On the surface, Washington Irving’s piece of American folklore, “Rip Van Winkle,” has absolutely nothing to do with today’s teens. Written in 1819, it’s a story of an old guy with a shrew of a wife who takes a 20-year nap in the woods, sleeping through the entire Revolutionary War. My students aren’t old, aren’t married to a hag, and aren’t particularly interested in life before Smartphones.
And yet the text resonates with them because I’ve found ways to hook the story to their lives. They, too, are tired of being nagged by teachers and parents. The idea of napping through the unpleasant parts of life is rather attractive. And they’ve grown up delighted by stories featuring Hermione Granger’s time-turner and Dr. Who’s TARDIS.
To build enthusiasm for any dusty tale, all you need to do is pull at a few threads and tie them to modern life.
For example, Rip’s story is presented as a recovered text, meaning it was “discovered” in the files of a fictional historian named Deitrich Knickerbocker. (New York Knicks, anyone?) Tie this to the same Found Footage technique modern audiences enjoy in films such as Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity. (For any Gen Xers out there, think The Blair Witch Project.)
Or, instead of the “open-your-literature-book-read-today’s-story-answer-the-questions-on-the-last-page” lesson plan that slowly sucks the joy out of a classroom, hook students’ attention with a quickwrite and class discussion about what life will be like 20 years from now. I mean, when I was a teen I fully expected we’d have flying cars by now and eat dinner like the Jetsons. Where’s my Rosie? My jetpack?
When we make classic lit relevant to teens, they’ll dig deep into a text and actually have fun while they do it. Want print-and-teach materials to help you accomplish this task? Just click HERE for my three-day “Rip Van Winkle” lesson.
BONUS: Sitting here mulling over “Rip Van Winkle,” I’m inspired to share this tasty tidbit of situational irony from the twisted mind of Rod Serling. Enjoy!