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Here comes The Scarlet Letter!

favicon We’re back from Winter Break, so now it’s time for my second favorite book of the year, The Scarlet Letter.

It’s been fun to teach so far. My students and I are taking things slowly at the beginning to make sure everyone’s comfortable with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writing. The language, of course, is undeniably crazy. It’s not your normal book, after all, that combines “physiognomy” and “ignominious” and “countenance” in the same sentence. I’ve even had to pass out dictionaries, which elicited bewilderment and wisecracks. One student pretended he was an archaeologist. “This is a very rare find,” he said, “We haven’t seen one of these in years.”

Despite the ornate prose and the long, complex sentences, my students like the book so far. I mean, who doesn’t like a good telenovela? Today we got to the part where Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s cheated-on husband, promises revenge: “He will be known!–he will be known!–he will be known!” (Yes, he says it three times.) I made my students repeat this proclamation in appropriately melodramatic fashion.

So everything’s going great. But there’s only one problem — which is an ongoing issue for me. How do you teach a great but challenging book? When the words and sentences themselves are so tough — and when you can spend an hour on just 10 pages — what’s the best way to proceed?

In high school, when I first read The Scarlet Letter, I remember my teacher expertly leading us in close reading and line-by-line analysis. (I also remember feeling proud after finishing the book because I’d understood it.) So how did we finish in just three weeks? It seems impossible. I’m devoting four weeks — a long time in an AP class — because I want to make sure my students are successful, but I worry that even a month isn’t enough.

If you have ideas or questions, please leave them in the comments! favicon


  1. John at TestSoup

    I like the idea of bringing the drama to life by having them read certain passages out loud.

    That is the toughest part of works like the Scarlet Letter (and the entire works of Shakespeare)… They’re amazing and full of drama, but they’re not very accessible in this day and age.

    Drawing parallels to modern-day expressions/events/etc. is a great way to make those books come alive.

    • Mark Isero

      Thank you, John. Hamlet (not one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, but sort of a must for an AP class) is next. The hardest part for students is that they get tripped up on the individual words. Skilled and experienced readers can decide which words to care about and which ones to skip. (That said, it’s a bonus to understand every word. I’ve been reading The Scarlet Letter on my Kindle, and it’s amazing to be able to look up words in a second.)

  2. John at TestSoup

    I didn’t know the Kindle had that capability (I’ve only read a couple books on it so far). That sounds like it would really useful, especially when reading books in another language!

  3. Mark Isero

    That’s a great point. But I don’t think foreign language dictionaries are free on the Kindle. (I just checked, and the French one is $6.36.) But you gave me another idea. I think I should make sure that I get a Spanish-English dictionary for my English learners (even if it’s not free). That might help them a lot. Thanks, John.

Please share your brilliant insights!