Which Beloved Classics to Include in Your High School British Literature Curriculum
In my British Literature course for senior / 12th grade students, we study major literary works from Anglo-Saxon to the twentieth century (although not in chronological order!). This selection of works of British Literature can also easily be used in an AP Advanced Placement Literature and Composition course.
I have spent years revising and adapting to student interest and I want to share my most recent complete curriculum for high school students with you!
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Classic Works and Lesson Plans
Throughout the year I try to hit on all the major genres of classic literature. This can be difficult!
As English teachers we juggle so much trying to build a rich curriculum. We create lesson plans that are tailored to a high school student’s ability level that are meant to improve critical thinking skills and enhance class discussions.
These lesson plans include creative projects and assignments that offer opportunity for self-reflection and further study in literature.
We are always working to cover the material on the final exam, while focusing on the students’ experience before they move on to their next adventure. It can be a lot!
My hope is that this list of classic works helps you to easily choose literary works that still work in the contemporary classroom.
Contemporary Fiction, Vocab, and Grammar
The works I cover in this post are all part of the British literary canon, but know that I offer independent reading projects throughout the year with modern works. Check out my other posts linked at the end of this article to see the contemporary books my high schoolers love!
In senior year I continue to focus on further study of literary elements/terms. Vocabulary is embedded in the text and the study of grammar is on an as needed basis. When I see something, I say something!
The Complete British Literature Curriculum
The Earliest Written Work of British Literature: Beowulf
My students still enjoy reading the epic of Beowulf!
I shorten this unit to two to three weeks in length because we only cover the three battles. I also read them passages from John Gardner’s Grendel to give an alternate perspective of the bloodthirsty monster.
What is interesting about this is that Beowulf is read after we read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Gardner’s Grendel gives off major Frankenstein’s Monster vibes for my students. It leads to great conversations about what a ‘monster’ really is.
In the Beowulf unit we focus on kennings, stock epithets, caesuras, the epic hero archetype, apposition, and diazeugma for literary devices / literary terms.
I have them write a short paper (one page or 500-word essays) choosing two devices and discussing how they further a theme from Beowulf. This can be a difficult assignment, as it is more AP Literature focused, but I think it is worthwhile to have them give it a try.
Beowulf - More Info
They are also really interested in Beowulf as the hero. One of the epic hero characteristics is that the hero is the embodiment of society’s ideals, and Beowulf is kind of unlikeable. He is arrogant and only wants the glory – this has led to some interesting discussions about modern heroes and whether or not they need to be selfless.
Side Note: In my district, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is taught sophomore year in World Literature. I would include it in my curriculum if I could.
Many of you will be familiar with Miss Effie, who has been providing English teachers with amazing project ideas and lesson plans for as long as I have been teaching. Here is the link to her page on Beowulf.
The Medieval Period:
The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer
My students really enjoy the two tales that we read from The Canterbury Tales. They are not as excited about the Prologue! I am always looking for a more interesting way to approach The Prologue, so if you have any great ideas please send them my way!
Right now I teach the Prologue as a small group presentation project, splitting the pilgrims up and having the groups teach each other. It is an okay assignment.
We read the two most popular tales, “The Pardoner’s Tale” and “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”. My students thoroughly enjoy each, but they especially love the Pardoner’s moral tale of the rioters.
We read the tales in class together. A popcorn read would work here, but I just go from stanza to stanza, student to student.
This is usually followed by an informal debate about who the old man is, whether they deserved death, if drinking in the morning is really as gross as it sounds, etc. Ha! I love high school students!
I include The Canterbury Tales as part of a unit on satire, and the culminating assignment is one of the few creative writing stories that we do throughout the year (super unfortunately).
The assignment is to write a satirical moral tale, using the CT tales as models, and including an original character prologue and an original moral tale. Bonus points for poetic flow! The kids come up with funny, crazy stories, and I have them share in small groups.
The Renaissance Era:
Macbeth, William Shakespeare
This unit takes about four to five weeks of study and my students LOVE it. We have a lot of fun with Macbeth!
Much of the tragedy is read in class, and we act it out as much as possible. We study drama terms, Shakespeare’s life, and do some research into which aspects of Macbeth are based on truth and what is strictly playwright’s authorial freedom.
This unit is focused on power and ambition and we read Macbeth after our study of Beowulf. There is so much to relate to modern times here. We talk about famous celebrities, politicians, and athletes who made it big and then blew it big time.
I also throw in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (I know – not British) and discuss the protagonist’s lack of power over her situation and what that does to her mind.
We also discuss Shakespeare’s message with the female characters in the play – Lady Macbeth, Lady MacDuff, and the Witches. I mean, who is really in control in this play?
For me, this unit culminates in a test, in preparation for the final exam, but there are so many cool projects that are possible with this unit.
Hamlet and A Video
Side note: Hamlet is taught sophomore year in my district, so it is off limits for me, but I highly recommend teaching it!
I show the video Shakespeare Uncovered: Macbeth with Ethan Hawke:
The Restoration Period:
“A Modest Proposal”, Jonathan Swift
I use this essay as part of my satire unit. We read it and discuss it, but I only spend maybe two class periods on it. The students enjoy the shock of it, for sure, and I think it is important to include, but time is tight.
Side note: I also have recently begun teaching the poem “Thank You For Waiting” by Simon Armitage. Check out the poem/video here.
An in-depth look at Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley
Frankenstein is the first novel that we read together as a class, after summer reading and writing college essays.
The students enjoy it, as do I, but I am considering changing it up for next year. Certainly not because of lack of student interest, but I am kind of tired of teaching it. Maybe I will try Dracula in its place? If you have thoughts on this, please shoot me a message!
The students LOVE to discuss Frankenstein. Of course, it is surprising to them that the real story is so different from what they know from pop culture, but their real interest lies in the ethics and morality (or lack thereof) of the characters.
They certainly do not expect to feel sympathy for the monster or to blame Victor for his own demise and the deaths of others. They are also very interested in Mary Shelley’s life and have fun researching her.
I spend a lot of time discussing Gothicism in this unit. The idea of the gothic is really appealing to today’s teenagers. They see it in modern form through television, movies, and video games.
We focus on the damsel in distress theme and the role of women in a patriarchal story written by a woman. We look at the idea of victim and torturer and who fulfills these roles in the novel, among many other gothic ideals.
It definitely keeps the students’ interest and lends itself to strong thematic essay ideas for the culminating analytical writing assignment.
The Victorian Age:
The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde
I know I keep saying this, but my students LOVE this play (I promise!). It is wry, funny, and clever. It is a fast paced read, which we do in class.
My students chuckle OUT LOUD at the muffin scene. It’s so, so great. This is obviously part of my satire unit, and I am also having them read articles from The Onion and watch Monty Python clips and SNL commercials.
We watch The Importance of Being Earnest film together, starring Reese Witherspoon, Dame Judy Dench, and my boyfriend, Colin Firth.
If you haven’t seen it, watch it. Even if you are not planning on teaching the play. WATCH THE MOVIE. I am linking the trailer below:
20th century Literary Icons:
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie
Last, but certainly not least, we spend some time on mystery and suspense. This is sometimes part of a unit I do on true crime right before the end of the school year, and sometimes it is included as an independent reading project.
Either way, I think it is important for my students to leave high school with some knowledge of both of these famous authors. Some middle schools teach And Then There Were None, which many of my students have told me was their favorite book ever, but many have not had any experience with either author.
As high school seniors, I take the approach of the students as detectives and criminal profilers. Who did it – and WHY? How did the detectives solve the crime? What were the overt and hidden clues?
It is a fun unit that also involves some author research. These two icons lived fascinating lives!
Other Beloved British Classic Works
Other well-known and beloved classic British novels that I would love to include:
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
Any of Jane Austen’s novels
Lord of the Flies, William Golding
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare
And that sums up the classic literary works that I teach. I also include independent reading projects throughout the year with more contemporary authors, linked below.
Check out the lesson planning template that I use for creating and organizing my lessons here!