Reading as a Second Life: Why Classic Lit Matters for Teachers

by Guest Blogger
September 10th, 2013

By Dave O’Shell

Dave O’Shell is a 6th and 7th grade English teacher at Wood Middle School in Montgomery County Public Schools. He has been teaching for seven years and blogs about education at

Artwork courtesy of Shutterstock.

At 32 I am finding that I am really only good at one thing. I can teach early adolescents how to write essays and how to read better. That’s it. I’ve been doing it for seven years now in a middle school outside of D.C., teaching at a suburban school that is actually pretty diverse. My school is a lot of rich and poor, kids of parents with PhD’s and kids whose parents don’t speak English. And I want to argue that there are some classic works of fiction that can help a developing teacher connect with his or her students and with the world of learning.

Classic literature is crucial to growing an individual. Certain texts have not only inspired hundreds of thousands of fortunate readers to grow, they have grown with humanity; they have been read, reread, and reevaluated.

I am surprised at the number of English teachers I meet who have little or no background or even interest in the classics. This is a problem because a grounding in classic works in the humanities is essential for success in teaching. Teaching is the most human profession; no other occupation involves such a basic I-thou relationship on a day to day basis.

Now, teaching in a middle school is a fairly grounding experience. There is no forgetting that you are in the world, living among people. You’re not among the celestial spheres. Yet there is no text that comes to mind more often in my everyday experience as a middle school English teacher than Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The central theme in the novel is the dynamic between one’s inner life (peace) and one’s relation to the rest of the world (war). The characters in the novel, particularly Andrei and Pierre, develop as individuals by wrestling with their inner and outer worlds. Andrei is steeped in the bureaucracy of the military. He struggles to put forward his battle plans to General Kutuzov, only to find scores of others like him with equally ingenious battle plans equally useless in the chaos of war. His outer life is stopped suddenly on the battlefield (a famous scene in the novel) when he has a quiet moment—really a near-death experience—contemplating the sky as he is surrounded by smoke, gunfire, and shouting. These kinds of moments abound in Tolstoy’s works, where characters’ inner lives are suddenly and profoundly confronted with the world.

A teacher will inevitably face these same moments on the battlefield, these experiences where strategy meets the human heart.

William James calls this a mystical experience, essential for real change in an individual. I saw this last year in one of my students, we’ll call him Brian, whom I was working with and cleaning out the nightmare that was his school binder. I was lecturing him on throwing away papers he didn’t need, like the Edgar Allan Poe packet we finished last quarter. Throw it away!  “Oh,” he said, “I keep that in there ‘cause I like to read some of the poems to my sister before she goes to bed.” Suddenly your student’s humanity becomes so real before you. He stops becoming these lists of issues for you to solve, test scores and observable behaviors. He becomes real in his beauty and limitations. Teaching is filled with these kinds of Tolstoy moments, these dialectics of care and ambition.

Hamlet is essential reading in contemplating the limitations of our own intellect. This model of education is useful to the teacher. It isn’t so much that we must see in the mundane aspects of managing a classroom a direct relationship between Hamlet and teaching. There is no bard in signing a pass for the nurse. It is rather that we are able to maintain our why in teaching. In the guidance I give to my students in their reading and writing, in the conferences I give surrounding the work in their portfolios, Hamlet is present. He is present because I see that students have a desire to become educated. What does this mean? It means, for them, becoming an Odysseus, always having an answer, not being the fool Hamlet pretends at being (“I’m reading words,” a student with might say to me with a sneer); it means not being a pedantic nerd like Polonius who can’t get through a sentence without commenting on his own phrasing. Hamlet’s tragedy, like the tragedy of many of our students who (wrongly) believe that hard work will not increase their intelligence, is that learning cannot make an individual perfect. There is only so much we can promise our students they will get from schooling. It’s up to them to eventually make their schooling count toward something meaningful.

The third book I would put into the hands of an aspiring teacher, if I were limited to only three, would be Don Quixote. The relation between Sancho and the Knight of the Sad Face mirrors the student-teacher dynamic better than any other model. Quixote demands that his world adhere to the laws of chivalry. When he sets out in seek of adventure, an adventure must present itself within a few pages or else. Or else windmills will become giants, flocks of sheep will become warring armies, and a traveling lady will become a kidnapped princess. And when it becomes clear that the windmills are not giants, then a magician must be invented to explain their transformation.

Sancho is the real and Quixote is the imagined. Sancho is also a student and Quixote is his teacher. A teacher wants the world to fit into his notion of the law of meritocracy. The teacher’s job is to dream for the student. Just as Quixote knows Sancho cannot buy fully into the dream of chivalry, he must promise Sancho an island. We as teachers promise our students an island named College, though how they will govern this island will be up to them to learn. We dream for them and they return reality for us to modify our dream.

I would argue that any text that can best grow us is best in preparing those whose job will be to create future heroes. Melville’s radical individual, Ahab, has a lot to teach us. John Milton was at heart a great teacher, a schoolmaster of the world, and reminds us that the world and its inhabitants need fixing. James Joyce, great hero of learnedness and great reader of Dante, demonstrated how the world is united in history and language in every moment of every uttered word. Joyce is a good conveyance to talking about the oral tradition in non-Western cultures and how their narratives unite them with the world. And finally I will pass over in silence the Koran, the Thousand and One Nights, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and other non-Western texts I have not yet mastered and which perhaps constitute further reaches of the teacher’s stars to steer by.

My students do not wrestle with these great works in sixth grade, it’s more of a thumb war with some Shakespeare right now, but I hope that when they become grown men and women that they will see these works as mysteries, as a kind of mystery that is not solved, but lived. Thus we gain a kind of second life from books. It is knowing many lives and worlds through reading, combined with authentic life experiences (falling in love, having a child, failing, succeeding) that make us fuller persons. The work of a teacher is to grow young people. Pedagogy, methods, observation, reflection, and all of the practices in place are important to becoming a teacher. But it is personal growth in one’s life and one’s second life through literature that makes a great teacher, because teaching results from living.



  1. Great article, Dave, right on the money!

    Comment by Broeck Oder — September 10, 2013 @ 5:46 pm

  2. Intriguing post. I’ve been enjoying your writings at as well. I especially like the one about what Dostoyevsky taught you about classroom management.

    Comment by Ponderosa — September 12, 2013 @ 1:24 am

  3. Dave,

    If the only thing you’re really good at is teaching early adolescents how to write essays and how to read better, and you devote your entire career to so doing, on your deathbed you’ll be among the fortunate people who will know that their lives have been well-lived.

    The one dismaying part of this wonderful essay is this: “I am surprised at the number of English teachers I meet who have little or no background or even interest in the classics.” What has happened to our college departments of English that the people supposedly most interested in first-rate fiction – ENGLISH MAJORS – know little about the most highly praised works, and don’t care to lessen their unfamiliarity? Mark Bauerline, where are you?

    I support in general the idea of a literary canon, that some books are so critical to the world of literature and ideas that reading them should be a priority. But probably an even bigger issue: how can teachers inspire a lifelong interest in serious reading? Can it be inspired, or is an interest in serious fiction just a personality trait that you either have or you don’t?

    My personal experiences, and what many other people have said, is that many English teachers do more to kill any desire to read independently than to inspire it. Classroom discussions and tests/quizzes about fiction often focus far too much on minor details that will be quickly forgotten. There’s also an overemphasis on analyzing the literacy techniques used: symbolism, allusion, foreshadowing, etc. To use a metaphor, young readers are so busy trying to figure out the skeletal and cardiovascular systems that they don’t appreciate the body as a whole.

    That type of picuyane analysis bores any general reader, including most of us grownups. I’ve belonged to a classic novels reading group for over two years, and the group drafted me to be the discussion leader. Almost all the questions I formulate and ask deal with the major ideas of the book. Everyone would stop coming if I asked questions about literary techniques and history, and I’m not at all qualified in those areas, anyway; Mr. Hirsch would flunk my ignorance of literary theory.

    The questions that picque the most interest for our adult members concern what the book teaches us about ourselves and how it relates to our contemporary, 21st century lives. I’m guessing that good English teachers of middle schoolers ask the same type of questions.

    Anyway, Dave, keep up the great work, and if your students eventually write at anywhere near your level of proficiency, they’ll be well-prepared for whatever writing they’ll do in their work and personal lives. But again – how can we, or can we, inspire a lifelong passion for serious reading?

    Comment by John Webster — September 12, 2013 @ 12:28 pm

  4. I must confess to only having read Hamlet and being too intimidated by the length of the other two books. I would be interested in what the author of this post thinks about doing smaller excerpts of large texts or smaller pieces by significant authors so that students get a greater breadth of study, versus the deep dive these three resent. I guess as an example I read in college, the Grand Inquisitor section of Crime and Punishment and in high school I read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Solzhenitsyn, though I would struggled with his larger works. I would imagine that given the fact that Dickens was serialized it would also be possible with some of his work. I don’t even know if this is a desirable practice, but it would seem just three novels would be too limiting.

    Comment by DC Parent — September 13, 2013 @ 12:45 pm

  5. I am not advocating having students read classics in this post, although I am a strong believer in the canon. And yes, I have had more success with short stories and excerpts with my students. When I was a ninth grader, I took a class that was all short texts by authors like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Kafka, and Camus, and that taste of classic lit got me hooked.

    In this post I meant to argue that classic lit is crucial to a teacher’s education. I think if we start with teachers, we can bring classic lit into the foreground of our shared American culture. Because right now it is nowhere except on the scholar’s desk.

    Comment by O'Shell — September 13, 2013 @ 6:00 pm

  6. Believe it or not the Classics is the first literary unit I teach in 7th grade. What a purposeful challenge for me as a teacher to help my students gain content knowledge and enrich their understanding of genres of fiction. While at the same time, making personal connections that they can carry with them through life, as you have as a teacher related to your profession. We start off by looking at the merits that make a book a classic and many of those merits, identified in the article I have the students read, revolve around how classic novels relate to the live of those who read them. And because they have stood the test of time, and people keep reading them, they continue to influence present and future generations. The last idea we discuss during the introduction to the unit is how classic novels can help us see how other people deal with the same problem we have today. Although not every student I teach is as enriched as you have been by applying the lessons taught in these great to their life…yet, they begin to see how so much of what they view as “entertainment” today has been influenced by past generations. And although life is very different today, so much is still the same and the life lessons taught through the classics still apply.

    Comment by SGP — September 18, 2013 @ 9:14 pm

  7. I remember being a high school student and my teacher made us read these classic books that I simply found tedious. It could have been because I felt like the stories happened in a distant era or the way the characters speak in these books that is completely different than how we speak nowadays, but I just couldn’t relate to any of the characters and situations. I remember Don Quixote being particularly painful for me to finish reading. It was a few years later that I started to enjoy reading these classics and looked for all the books that I had read in high school “because the teacher made me” and discovered a completely different world. A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been my favorite book for many years now. What used to feel impossible not so long ago, it suddenly became real. I was able to relate to these magnificent characters due to my own life experiences. I hope someday my students will be able, too.

    Comment by Julie Pisa Barros — September 20, 2013 @ 9:01 pm

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