Are Modern Classics the Answer to Student Engagement In English?


Photo by A. Mckeough

American Street by Ibi Zoboi is just one example of how contemporary texts can engage high school students and work alongside a classic like The Great Gatsby. The one hundred year old Gatsby is becoming less and less relevant in its thematic focus on the American Dream. Zoboi’s novel invites the points of view of BIPOC characters that are distinctly left out of Fitzgerald’s text.

Often, students find themselves disengaged from English class because they are unable to connect to the books they are reading. Most books that students are required to read are classics and, thus outdated. Due to this, students are less interested and have a challenging time focusing. The students’ grade could then be affected negatively because they were forced to read a book they couldn’t engage with. To fix this issue schools should introduce more contemporary books that students might enjoy better. Stories like the To Kill a Mockingbird, Romeo and Juliet, and The Great Gatsby are all quite common in English classes but could easily be swapped for modern books and have the same effect.

To Kill a Mockingbird is primally read in schools to analyze the literature and bring awareness to discriminatory practices. This is important for students to learn, however much of the story is outdated and unrelatable. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is about a young black girl named Starr Carter trying to figure out her place in the world after becoming a witness to the shooting and death of her childhood best friend, Khalil by a police officer. This book is very impactful and a much more understandable story for present day students. Kids can find these events easier to connect with and become more invested in their schoolwork.

Another story the is used quite frequently in the English curriculum is Romeo and Juliet. Despite Romeo and Juliet being a stage play, it is often read and analyzed as a book, which takes away from the actual story itself. The play is also written in Shakespearean English making it harder for students to understand what is going on in the plot. A good alternative to Romeo and Juliet is They Both Die in The End by Adam Silvera. This book is also a romantic tragedy about Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio who are both set to die in a day. They meet and spend their last day together, falling in love with each other over the course of the day.

Finally, The Great Gatsby is an America classic but also not very relatable to present day readers. The main idea of following the America dream, just to be disappoint, can be found in many modern literatures but one book in particular that really seals this is American Street by Lucinda Dyer. American Street that follows Fabiola an American born teenage raised in Hatiti by her mother when she moves to America with her mother. But once there Fabiola’s mother is detained by immigration and forced to live with her aunt and cousins. Fabiola is struggling to learn how to live in this unfamiliar environment and get her mother back, but not everything is as simple as it appears. This book is great at show so of the modern struggles immigrant must face and how the American dream isn’t as perfect as people like to make it out to be.

All three of these books are great examples of how contemporary books can easily replace old literature and make class more enjoyable for students. Another plus to these books is the different points of view they give. It becomes more challenging to keep student engagement when they aren’t making connections with the characters, however with the diversity of main characters students are more likely to engage and synthesize with them.