Beowulf. THAT IS, before the movie.
Prior to the movie it was hades. I would read and they would get frustrated with the names (because they could not pronounce them).
Prior to that I did a week-long lesson on Denmark and Scandinavia,and tried to filter in a bit of debauchery action from the warriors.
All was fine until I taught the book. Only on the very specific parts where descriptions were gross was where they were interested.
However, one very smart kid asked: I get that we need to know this, but I don't GET why we NEED to know THIS? get it?
I don't have a book in particular, but I find that if I dislike the book I end up finding it harder to engage my students. I think no matter how hard I try, my lack of enthusiasm will show.
Every year it is To Kill a Mockingbird. (With seniors, it was always Shakespeare.) And every year, no matter how much time I spend with the kids—reading with them, discussing and explaining—there are just too many students who refuse to read, and then tell me it was too hard.
Perhaps it's because this novel is set in the past, to the point that for many of them, it's as deadly as a black and white movie. "Old" anything is often times judged worthless in our "youth-oriented" society.
There is also the element of having to read and WORK. Many kids don't want any part of it.
The only good news is that I have loved the book for so long that I never lose my enthusiasm for teaching it.
And if the kids won't read it it class with me, I can only pray that some day, as adults, they'll decide to try it on their own to see what all the "fuss" was about.
Animal Farm. The kids just don't get it--and I agree with them. It's just too fixed in time to mean anything to kids today. I get that it's about the Russian Revolution and the hypocrisy of communism. But that's not an issue to us anymore. Now, if the pigs had spread the wealth around a little and practiced socialism instead, that might make it a little more relevant.
Walkabout - Pages of wandering through the Austalian desert which unfortunately seemed a pointless journey to my inner-city UK kids. Bribing them that it was worth it as we had the video kept all of us going. I just wish that as a first year teacher I had watched the film before showing it to my class. Jenny Agutter floating down a river naked is etched on my memory - and possibly that of my mostly-male senior class. We live and learn...
Hands down, The Scarlet Letter, but with a disclaimer. Dragging students kicking and screaming through the first few chapters is an ugly experience for everybody, but after struggling for a while with Hawthorn's vocabulary, never-ending compound-complex sentences, and endless passages of exposition, something always "clicks."
When the characters take over and the plot thickens, students usually get interested in the human drama. By the time we get to Hester and Arthur's meeting in the forest, even reluctant readers want to know what's going to happen. Also, the romantic elements, especially the presence/suggestion of the supernatural, draw them into the novel.
I teach Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf and have had great success with it. (The fact that they only read the right-hand pages is a great psychological boost, and the cover is pretty appealing, as well.) What stymied me was Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of Seven Gables. What a chore that was--once. Never again.
I love Beowulf, and because of my excitement and passion for the language and the imagery, my students get into it, too. I guess it helps that there are only excerpts in our literature book--the best parts of the poem--instead of the many hundreds of lines in the original.
The one I have the hardest time teaching? Great Expectations and The Grapes of Wrath tie, I think. They are both great books, but dry as Egyptian remains.
I have to second the Beowulf nomination from post #1. I do not teach literature, but did a bit when I subbed, and I do a lot of tutoring of English students. My kids come in from a British Literature class stymied and unmotivated by a story that is too densely worded for them to get into. They believe (and so do I) that it is mere tradition that keeps the story in the mainstream curriculum of high schools.
Something odd that I've noticed when teaching students novels is that the newer looking the book, the more willing they are to be engaged. If we have an old tattered classroom set of The Lord of the Flies, my students absolutely will not give it a chance. However, put a newly purchased classroom set in their hands and they'll dive right in. Then it's up to me to help them make the connections.
Yes, the problem definitely seems to be how to be engage all contingents of a class - male and female. I taught Cry, the Beloved Country once and it was such a spectacular failure I have never bothered doing it ever again. I did my best to make them understand and study the context, but it just appeared that whatever I did this text from from a different part of the world that wasn't relevant to them and they didn't "understand" it. Gutting, especially as I think it is an incredibly powerful text.
In previous years, I've really struggled with 10th graders and A Separate Peace. However, something clicked last year, and my students ended up raving about it. With 12th graders, I struggle with Wuthering Heights, which I love. Yet I can understand how frustrating it can be to read. And it's not exactly short. It's especially difficult to find a balance with the males in the class, as they are generally turned off by the romance, and can't be pulled back in even with the debauchery and drunkenness of Hindley and Heathcliff.
This is an easy one. I LOVE The Red Badge of Courage, but I have never had much success teaching it in class. Students always found the book "boring" and the Civil War is a turn-off for most kids (especially females). I finally gave up trying to teach it. It was one of those failures that I really hated, especially since my own love and excitement for teaching the novel never rubbed off on the kids.
Beowulf was much more successful after the release of the movie several years ago. We took a field trip to watch the film version, and the kids understood the book much better because of it.
The "Scarlet Letter" has to be the worst. I had to teach it as part of 11th grade English and I would show the very long drawn out version of the movie done by PBS. This allowed me to get in all the important theme ideas and expose the students to the literature without us all having to die from boredom.
I would spend so much time building the culture of the time that I would think they not ask the question, "what's the big deal? She thought her husband was dead." Modern society views sex so differently now a days that even when they understand the culture they find it hard to understand why Hester would take all the abuse.
I think they get that point more from watching the movie--or at least come to a better a sort of acceptence of it. But I HATE teaching the story and plan when I go back to HS to teach a moe contemporary book as the cornerstone of the class.
Shakespeare's plays are both difficult and problematic. Just what do you go over ion class and what do you explain? There are so many soliloquies, just which ones do you highlight? Can you go over the entire play in class, not just perform it but to study it? The complexity of the material along with the length of the material provides daunting challenges to most teachers. The lack of time has led to many abridgements of his famous works, modern translations of his works and these are some difficult questions to answer.