Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Lovely Janeites: Lauren Bailey - Re-Approaching the Jane Austen You Knew in High School as an Adult

For high school students, one of the most groan-worthy aspects of summer vacation is typically the summer reading list. Even as an avid reader and book lover, I hated the summer reading list for school. Not only did I not want to be required to read seven books over my summer in the sun, I couldn't stand being told what I was allowed to read. Of course, I was proven wrong plenty of times. Most of the books on the summer reading lists were classics that I absolutely adored after the fact, but some I just couldn't get into. Sadly, Jane Austen was one of those authors I just couldn't connect with as a particularly young 14 year old just entering high school.

The summer before my freshman year in high school, Pride and Prejudice was on the "required reading" list. I picked up the book, hearing of it many times before of course and fully expecting to love it. But, that just wasn't the case. I couldn't find my footing in the lofty and unattainable language, I couldn't relate to the characters, and I was completely bored by the plot. I know, I know—you Austen-ites out there are begging to just shake my 14 year old self. I understand. But, I do think that my experience with Austen for the first time serves as an apt lesson. After only reading part of the novel and feigning having read the rest in high school, I sworn off Austen forever—at least that's what I said. 

In many ways I think this is one of the challenges students and teachers alike face when approaching literature in high school. These novels are, at times, just too adult and too inaccessible for our young students. Now, this isn't to say that I think they shouldn't be read and taught in high school, but I do think maybe our approach should be revitalized. I went into reading Pride and Prejudice fully expecting to adore the novel. As a self-proclaimed book nerd and a lover of the study, how could I not love such a classic example of the written word? This was the issue. I had built up Jane Austen into to being something that I absolutely had to love. There was no question that I would like Austen because that's simply what young students who love reading did. So, when I didn't like Austen at all, I felt like I must not be smart enough to understand. Unfortunately, this really shook my young book-loving self.

I think that this is a common occurrence for younger students. They are told time and time again that "everyone loves these novels" and then many find themselves feeling underequipped for them. The fact of the matter is that these novels are adult novels. Many of them call on experiences that young high schoolers can't even begin to fathom yet. While it can be important to read about these stories and experience the feelings taking place in the novels, we shouldn't expect our students to immediately become enamored by our favorite classics. I think that we as teachers should approach these novels with our classes in a way that communicates that they are challenging and may not feel very accessible at first.

As a junior in college, I took a class that required us to read Jane Austen's Persuasion. I was still extremely apprehensive and frankly not at all looking forward to the process. But, of course, I completely adored the novel. I was at a point in my own life that I could relate to the characters, understand their emotions, and engage with the plot and language. Re-approaching Jane Austen from a new point in my life and from a new perspective made all the difference. If you're like me and swore of Austen early, give it another look. If you are a teacher or have a child who is just now approaching Austen, consider the difficulties younger individuals might have with the text and suggest a revisit later.
 Lauren Bailey 

Lauren Bailey is a freelance blogger who loves writing about education, new technology, lifestyle and health. As an education writer, she works to provide helpful information on the best online colleges and courses at www.bestcollegesonline.com/. She welcomes comments and questions via email at blauren 99@gmail.com


Robinbird said...

I was a high school English teacher before I had my boys but I was not lucky enough to teach the 12th graders (the ones who read British Literature). I was quite sad that I wouldn't be able to teach any Austen. Reading your post really opened my eyes about how many students would approach and feel about her books and it has made me want to find a way to create my lessons (for that some day when I get back in the classroom) so the students will at least understand, if not enjoy, her works. And I wouldn't want them reading P&P by themselves over the summer anyway with no one to help them along! :)

Michelle F. said...

Summer reading list? Never heard of that before. We never had to read books over the summer. If you're going to summer school, that's one thing, but how can they make you when you're not in school? And you may have a different teacher the next year. Do they quiz you to make sure you read them?

I'd think that one book per month (three for the summer) would be good enough so you can read other books that you actually want to read.

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