Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Unschooling My Way to a Love of Classic Poetry

I’ve long held that I don’t think “classic” literature is any better than newer literature. I think stories and reading are wonderful things, but I also believe strongly that which of these are good or not is a subjective matter, to be decided by individuals not experts.

I wanted to like the classics when I was young. I had visions of myself curled up in a comfy chair, reading Jane Eyre, and being able to tell people, modestly of course, what my latest reading material was. Amongst the much more traditional homeschoolers I was surrounded by, learning Latin and reading only books older than 50 years was a big trend, and I kind of wanted to include myself in that. I tried, but I just couldn’t do it. I picked up various classics at various times, hoping that this one would finally be the not-boring one, but I never found one that I didn’t have to struggle through.

Finally I gave up, deciding that the classics obviously weren’t for me, and furthermore that the snobbery surrounding reading choices was counterproductive and harmful to readers of all ages. I moved on, and enjoyed years of reading modern historical novels and fantasy fiction.

There was one area, though, where I did find myself enjoying old writing.

My mother, sister, and I developed a ritual of sorts, not one we practiced every day, but a frequent
The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees. 
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas...
occurrence: we’d curl up together on my bed in the evening, along with a stack of poetry books, and take turns reading aloud to each other. My mother’s favourite was The Owl-Critic by James Thomas Fields; Emilie liked The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear; and I was a big fan of The Lady of Shalott and The Eagle by Tennyson, the Introduction to the Songs of Innocence by William Blake, and Walking Through Woods On a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost. Though we all had favourites, together we read countless classic poems by dozens of different writers. We all enjoyed poetry, but it became a special passion of mine.

For a homeschool talent show, I once recited The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes. I loved the melodrama of it and, inspired by the rendition of that poem in one of the Anne of Green Gables movies, I decided to memorize it myself. The audience was impressed, and although I was somewhat pleased by that, the real joy I took in the process were the hours spent alone, quietly reading and practicing. It was relaxing and joyful, an activity that filled me with contentment.

I still believe strongly that there’s nothing inherently better about classic writing, whether it’s in the form of fiction or poetry, but I did eventually find some classics that I was happy to make part of my own life. I’m not sure if children outside of school are more likely to be drawn to classics or not, but I do think that not having to read them means that learners won’t be turned off from them en masse.

When everything is treated as valuable, no matter when or by whom it was written, then classic works become just another potentially interesting option. I could never get into anything by Jane Austen, but I sure did enjoy exploring the works of countless famous poets from the last few centuries. Had I been forced to read those works, to analyse and tear them apart, my experience would probably have been a lot less joyful. Instead, my exploration was done freely and enthusiastically, guided by my interests and whims and determination. In short, it was fun.

That’s the way learning should be in childhood, whether it includes anything classic or not!


  1. What a wonderful post Idzie.

    Your experience echoes mine. I wasn't fond of many classic works, but those I discovered on my own were far more enticing. Here's my comparison of reading The Scarlet Letter on my own versus reading it for class. lauragraceweldon.com/2014/01/22/its-about-reading-for-pleasure/

    As you so aptly write, "Had I been forced to read those works, to analyse and tear them apart, my experience would probably have been a lot less joyful. Instead, my exploration was done freely and enthusiastically, guided by my interests and whims and determination."

    Sharing this post!

  2. Interesting. We are not unschoolers but I like to read about how others do things.
    I have a goal of reading poetry a time or two or three a week. The kids choose some and I choose some. Some new and some old favorites. Some I don't love on first reading, same for the kids. It's a fun family time, we have popcorn or hot chocolate. We don't analyze or tear them apart and don't ever plan to, it's for enjoyment but also more or less required if that makes sense (no one has ever wanted to skip poetry time though).
    It is probably not as truly free/organic as unschooling, it is something I started deliberately because I wanted my kids AND myself exposed to beautiful and interesting things and poetry was a suggestion I had read about a great ingredient in that goal.