Teaching Victorian Literature with a Tea Party
When you think of teaching Victorian literature, you don’t normally think of middle schoolers. Charlotte Bronte and George Elliot can be challenging to most adults, never mind students who are still developing their reading comprehension skills. The sentences are complex; the descriptions dense. Even the subject matter seems irrelevant. Why should a middle schooler care about stories from more than a century ago?
Getting students interested in Victorian literature is challenging, but it is still important. The detailed scenic descriptions and focus on characters offer excellent examples on how to be a better writer. The subject matter, while at first glance might seem dated, is actually incredibly poignant. Themes about technology intersecting with humanity, racism, sexism and class stratification fill the pages of Victorian stories. Teachers can build upon many of these ideas to discuss events that are happening in our culture today. So how can a teacher get students interested in these stories without them getting bogged down by the dense text?
Penny Dreadfuls not so Dreadful
One opportunity for middle school teachers to introduce students to Victorian writing is through the popular pulp of the times: the penny dreadfuls. These thrilling and sometimes dark stories offer an exciting introduction to a world of writing that initially seems inaccessible. They still touch upon the themes of other Victorian stories, but in a way that captivates the typical middle schooler’s imagination. The students get excited to read and learn about this culture of the past. As they become more familiar with the style, they become ready to take on the more challenging texts of Tennyson.
Middle Schoolers Love to Act
Another benefit of the Victorian era is that it provides excellent theatrical possibilities. Go to any middle school play and it is clear that students love trying on new personas. The practice of pretending to be a different person plays on the adolescent’s intrinsic desire to figure out who they are as individuals. It activates their developing sense of empathy. By trying on different characters, they are able to play with different morals and motivations without social consequences.
Teachers can capitalize on this excitement to perform, and Victorian stories offer creative opportunities to do so. Tall top hats, gowns with crinolines, vests and coats make fun costumes. British accents, strict manners and intense social norms offer avenues for play. By immersing students into the Victorian era first, teachers can then introduce the concepts, language and characters of George Elliot with ease.
Assigning the Characters
In one Arthur Morgan School language arts class, students have been each assigned a different penny dreadful. The students read the first chapter and from it developed their own character from the Victorian era. In class, the teacher discussed concepts like status and social standing, and these ideas were added to each of their characters. On the appointed day, the students and teacher came to class in their best Victorian costume. In character, they attended a tea party complete with snacks and real tea. Each student was asked to give themselves a title and introduce themselves to the rest of the party: “Lady Alexandria Lemp, Duchess of Ziggystardust,” “Lady Adelia Augustus, Duchess of Mudslingers,” “His Eminent Eggplantiness, Autumn, Conqueror of Dinner Tables.”
Once everyone was introduced, they sat together and discussed a preselected topic in the way they thought their character would interact with it. From this activity, the students are able to bring to life the stories they are reading. They have opportunities for larger discussion points about class, wealth, and race. As they continue to read their stories for homework, they now have a better framework through which to understand it.
Taking the Next Step
This assignment makes a great jumping off point for students to learn about Victorian writing. As they become more comfortable with the style of literature, they can move from the penny dreadfuls to more well known writers like Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll. They experiment with writing in the Victorian style by creating long descriptive passages. Eventually, these students will write their own penny dreadful.
-by Nicholas Maldonado