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Co-op HS British Lit class -- what novels do you see as must-reads?

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I'm in the initial stages of planning a British Lit class for our co-op. This year I did American Lit with an anthology and then added 8 novels and 2 plays. I'd like to do the same for the British Lit class. Any suggestions are welcome, or if you have a list you'd like to share I'd really appreciate that!

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"British Lit" is a big topic! 

With high-school-age homeschoolers, I've had great success teaching the following works from the Middle Ages:

  • Beowulf — I used a prose translation, which I felt was more accurate than the verse of, say, Seamus Heaney;
  • selected poems of Marie de France — they're translated from her Anglo-Norman French, but they're wonderful;
  • Chaucer's "A Knight's Tale";
  • the entire Sir Gawain and the Green Knight;
  • selections from Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur.

I've had success teaching the following plays of Shakespeare:

  • Romeo & Juliet;
  • Hamlet;
  • Macbeth.

But you could also teach:

  • Twelfth Night;
  • The Comedy of Errors;
  • Henry IV Parts I & II;
  • Henry V;

—as well as a number of others. I've also had great success teaching the following British novels:

  • Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818)
  • Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847)
  • Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813)

With such novels, I've found that it helps to read them in a careful sequence, e.g., in order of increasing difficulty, rather than, say, in chronological order. The reason: I find that with students aged 14 - 17, their reading skills are still developing rapidly, so that by the time we reach the works with the most complex content and style, the students are ready for those works. 

Hope this is helpful.

—Roy Speed

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Agree that it is such a huge topic that it is hard to narrow down.

I don't teach a straight British lit class, but some British works that I want my kids to read that are not mentioned above (though I might add some different works from Shakespeare)

  • Rime of the Ancient Mariner
  • possibly Rape of the Lock
  • at least 1 work by Dickens
  • Screwtape Letters  (We puffy heart love Lewis and this book is part of a list that all read before graduation. 🙂 )
  • maybe some Wells

Gosh, there are so many that we love but have spread over yrs vs trying to fit into 1. 

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My local co-op teaches the following novels:

-Beowulf
-Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
-selected Canterbury Tales
-The Faerie Queen
-Hamlet
-Paradise Lost
-Sense and Sensibility
-Jane Eyre
-A Tale of Two Cities
-poetry, essay, and satire unit (no idea what these are, this is what is listed on syllabus)
-20th century short stories/essays unit (same)

In addition, Honors students have to read 2-4 from this list:  A Man For All Seasons, Wuthering Heights, Orthodoxy, David Copperfield, Adam Bede, The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, A Passage to India, Far From the Maddening Crowd, Perelandra, Conversion,  Frankenstein, Macbeth, Vanity Fair, Absent in the Spring

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I don't really believe in a canon per se, but if I were doing it and had to pick 8 British novels for a high school class, I'd probably do... in no particular order...

Oliver Twist 
Pride and Prejudice
Frankenstein
White Teeth
1984
Lord of the Flies
Cold Comfort Farm
and maybe a Jeeves and Wooster, because what's more British than that? Or an Evelyn Waugh, like Scoop or something.

Some of the things mentioned above, like Beowulf or Faire Queen, I'd be happier reading in excerpt. No one needs to read all of Canterbury Tales. Chaucer didn't even finish it. And these are the sorts of things that would be in a good Norton Anthology. Or in that Prentice Hall lit The British Tradition. There would be poets and short pieces I'd be sure to check off. For drama, obviously a Shakespeare and maybe Importance of Being Earnest, done as a prepared class reading?

For students who were honors, I might make it a bit harder... Tale of Two Cities or David Copperfield instead of Oliver Twist, maybe To the Lighthouse or Jane Eyre instead of Cold Comfort Farm. Maybe replace Lord of the Flies or my comic novel suggestion with something really challenging but too bulky for students who don't read quickly, like Vanity Fair. I would absolutely include at least one more modern novel.

It's not about what are the most important reads in British lit to me. It's more about what are the best books that will challenge students, resonate with students, and also expose them to a wide variety of good books.
 

Edited by Farrar
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We just finished British Literature.  Here’s what we used and why.  I’m going to tell you why because you might have weak readers in your co-op and you might need to know that some literature is very, very difficult for them and frustrating for them to read.

I am a reader.  Always have been.  Read Jane Eyre and Dickens in 8th grade for fun.  Read a bunch of Russian authors in 9th grade.  “I like to read” is a defining aspect to who I am.

My son is nothing like me.  He has ADHD and finds it very difficult to focus on reading.  He somewhat enjoys reading if it’s assigned, but never chooses to read on his own.  It’s a bit of a chore.  Maybe not the worst chore you can have, but still something you have to do and don’t really want to do, but you get through it by counting down the minutes until you’re done.  I have a very difficult time understanding how he doesn’t love reading.  I keep making the mistake of giving him books that are difficult for him to read and then he struggles.  I don’t always know they’re difficult until in the middle of them when I realize he has no clue what’s going on in the plot.

So, I chose the following British books specifically to tailor to this child’s needs so that he had a mix of “hard” and “easy” books this year.  Some were harder than I thought they’d be and were a slog for us to get through. 

1.  Beowulf.  I chose the Heaney translation as it’s written in currently spoken English and is easy to understand.  I wanted my son to understand the story, and not be bogged down with an older style of writing.  He was able to understand that version and read it easily and he very much liked the story.

2.  Pride and Prejudice.  He had a lot of trouble following along with what was going on in the story.  The book is wordy and pithy and I love it, but he just wasn’t getting it.  When I realized he was missing all the good parts because they were being bogged down in all the words, we paused in our reading and watched the movie version with Kiera Knightly (because it was only 2 hours, vs the long PBS one.). Once he saw the movie and understood the general sweep of the story, he was able to read it much easier and understand what was going on in the book.

3.  The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Chosen because it’s skinny and he needed to read something shorter after the longer P&P.  He was able to follow along with the plot on this one easily.  He totally didn’t know the twist in the book, so it was fun to let him discover the twist on his own.

4.  The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  I chose it because I found it on lists of British books that are taught in schools, though that surprised me.  I further chose this because my husband loves to listen to the Hitchhiker’s radio shows with my son and so he’s listened to the story and also seen a tv version and a movie version.  It was time for him to read the book for himself and I knew he’d never read it if it wasn’t assigned for school.  It was a very easy read for him because he could “hear” the story in his head after listening to all the audio/movie versions.

5.  Jane Eyre.  He enjoyed the story, but had a VERY difficult time reading this book.  I ended up reading it out loud to him.  I could have gotten the audio version, but I wanted to be able to pause every now and then and talk about the book.  The sentences in this book are SOOOO LONG.  Don’t forget: I love to read and I read this book in 8th grade and then again in my 20s.  But reading it out loud really drove home to me how long and convoluted the sentences are.  It’s easy to lose track of what the beginning of the sentence was about by the time you get to the end.  He did enjoy the story, but it was almost impossible for him to understand it on his own mostly because of the loooong sentences.  I’m good at reading out loud, so I could clearly emphasize the sentences the right way to carry forward the idea at the beginning of the sentence to the end.

6.  Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, because I’m the teacher so I get to pick the books and I love Du Maurier! And she’s a well-regarded British novelist.  This book is weird and moody.  It’s marked as a love story on the cover, but if it hadn’t have said that on the cover, we wouldn’t have thought it was a love story. When I read articles about it, Du Maurier never meant for it to be a love story.  It’s a story about the obsession Mrs. deWinter has for Rebecca.  My son liked the story and was able to read it on his own without trouble.

7. An Agatha Christie novel.  I found an article of the “top 10 best Agatha Christie books” and let him choose one.  He chose The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  I had him watch the newest version of Murder on the Orient Express and then later we went to a live play of Three Blind Mice, so our Agatha Christie education was robust this year.  🙂.  He was able to read the book just fine.  It starts out a bit slow with all the introductions of each character, but soon some action kicks in and he liked it.  He actually guessed that the ending to Roger would be how the ending is to Orient Express. I said “Who do you think did it?” And he said, “....(spoiler)...” and that’s actually who did it in Orient Express.  So, it was fun to watch Orient Express with him, and when it got to the part of who did it, he realized, “Hey!  That’s what I thought happened in Roger!”  

8.  The Screwtape Letters.  This one just about drove me nuts.  I haaated this book by the end of our reading of it.  I had read this book in high school on my own for fun.  It was very difficult for my son to read.  And I found that it was very difficult to explain to him what Lewis was saying.  It was hard to put in words the concepts that Lewis was alluding to.  It was also too wordy.  I found myself almost hating Lewis by the time it was done and thinking, “For goodness sakes man!  Just make your point in clear language!”  I ended up having to read it out loud to my son and explain what was going on every couple of pages.  I was super disappointed in how grueling this book was for us.

9.  Jeeves and the Ties that Bind.  Because Wodehouse.  Gottta end with some British humor.  I read this one out loud to my oldest and also to my youngest just for fun so we could enjoy it together.  

 

P.S.  I was going to read a Dicken’s novel, but replaced it with Hitchhikers.  For this particular kid, it was a good decision, but I do wish he’d read some Dickens.  

P.P.S. I didn’t do any Shakespeare because the plan was to focus on many works of Shakespeare next year.  

Edited by Garga
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I like Garga's list too! I think it really is the case that you have to choose based on the group. If I had a group of weaker readers, I'd never do Hamlet. We'd do Tempest or Macbeth. I'd focus on doing things that are more accessible and shorter.

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6 hours ago, 8FillTheHeart said:

Agree that it is such a huge topic that it is hard to narrow down.

I don't teach a straight British lit class, but some British works that I want my kids to read that are not mentioned above (though I might add some different works from Shakespeare)

  • Rime of the Ancient Mariner
  • possibly Rape of the Lock
  • at least 1 work by Dickens
  • Screwtape Letters  (We puffy heart love Lewis and this book is part of a list that all read before graduation. 🙂 )
  • maybe some Wells

Gosh, there are so many that we love but have spread over yrs vs trying to fit into 1. 

I may be the only non-Christian in the world that also assigns The Screwtape letters. ETA that I’ve seen Never Let me Go taught in British Lit, I guess for modern? That’s an easy one(to read. Not the subject matter). 

Edited by madteaparty
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1 hour ago, madteaparty said:

I may be the only non-Christian in the world that also assigns The Screwtape letters. ETA that I’ve seen Never Let me Go taught in British Lit, I guess for modern? That’s an easy one(to read. Not the subject matter). 

I almost put Never Let Me Go on my list but I went with the very different White Teeth instead as a modern novel. But I think it's good to do a modern novel.

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There are very few novels that I would consider "must read".  I do, however, require certain authors.

Shakespeare

Dickens

a Bronte (Jane or Charlotte)

Also highly recommended:

Jane Austen

Robert Louis Stevenson

George Orwell

C.S. Lewis

J.R.R. Tolkien (if not read previously)

Arthur Conan Doyle (if not read previously)

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Oo! Oo! I'll play! Agreeing with previous posters -- not a specific set of works/authors that you need to cover, and also, there are SO many authors/works to choose from, that perhaps a "theme" would help you narrow it down:

- British Christian authors (George MacDonald; GK Chesteron; CS Lewis; JRR Tolkien; Charles Williams; Dorothy Sayers)
- 19th century British classics
- female British authors
- classic highlights through history of British Lit.
(pick a novel or play, a short story, and a poet for each of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, and fill in with a few choices from the 21st century, and pre-17th century early centuries)
- British Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Speculative Fiction
("The Golden Key" (George MacDonald); Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll); Peter Pan (JM Barrie); The Hobbit (JRR Tolkien); Watership Down (Richard Adams); something by HG Wells; Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde); Nineteen-Eighty-Four (George Orwell); Brave New World (Aldus Huxley); Out of the Silent Planet (CS Lewis); Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams; The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman))

British works/authors I've done in various homeschool co-op classes that went over well:
- Beowulf
- Macbeth (Shakespeare)
- The Invisible Man (HG Wells) -- and to a lesser degree, The Time Machine
- Animal Farm (Orwell)
- The Hobbit (Tolkien) -- also his longish short story "Farmer Giles of Ham" (humorous; mock epic); and to a lesser degree, his short story "Smith of Wooten Major
- "The Monkey's Paw" (Jacobs) -- short story

British Lit. done at home over the years that my own DSs enjoyed:
- "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (Coleridge) -- poem
- everything by JRR Tolkien -- The Hobbit; Lord of the Rings trilogy; and his 3 short stories
- Watership Down (Richard Adams)
- Wooster and Jeeves short stories by P.G. Wodehouse -- but also other short story collections by Wodehouse
- Sherlock Holmes short mysteries (Doyle)
- And Then There Were None; Murder on the Orient Express; Hercule Poirot short mysteries (Christie)
- Father Brown short mysteries (Chesterton)
- The Man Who Was Thursday (Chesterton)
- Till We Have Faces; Screwtape Letters (Lewis)
- Lord of the Flies (Golding)
- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; Restaurant at the End of the Universe (Adams)
- A Christmas Carol (Dickens) -- they also enjoyed Tale of Two Cities, but were really lost until they got over the hump of the first 10 chapters
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight -- Tolkien translation
- All Creatures Great and Small (Herriot)
- My Family and Other Animals (Durrell)
- The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Stevenson)
- Macbeth; Hamlet (Shakespeare)
- Brave New World (Huxley)
- Animal Farm; Nineteen Eighty-Four (Orwell)

British Lit. DSs did NOT like:
- Wuthering Heights (Bronte) -- although, I *really* got into it (lol)

British Lit that DSs were so-so about:
- Canterbury Tales (Chaucer)
- Ivanhoe (Scott)
- Peter Pan (Barrie)
- Frankenstein (Shelley) -- they got bogged down with the verrrryyyyy lennngggthyyy character monologues, and travelogue descriptions

Other thoughts...

If you do something by Charles Dickens, here are my suggestions, from shortest to longest:
- A Christmas Carol (28,912 words)
- Tale of Two Cities (137,000 words)
- Oliver Twist  (158,631 words)
- Great Expectations (186,339 words)
- David Copperfield (357,489 words)

Some short stories could be nice:
- The Monkey's Paw (Jacobs)
- The Open Window (Saki)
- A Scandal in Bohemia - Sherlock Holmes (Doyle)
- Lamb to Slaughter (Dahl)
- The Golden Key (MacDonald)
- Farmer Giles of Ham (Tolkien)
- The Rocket  -- or other short story (Wilde)

You might also consider including a few short units on UK poetry/poets (these ideas are all pre-20th century):
Shakespeare's sonnets
John Donne
William Blake
William Wordsworth
"Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Coleridge...
Lord Byron
Percy Bysshe Shelley
John Keats
Lord Alfred Tennyson
Christina Rossetti
Elizabeth Barret Browning


While I personally *really* enjoyed Never Let Me Go, I have a hard time picturing most teens getting into this slow moving / not much happens novel (until you figure out the "twist" -- which I don't want to spoil -- but even after that it is still slow and sad because you realize there is no hope of change or a future for the main character and her former classmates). It's a dystopia -- but written like a slow-moving relationship novel, lol.

Also, I think the following authors would be a bit of a slog or lower on the interest level for a majority of teens: Daniel Dafoe; Thomas Hardy; William Makepeace Thackery; Henry James; E.M. Forster; Virginia Woolf; Evelyn Waugh; DH Lawrence...
 

Edited by Lori D.
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I like your breakdown list @Lori D. MacDonald, Chesterton, Tolkien are all regular authors we read in our home.  Expanding to Scottish and Irish authors, my dd loved Marmion, and we have all thoroughly enjoyed Dracula.

What I love about having kids well-read in foundational works is watching the connections my kids make. For example, my 11th grader and I just finished Dracula.  Both Rime of the Ancient Mariner ("like a painted ship upon a painted ocean") and Marmion (the entire Whitby scenario ties into Marmion) are alluded to in Dracula. When they recognize these allusions, it is exciting for them to make the connections to the author's deeper storyline (and in Dracula's case, the eeriness intensifies 😉 ).  Those conversations are the ones that make me love homeschooling. 

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