, retired high school English teacher and current substitute teacher in the same subject area, discussing the classic novels she taught, their relevance to today's teens and pairings with contemporary fiction.
I taught high school literature for twenty-six years, many of the same books year after year. You’d think they would become ho-hum with a huge yawn after a few years.
There’s always something new and fresh that first-time readers bring to a text so it stands the test of time—meaning they relate to the characters and situations regardless of era or setting. Some books are simply universal. The Scarlet Letter, which I've written about previously, stands out for the fresh perspectives my students would bring to it each time I taught this book.
It’s all about making connections and drawing parallels.
I recall one student gingerly holding a copy of The Scarlet Letter between her thumb and index finger. The expression on her face was somewhere between horror and admiration as I shared that I had taught, and therefore read, this book every single year.
“What? You’ve actually read this at least twenty times? That’s that’s—I don’t know what is is,” my student said.
Good question. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book leads you down a thorny path into the dark side of the human mind: into sin, quilt, isolation and evil. And, it sparks a glimmer of hope in all its darkness.
Joy in reading a book like this with my students came from the connections they made to their experiences. Before reading Hawthorne’s tome of Puritanism at its worst, students read sermons from Jonathan Edwards who compared pious members of the church to “loathsome insects hanging over the flames of hell,” transcripts from the Salem Witch Trials and the teaching of the alphabet from the New England Primer.
Letter F: the wicked fool is whipped at school accompanied with an original sketch of a small schoolhouse dominated by a man snaking a whip over the roof.
Talking about and comparing society’s judgments and values from the past to the present day makes for amazing intellectual thought and teenagers have special insights on the way judgment and values impact their lives. Students may not have thought of themselves as highly intellectual but they were; they quickly made connections from Puritan society to today’s world. Thoughtful thinking gave them an exhilarating classroom experience.
Requiring a literal scarlet letter upon an adulteress’ clothing to be worn at all times does ring as a shockingly harsh action. But, a few probing and thoughtful questions brings the literature to life and puts a new reference to contemplate. In what harsh ways do we judge and banish others into feeling shame in today’s society? How different are our actions from those of the Puritans?
Teens, especially girls, saw this in action in their school hallways every single day.
These questioned often sparked long and animated discussion, with examples drawn from students' daily lives. Because of those connections my students drew, I thought it would be helpful to connect each of the classic works I write about for CEFS to contemporary works that are more accessible, but explore similar themes.
Next up in this series: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck