Teaching the “Classics”
We all know that the traditional literary classics are becoming less and less accessible to today’s students. The language can be daunting, the sentence structure complex, and the characters seem to espouse old-fashioned values and face out-of-date dilemmas.
Leaving behind the debate—for now—of what is a classic and how we should define (or redefine) the literary canon, there is still a place for Austen, Dickens, Hardy, etc. in our secondary curriculum. Digging a little deeper, the themes and topics the books explore are in fact relevant today: love, marriage, money, gender roles, power, coming-of-age crises. So how do we help teachers reinvigorate their ELA teaching and enable students, including those who are reluctant or less-skilled readers, to embrace these texts?
MASTERPIECE: A Quick Look
MASTERPIECE (formerly MASTERPIECE THEATRE) has been offering award-winning film adaptations of literary classics on PBS for almost 50 years. For many, it’s the gold standard, combining top-notch acting with superb costumes and settings, and brimming with historical authenticity. Today, the interplay between books and films continues to grow, with students anticipating how their favorite novel will be translated onto the screen or discovering the original book after seeing the film. Any librarian who has seen students excitedly debating the merits of book vs. film can attest to the power of combining both.
School librarians have long been leaders in teaching media literacy, as well as offering teachers the resources to keep students engaged and informed. (Many librarians are themselves long-time MASTERPIECE fans whose collections already include MASTERPIECE films.) We know that often the best way to introduce students to a work of literature or enhance their understanding of it, is to watch the film. For today’s students, raised in a media-saturated environment, films help make the work more relatable and less intimidating. In fact, many students may feel more comfortable talking about films than books. MASTERPIECE offers the added benefit of helping students understand what is gained and what is lost when adapting literature. Film is thus not just as an adjunct to literature, but as a medium that can improve students’ understanding of literary conventions, such as character, theme, setting, and point of view. And by learning film’s language and techniques—from close-ups to wide angles to storyboarding—students are better equipped to approach all media with a more critical and thoughtful mindset.
The MASTERPIECE COLLECTIONS on PBS LearningMedia
You don’t need to show an entire film in order to effectively use it. Clips can work exceptionally well. Luckily, clips for some of MASTERPIECE’s most popular adaptations are available for free on PBS Learning Media (PBS LM). Teaching tips, activities, discussion questions, background essays, and author bios accompany the streaming clips.
In the MASTERPIECE COLLECTION, you’ll find resources for book-based films, ranging from The Diary of Anne Frank to Great Expectations to Jane Eyre. In the MASTERPIECE HISTORICAL DRAMA COLLECTION you’ll find non book-based dramas, notably three seasons of Victoria, beginning with the young queen’s coronation. Two films can be found in both collections: Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and The Brontës: To Walk Invisible, which presents the turbulent and tragic lives of the Brontë family. (These films can add interest when team-teaching with a history teacher. Drama teachers may find Les Misérables and Our Town useful.)
Before, During, and After Viewing
Generally, three short clips are provided per title. In order to fully appreciate the significance of each, students are carefully guided as they watch.
The “Before Viewing” section offers background information and discussion questions about the author, time period, characters, setting, etc. Students may be asked to create a K-W-L-type chart to uncover gaps in their knowledge or dispel stereotypes. (They’ll return to the chart later to update/correct it.) Other pre-viewing explorations give context to the story. For Little Women, students read an essay about Louisa May Alcott, then discuss the economic opportunities for women in 19th century America. Before watching a Great Expectations clip, students discuss the elements of coming-of-age novels,
As they watch, students are asked to look for different aspects in the film and/or the story, such as flashbacks, the use of narrator, the setting, first impressions of a character, choice of dialogue, the mood created by music or lighting. Students’ observations are then used as a basis for discussion after watching.
In addition, the “After Viewing” section expands the conversation with thought-provoking questions and topics for further research, debates, writing assignments, and more. Why, for instance, does the film version of Sense and Sensibility include a romantic scene at the end which wasn’t in the book? And what purpose does the séance in The Hound of the Baskervilles serve? How was Jane Eyre a precursor to the sassy, outspoken heroines we are familiar with today?
The MASTERPIECE resources also help connect these classics with contemporary issues, offering activities that transform “timeless” topics and literary archetypes into timely social media posts and profiles, user-generated media content, and talk-show guests. New resources are continually added to the MASTERPIECE collection. Resources accompanying WORLD ON FIRE (airing this spring), an emotionally compelling, multi-episode World War II drama, will offer new historical perspectives from around the world.
As you introduce or remind teachers of these PBS LM resources, there are many ways to use them in your work. Coordinate with the ELA curriculum coordinator to regularly integrate film as a useful teaching tool, rather than a Friday afternoon “treat.” Knowing the typical problems or roadblocks students encounter with your school’s ELA or history curriculum, use the MASTERPIECE resources to tackle some of those issues. If you are in charge of an afterschool book club, consider turning it into a book-and-film club. And, if you haven’t read one of these classics in a while, refresh your own memory (and enthusiasm) with some clips. What’s your favorite interpretation of a classic tale?
Author: Cyrisse Jaffee
Cyrisse Jaffee is a former public and school librarian in the Boston area. She reviews children’s and young adult books for The Horn Book Guide and holds an M.L.S. from Simmons College. Currently, Cyrisse conceptualizes, writes, and edits educational materials for PBS shows, including MASTERPIECE, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, ARTHUR, and MOLLY OF DENALI, all produced by WGBH Boston.