Monday, June 25, 2012

The Glass Castle in the classroom

One of the reasons I'm a teacher:
I assigned The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls to my Humanities class. A 55-year-old man in my class admitted to me that he'd never read a whole book in his entire life. He'd faked it through school. I encouraged him to give it a try, that he could do it. I promised him he would love it. I crossed my fingers and encouraged, encouraged, encouraged. He did it, he loved it, and still, he contacts me occasionally to tell me how proud he was of his accomplishment and how much he loved that class.

I teach school year-round, so we're headed into the last few weeks of a quarter. In one class, we're wrapping up our study on The Glass Castle. It's an unconventional choice for a novel study, because it's a memoir, not a novel, but as the students turn in their final essays and give their oral presentations, I'm reminded why I choose this book for my classroom, and that my former student's experience with the book isn't all that unique.

First, I've never had a student, out of many hundreds, who has not enjoyed the book, or at least could relate to it in some way. Many of my students don't like to read, or don't think they can get through a book, just like my former student. The teenagers like it just as well as he did. It matters to me that my students like what we read, because more will actually read it, and I want them to have a good experience. I think back to my days studying literature, and how excruciating it was to write papers and give presentations on something I hated.

Second, it's well written, and functions as a novel for study purposes. There are plenty of themes, symbolism, plot, round characters and everything else you would want from a good novel. The fact that it is true adds another level that the students appreciate. The most popular presentation choice is finding out where the characters are now and what they are doing.

Finally, I never get tired of teaching it. Since the students engage with it and are excited to talk about it, I always find something new. Students tend to relate the things that happened in Jeannette Walls' life to their own in incredible ways. I've taught some books once and haven't been able to stomach the thought of spending another quarter with them.

The Glass Castle is best for high school and up, due to some mature themes (there is nothing gratuitous or graphic).

I put my Glass Castle unit up on Teachers Pay Teachers, in case you decide to teach it in your class and don't want to start from scratch. It has evolved over four years, and is exactly what I use in my classroom.