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The Whiteboard Jungle: Unwrapping ‘A Christmas Carol’ for today’s students

This year marks the 175th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” first published on Dec. 19, 1843.

I am teaching the Dickens classic for the first time in my career. When I planned this out back in the summer, I thought how apropos it would be to finish the fall semester with a holiday story, one most of my 10th-grade students knew from films but likely never read.

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I usually end the school year with “Oliver Twist,” so adding “A Christmas Carol” would serve as bookends to the spring semester.

However, when re-reading the book as preparation for teaching it, and imagining it through their lens, reality hit me. I am teaching to teenagers who, for the most part, don’t like to read and whose primary language is not English.

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Studying “A Christmas Carol” in some ways is more challenging than “Oliver Twist.” While only about 60 pages, the novella is full of antiquated terms related to jobs that no longer exist, sayings that no longer make sense and a highly descriptive and complex writing style that firmly cements the work to 19th-century literature.

Here is Dickens’ preface:

“I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.”

The first problem will be explaining the difference between American English spellings and those overseas as in “endeavoured” and “humour.”

The idioms “ghost of an idea” and “out of humor” would have to be clarified.

“Haunt their houses” does not refer to a literal house but the reader’s soul and mind. And “no one wish to lay it” is a joke by Dickens that a reader would not want to put the book down or away.

Once we get past the comprehension hurdles, we can focus on connecting the story’s themes to their lives and times.

For example, healthcare and living-wage issues remain current. The main reason Dickens created Tiny Tim was to call attention to the need for better healthcare for the poor.

Back in the first part of 19th-century England, nearly half of all funerals were for children. Tim represents the child that is doomed to die because his father’s boss, Ebenezer Scrooge, doesn’t pay Bob Cratchit enough money to sustain his family. Employers were perceived as greedy.

The concept of giving to those less fortunate permeates the novel and is the ultimate lesson Scrooge learns through the three ghosts.

While the word “scrooge” has come to mean a miserly person, “ebenezer” symbolizes one who helps, a word from Hebrew, according to Merriam-Webster, “used by Samuel to the stone which he set up in commemoration of God’s help to the Israelites in their victory over the Philistines.”

In other words, Scrooge’s name represents the before and after aspects of his character in his transformative journey through the story.

Upon finishing “A Christmas Carol,” we will attend a live theatrical performance of it at A Noise Within in Pasadena to further extend the students’ understanding of the story.

Then, as a culminating activity, students will present to the class their own 15-minute versions of it. By that time, hopefully, students will have gotten something meaningful from the book.

So, if you romanticize reading aloud “A Christmas Carol” to your family on Christmas Eve, you had better preview the actual text first and pass out some handouts. Or choose Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” instead.

Brian Crosby is a teacher in the Glendale Unified School District and the author of “Smart Kids, Bad Schools” and “The $100,000 Teacher.” He can be reached at www.brian-crosby.com.

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