How To Teach The Same Books Over And Over Again

I teach the same books over and over and over again.

By this point in my career, I have probably taught Frankenstein thirty times, which means I’ve read it out loud thirty times. This year, I am teaching three sections of sophomores, which means that—during first period—I am reading aloud ten pages of Frankenstein, discussing those pages, lecturing through them. Then, because all three sections keep pace with one another, I am reading the same ten pages during second period and the same ten pages third period. And I’m asking the same questions, telling the same stories, cracking the same jokes hour after hour after hour.

Most days, I don’t mind the repetition. What’s remarkable about classic novels is that you can get a little deeper every time you reread them. It’s a cliché, and I apologize for it, but on my thirtieth read of Frankenstein, I’m still finding new things, still noticing details and themes which escaped me on dozens of previous reads. If a man was condemned to doing something over and over again, reading classic literature would be the greatest fate he could ask for.

And yet, there are also days when the repetition is tedious, sometimes evening maddening. There are days when I am loath to take up my text because the passage at hand is not particularly interesting, or because the questions I asked an earlier section proved to be non-starters, or because the physical burden of reading aloud becomes heavier at the end of a long day. I recall from my youth those days when I prayed very hard on the drive to school that the building had burned down in the middle of the night. I would roll down the window and smell hopefully for smoke. As an adult, I never wish for my place of work to burn down, but I do sometimes have the same dread of school that I had as a child. It isn’t often, but I do sometimes slowly walk from the break room to my classroom thinking, “Not again. Please, not again.”

I sincerely pray it does not sound boastful to say so, but some of the best discussions and lectures I’ve ever given have been predicated on such feelings of dread. Not always, of course, and even after seventeen years of teaching, I am not above a bad class, a bad day of classes, or a bad week. However, the key to overcoming the dread of repetition is not figuring out how to make the book interesting to your students, but how to make it interesting for yourself. On days when the teacher dreads repetition, the challenge of teaching is more clearly presented than on days when the teacher falls into routine. The need for slanted truths and exploration are far more obvious on occasions when the teacher is loath to teach the curriculum. This need is always there but recedes when the teacher is naturally eager to talk about this paragraph or that theme, in which case there is no need to rise to the occasion. But the boredom the teacher feels for the curriculum is a gauntlet he himself must run—and he must run it, not dodge it, or work around it.

How does a teacher keep things interesting for himself, then?

I take for granted that every teacher worth his salt has half a dozen matters he would like to discuss with his students, whether those matters pertain to the curriculum at hand or not. Between classes, a teacher watches the lives of students unfold, not only their friendships and comraderies, but the little intrigues and betrayals which characterize high school. A teacher is aware of half a dozen situations brewing at his school: students caught cheating, mothers offering ludicrous excuses for the bad behavior of their sons, the alternate brilliance and incompetence of coworkers, homework revolts, departmental strife, eavesdropped accusations, budget shortfalls. I am not referring to scandals, but to the “heart-ache and thousand natural shocks” that schools are heir to, and about which teachers offer whispered opinions in the breakroom. Every day, a teacher learns something about justice or forgiveness or remorse just by paying attention to these dramas, these comedies, these petty horror shows, all of which must be transformed into lectures about Paradise Lost and Plato’s Republic. That’s how you keep it interesting for yourself. If you look hard enough, there’s something about that parking space you stole yesterday in whatever passage of Frankenstein you’re teaching today. And the teenage insecurities you witnessed at lunch this afternoon? The all caps e-mail you received at two in the morning for giving that kid a C on his Dante paper? There’s something in today’s reading from the City of God about that, too. The teacher of virtue stands before his students, book in hand, and subtly (or not) works through something wonderous or outrageous which he saw, did, or suffered earlier in the day.

Classic literature deals in eternal themes and timeless struggles, thus nearly anything which moves the teacher deeply can be found in his books. The teacher has only to take stock of his soul as class begins and consider all that God has lately asked him to ponder through the divinely appointed accidents, epiphanies, and confrontations of the day. A teacher doesn’t need to stretch a chapter in Pride & Prejudice in order to talk about jealousy, gossip, broken relationships with parents, confounded hopes, or whatever vexing issue presented itself in the break room ten minutes ago. It’s all in there. A teacher really need not read more than five pages of Austen, Augustine, Burke, Boethius, or Bronte before coming to some reference—obvious or slanted—to whatever matter is already on his heart.

After teaching the same chapter of Jane Eyre twice in the morning, perhaps you cannot tell the same stories, offer the same explanations, ask the same questions, and crack the same jokes again. Fine. You don’t need to. Teaching the same books over and over again doesn’t necessarily mean teaching the same stuff over and over again. A classic book is a spiritual object—it’s not a person, but neither is it merely a thing. It’s almost sentient, which is why a classic is never quite the same when you come back to it. Returning to a classic is like returning to a friend you haven’t seen his last summer. Things are always a little bit different.

So what do you want to talk about? Then find that in the text.

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