Classic and Contemporary Literature Pairings Resonate with Students

CJ English Teachers Share Their Work at the National and State Levels

When Molly Bardine, CJ teacher, English department chair and Senior Capstone coordinator received the annual call from the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) inviting educators to submit proposals for presentations at their national conference, she reached out to her English colleagues with an idea.

Highlighting current research and practical applications to the classroom, the convention draws over 8,000 English Language Arts teachers from across the country. This year’s fall convention was held in Anaheim, CA with the theme of: Suenos! Pursuing the Light! 

As CJ’s English department has been working to “illuminate” diverse literature of the past and present for students — creating a culturally relevant classroom based on Catholic teaching and social justice — the team was excited to share the shift that they had experienced in student engagement with others from across the country.

Amanda Bertke, Dan Eiser and Katlyn DeLong along with Bardine, submitted a proposal, built a presentation, and were ultimately selected to present at this prestigious event. 

The success of this presentation led to another invitation from the Ohio Council of Teachers of English Language Arts for the team to present at the OCTELA annual conference on February 25, 2023.

They shared their experience of how students could be encouraged to build a more just and hopeful world based on literature taught in the classroom. In the case of CJ, the encouragement grounded in Catholic intellectual tradition and the charisms of St. Julie Billiart, SNDdeN and Blessed William Joseph Chaminade, SM. 

“Included in our presentation was the exciting work that we have been doing for the last five years as a department,” said Bardine. “Research regarding students' interest in reading shows that they have a difficult time engaging with traditional works of literature because these traditional works no longer feel relevant to them and their experiences today.” 

Video: Hear more from Molly Bardine about this event and upcoming opportunities.

In order to help students better appreciate traditional works while also supporting overall student engagement, the English department balanced the curriculum between traditional texts and contemporary and diverse works of literature by pairing two books — one traditional and one contemporary — by theme. 

“Themes can unify a curriculum and experiences within all works of literature which can allow students to connect and relate to both traditional and contemporary texts as well as see their own experiences in the lives of the characters they encounter,” said Bardine. 

Applications in the Classroom
In her class, Katlyn DeLong pairs Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, originally published in 1813 with Ibi Zoboi's Pride, published in 2018. 

“The goal is for students to begin to see and understand how an author from the 1800s can tell a timeless story that they can relate to even today. The themes, characters, and story line of Austen's original work are translated into contemporary Brooklyn but still retain their original complexity and appeal to students. It is so important that students see themselves in the literature we are reading, and pairing these texts gives them a chance to do just that.”

Amanda Bertke takes a slightly different approach to the classic/contemporary method, focusing on the classic characters present in the novels she teaches. 

Restart by Gordon Korman follows an eighth grade student, who is the star quarterback of the state champion football team, and a notorious bully, as he navigates his new normal after suffering severe memory loss from falling off a roof. This is a character people might have seen portrayed in movies and television shows over the years and one that is often seen as the main character in popular and classic novels that are read in schools. She pairs this text with Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds which follows the main character Will — a middle school student whose dad, uncle, and older brother were all killed in gang violence. These tragic circumstances force him to make a choice to follow in their path or ultimately forge his own.

“I paired these two books together because it highlights the differences in life experiences between these two boys who are both around the same age. Long Way Down also shines a spotlight on a character that students might not usually read about, but that gives students insight into life experiences that some of their peers and classmates may have experienced.”

This method of teaching literature by theme is coupled with bringing in outside voices and perspectives to help students understand how this text continues to be relevant to their lives and the lives of others today. 

For nine years, Dan Eiser taught Of Mice and Men, originally published in 1937 to freshmen students. This book highlights migrant workers during the time of the Great Depression. In order to anchor the text and demonstrate to students how this novel is still relevant today he brought in a live speaker, who also happened to be his mother who, along with her family, was a migrant worker for many years in her youth. 

“My personal history is shaped by migrant work. My grandparents were migrant workers and my mom followed in their footsteps a bit. I started asking myself, how can I bring that experience into the classroom and show students that this work is still being done and all the social justice issues tied to it?,” he said.

“We read the book, discuss the struggles the characters face, look at the power dynamics within the book and how those have shifted since the book was published and that opens us up into a conversation about modern day migrant workers and modern day migrant issues people are still dealing with today.”

It is at this point that Eiser brings in his mother to speak to her experiences including her work as a migrant worker, the lessons she learned along the way, and ideas she hopes the students will remember. This further demonstrates to students how the themes in this classic book still apply. 

“The mission and goal of the CJ English department is for students to encounter diverse points of view in order to understand and cultivate a well-informed, global perspective. Being a  community that embraces diversity and inclusivity, the texts taught in the classroom reflects our student population and encourages students to see themselves represented in literature,” said Bardine. 

“Students have engaged positively to this method of teaching texts based on themes, as it allows them to connect with the texts they are reading on a personal level — whether they can see themselves represented in these books, their classmates, peers, or people different from them.”