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Great Works for high school: what is your minimal list?

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I have in front of me pp. 494-497 of WTM with the high school reading list and it seems...ambitious for us.  What would be your absolute minimum list of challenging Great Works of Literature that absolutely must be read in 4 years of high school?  Canterbury Tales?  Dante's Inferno?   As a math science gal, I hardly know what's what.  Thanks!  



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It's too ambitious of a reading list for us too. Here's my "must read and discuss during high school to get a diploma from me" list. They will read more books than these (their choice from a list depending on interest and reading ability and whether or not they prioritize lit/history over STEM, etc), but this is my bare minimum for all my kids. I didn't include things from the WTM list like the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, but they'll read those important documents too.


The Odyssey

Julius Caesar

The Tempest

The Inferno

Heart of Darkness

Tom Sawyer

Huck Finn

Gulliver's Travels

Pilgrim's Progress

Uncle Tom's Cabin

A Tale of Two Cities

Up From Slavery

Animal Farm

Screwtape Letters

Mere Christianity


To Kill a Mockingbird


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So much depends on the child's interests!

I do not think there is broad consensus what constitutes the  minimal list.

I would like every educated person to be familiar with Homeric epics: Iliad and Odyssey are a must IMO, because there are so many cultural references.

With the Romans, it gets fuzzier. I personally dislike the Aeneid; Virgil did a great job plagiarizing Homer. OTOH, Dante's inferno is really important, and you kind of need the Aeneid to get Virgil....And then there is only so much time. Definitely Shakespeare - but which?...


Let's just say I started high school with the chronological history progression and integrated literature and big intentions. So, we dutifully read the works of the historic periods for two years, lots of them,... and then things changed: DD wanted to study the English authors of the 19th century in detail, and DS wants to read a lot of dystopian literature. So, we became heretics and deviated from the sacred Great Books sequence in order to have the kids follow their literary passions. I don't regret for one minute not sticking to covering the "canon". I look at those lists as guides and select which of those books fit into our studies.


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Every family will have a different list of "must reads" from that list -- and probably have "must reads" that are NOT on that list, too. :) You really can't go wrong with SO many good classics out there to choose from, so I'd suggest taking a step back and look at your "big picture for high school" to be able to give yourself some questions or set of guidelines for deciding what to put on your "must read" list.


Ideas for helping you narrow down the list:

- Do you want your classics list to also match up with a "college-bound reading list"?

- Do you want your classic choices to be the ones that "most high schools" cover?

- Does your student have a special interest in a particular genre, author, time period, etc. that you could focus on for a year and do many works that fit in with that interest?

- Is there a strong possibility your student will end up attending a high school, or taking dual enrollment college classes? If so, are there works that would important to do now so your student has the background needed for a smoother transition into that other schooling option?

- Are there works your student is esp. asking to do?

- Are there works YOU want to esp. be able to share with your student?

- Are there works that will esp. help you have discussions that are important to you to have with your student?


I do recommend shooting for a variety of types of works: novels, novellas, short stories, plays, poetry, essays). And a variety of genre types: realistic, humorous, sci-fi, fantasy, gothic, romanticism, epic, adventure, etc.


I'd also suggest adding a few works more to that list than what you think you'll be able to actually read, in order to have researched and have resources ready for those works just in case:

- you get through some of the works faster than you thought you would

- for any number of reasons, you end up substituting an abridged version for the full work, or decide to just watch the play/watch a film version of the book rather than reading it, leaving you with more time than you though you'd have

- you find you all just *hate* a work, and need to use your "get out of jail free" card  :tongue_smilie: to set it aside and substitute with one of the extras on your list (while I wouldn't do this every time a classic is a bit of a struggle -- because that's how you learn and build up "muscles" is through struggle -- if you absolutely hate a book, there are SO many classics, that it's okay to give yourself permission to not finish a work you are just dreading and hating, and swap it out for another classic :) )



More tips of things to be aware of in making your choices:


- Not all Lit. is created equal. ;)

Poetry, works in poetic form (epics), and works in translation are usually harder and slower, as they require a lot more thought and focus. Older works (pre-1900) are also more difficult and slower, due to sentence structure and vocabulary, but also we are so removed from the mindset and culture from that long ago, even if it is a work from an English-speaking culture. So, plan for more time in your schedule for these works.


- Short stories are a super option.

Not only are they a great way to get "in miniature" much of the same sort of things that go on in a longer novel, short stories can be a great way to get exposure to a larger number of authors when you are short on time, or want to compare authors/time periods. So, substituting 1-2 short stories, or a novella, by the same author in place of a lengthy novel can get you back on schedule. Or let you schedule covering 4-5 authors in the time you might have only been able to cover 1 author with a novel.


- Plays were *meant* to be watched and experienced.

You do NOT have to *read* every play you want to include in your classics list -- you can do a very good job of covering a play in just one week (1-2 days of research and pre-exposure, 1 day to view the play, 3 days after the play to discuss and/or write about the play). Shakespeare is a bit of an exception; we did find it good to read a few Shakespeare plays, but we also just watched a few, too.


- Pick works that match your student's interests.

An interested student is an engaged and learning student. If you have several works to choose from (all from same time period, OR, covering similar themes or subject, OR from same author) -- let your student pick; or go with the work you know is most likely to be enjoyable to your student. Reading the classics shouldn't be about "suffering/enduring", or about "checking boxes on a list". It's meant to be about joining the Great Conversation of Literature that's been going on for several thousand years! :) At the high school level, much of the classics should be engaging and help the student think through big ideas.


- Pick works that match you student's abilities.

For example, the year we did Ancient classics, DSs were 8th and 9th grades; they were into air-softing and paint-balling, not schooling; and they were still pretty new to "doing Literature" and literary analysis, and really weren't ready for some of the "heavy hitter works". So I chose to have us do works that stood a good chance of connecting plot-wise and theme-wise, and the one hurdle I made them clear was the poetic language structure of the epic. So our classics list that year included several of the epics (adventure stories!), Greek myths (more adventure stories!), and several Greek plays (blood, guts, and tragedy!).



Happy reading! And wishing your family an ENJOYABLE literature journey through the classics! :) Warmest regards, Lori D.

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For Shakespeare, I would highly recommend seeing if there is an acting company or a college drama department near you that produces a Shakespeare play ever year. Find out what play they are going to perform, read it, and have a field trip. Repeat for the next three years. Shakespeare is meant to be seen on stage.


If you haven't already, build a foundation of Greek literature and know the Roman counterparts, because so many other works allude back to them or copy their story structure. Survey American Literature when you study US History, British and World Literature when you study World History, etc... 


I agree with the comments above that it is important to pick literature that engages your kids. Mix a contemporary work in with the great works here and there if your kids aren't big independent readers. Part of being cultured is knowing contemporary culture. too. The Canterbury Tales are important, but it is also important for your kids to be able to converse with their contemporaries who have never read The Canterbury Tales, but have read The Hunger Games and Percy Jackson.

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Lori D. had great guiding questions.


I tend to think in categories with literature. So it's not so much about specific works, but rather about covering a wide variety of time periods, styles, and genres. And then within that, picking things that are meant for the student - short stories in lieu of novels sometimes for kids who aren't fast or voracious readers, works that play to a child's interests when possible, etc.

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For high school literature, I like whole works.


I taught high school English (before children) and it was so frustrating that our curriculum just gave a chapter or two for most of the pieces studied.


I finally have high schoolers, so I get to teach high school English again!!


I am mainly focused on studying the works of specific authors.  For some authors, the child's interest will determine what is read.  Others will be determined by what I like or by what I think is appropriate.


For instance, last year ds15 studied American literature.  I hate The Great Gatsby, so he read several of Fitzgerald's short stories.  With Louisa May Alcott, I let the poor boy with 5 sisters skip Little Women (he lives it), but I had him read a short story for her as well.  The Pearl is about the only Steinbeck I can stomach.


And he read many longer works:  To Kill a Mockingbird, The Scarlet Letter, ... drawing a blank at the moment, but I think you get the idea.



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