It Was the Best of Books, It Was the Worst of Books

It may seem that complex and difficult texts aren’t worth the time they take to teach, but they are essential to helping students dive deep with the Common Core standards.

Last week, the sweet enjoyment of my Thanksgiving break was punctuated by brief moments of panic as I thought about how to tackle teaching my next novel, A Tale of Two Cities, one of my favorite and yet most dreaded texts to teach.

Late last spring, I wasn’t sure that this staple of my curriculum would remain a part of my reading list. As my team sat down to reflect on the year and where we could tighten up or revise our pacing charts, A Tale of Two Cities sat on the chopping block, as it often does, with arguments about its length and rigor weighing heavily against it. It wasn’t until this past month, when we revisited our conversation, that my team agreed to give it one more year.

I have to admit that I waffled with this decision and, were it not for our collaborative decision, I might have let it go. I am always hesitant to argue for a canonical book. My students get plenty of dead, white, male literature in our 10th grade world studies curriculum, and as a team, we are ever aware of our need to branch out from the European canon.

However, the more we considered our goals for the unit, it became clear that Tale was the best fit. Simply put, this novel has a complexity to its storyline that is hard to find in other books.

I’ve worked hard to broaden my scope of awareness of literature from other cultures and have fought to bring texts like Persepolis and To Live into our 10th grade classrooms. The problem is that while these modern texts offer insight into parts of the world that don’t often get explored, when it comes down to it, they aren’t as complex as a novel like Tale.  And, ultimately, I want my classroom to have a balance of content rich, and rigorous texts.

This has been an ongoing process. When Common Core first hit our classrooms, my colleagues and I had to shift our thinking about the focus of our teaching. We struggled as we moved away from novel based units of study. We no longer taught our Great Gatsby unit. Instead we tackled units on rhetoric or structural analysis, which were often best served by a selection of shorter texts so that students would have the opportunity to read and re-read texts for meaning.

Our 10th grade ELA curriculum is integrated with Social Studies, so we collaborated with our teaching partners to determine the major themes and time periods for which we wanted literary coverage. We worked to bring in a variety of non-fiction text and a broader representation of authors from around the world.

These were important shifts that have helped me to focus my instruction on diving deep with skills. But, even now, I am hesitant to give up all whole class novels. In my ideal English classroom, there is a place for a variety of materials, even in this new paradigm.

The key to making whole class novels relevant is by pairing them with standards that can only be achieved with a rich and complex text. A book like Tale may require much more focused scaffolding to help students comprehend at a basic level, but it also allows for more depth of analysis.

My students will read Tale as investigators of Dickensian style. Their ultimate goal will be to write a pastiche that incorporates these elements into a new story or a continuation of his novel. Instead of assigning huge chunks of reading and quizzing them on plot based comprehension, I am going to ask them to read towards certain goals and then focus our classroom discussion on smaller chunks of the text. We will definitely focus on plot and character development, but we will also move past what Dickens is writing to analyze how and why he is writing.

By the end of our novel study, I hope that students will be able to discuss and/or write about how Dickens uses elements of structure to create mystery or surprise (CC.RL.9-10.5) as well as feel more confident about their ability to independently read complex text (CC.RL.9-10.10).

Getting students to persevere for 300 plus pages of Dickens is really hard. However, seeing the eyes of my students’ light up as the storylines tie up at the end of Dickens’ sweeping tale makes the struggle worth it. Hopefully, the focus of the standards will help me to feel even more successful this year through this difficult yet rewarding text.

Photo Credit: By Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz). Photographer: Heritage Auctions, Inc. Dallas, Texas [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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  • Greg Dykhouse

    HS History
    Great work! A choice in literature that generates substantive discussion! Congratulations!

  • Rebecca McFarlan


    Interestingly at the end of last year, I asked students to complete a class survey.  One of the questions asked them to suggest books to add to the curriculum.  A significant number suggested Dickens novels.  Our department, for the reasons in this blog post, had decided to eliminate Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities.  I added Dickens back into the AP Senior reading list this year.  Students have responded favorably to choosing and reading reading one of his novels.  

    • LIsa Cheby


      This novel was one of my favorites in high school. 

      I remember this sam struggle teaching "To Kill a Mockingbird" to 10th graders and admire your approach.  Interdisciplinary collaboration is a huge benefit.  You wrote "I am going to ask them to read towards certain goals." Could you give an example of such a goal as I am not sure what you mean by that?  Thanks for sharing!

      • JessicaKeigan

        Reading Goals


        Hi Lisa

        I am working this year to chunk the text in such a way that even if students don’t fully get every word of the book, they get the big themes, plot points, etc. To support students with this, I will assign sets of chapters, but provide summaries of the chapters that aren’t as essential for our long term assessment aims. In addition, I will choose specific chapters to have students re-read closely, which will allow them to have the benefits that reading a shorter text might allow. For example, with Book one of Tale, we read chapter one together and then they read two through four and six on their own. We came back to chapter two and re-read it to analyze tone and imagery. We then read chapter five together to compare the use of tone and imagery from chapter two. 

        Hope this helps to clarify! 


  • Mary M.

    Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities Relevance
    Thanks for including this cognitive book in your student reading portfolios! Kudos! I tutor individual students outside classrooms, and these learners are reading this historical novel in some Pre-AP as well as AP and high school English courses. When they receive background information from an older reader/tutor like me, they begin to understand how living in those years was so much harder than our present circumstances. I include explanations for the old-fashioned/more difficult-to-understand words. I also add historical asides to passages or chapters as they read them, like why Dickens’ own life mirrored events in the novel. I recall most higher-level tests including details from this (and other) Dickens works.

  • Jim Mahoney

    Personal Connections

    I think rich texts like this provide great opportunities for student insight. Personally, a life-influencing passage comes from the chapter, "Recalled To Life," the chapter when Lucy Manet's father is discovered (in a small hole?) for many years in prison and he is brought back to normal life. He yearns to return to confinement where he was for so long because it is what he has known and is comfortable with. This became an awakening moment for me about getting out of my comfort zone. I also wrote a long letter to Nancie Atwell many years ago, thanking her for In the Middle because of the way it changed my teaching life after 25 years. I entitled my letter, "Recalled To Life" because I felt more alive in my teaching than I had ever been.

    Rich texts like Tale and GE have such graphic scenes that they become understandable for students. It is easy to see how a world can be turned upside down the way Pip's was in the opening chapter. Students are able to probe their own "turned upside down" moments and be better for it. Dickens and other great writers can do this but you are very wise in chunking it. You are even wiser in the goals you later explained about close reading for stye and tone and other things that students could even attempt to imitate, enriching the novel even more.



  • Terry Eiserman

    A Beliver in Complexity

    I applaud you for keeping this novel in your reading list. Unitl I retired last June, I taught it for years in a similar course that team-taught history and ELA.  Dickens' syntax and vocabulary were challenging for students, as was the complexity of the plot, but with appropriate scaffolding and enthusiasm, they found that could master both.  By the end of the book, they were hooked by the story and proud of the fact that they could understand and draw so much from it.  In a world where the focus is moving to shorter and more concise writing, we need to continue to provide our students real challenges like this to show them the value and pleasure of longer, more complex works that require sustained effort.