How Can You Teach a Classic? Get a Discussion Started With Don Quixote!

Imagine picking up a novel, hoping for an entertaining read. You open it up, read the first paragraph, and realize that the main character is…

… you!

What would it feel like?

This could be a good discussion starter for your students. After all, kids are likely to point out that stranger things happen nowadays. One might well turn up in somebody’s blog, in a viral video, or even on TV without expecting it-often in a most unpleasant way.

The discussion could also introduce two of the most iconic figures in world literature: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, the protagonists of Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th-century novel Don Quixote. They went through exactly this experience.

Early in Part 2 of Don Quixote, the deluded “Knight of the Woeful Figure” and his down-to-earth squire learn that they are the heroes of Part 1 of the novel, and they have to live with the consequences of fame. Later in Part 2, they find out (as did Cervantes, to his dismay) that a phony second part has already been published by an anonymous hack trying to cash in on the success of Part 1. Through his characters’ reactions to this spurious work, Cervantes masterfully ridicules his unknown rival’s version. Don Quixote and Sancho become all the more vividly alive as they contemplate their own presence in works of fiction.

As for poor Cervantes, he found out that fame wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. He wrote Don Quixote largely because he was broke and hoped it would be a bestseller. Once it was in print, it “went viral” (as we might say today), appearing in all sorts of pirated editions. Cervantes wrote a real blockbuster, all right, and his name was known internationally-but he remained penniless. At least his fame lasted a great deal longer than the 15 minutes allotted to most of us!

“A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read,” as Mark Twain once famously observed. Now, I’ve read Walter Starkie’s 1000+ page translation twice. But I admit that this massive tome is not for everybody, let alone kids in grades six through ten. Even so, how can anyone go through life without some familiarity with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza? They’ve been portrayed in drawings, paintings, sculptures, plays, movies, songs, symphonic works, operas, and a Broadway musical. Cervantes’ book has enriched language itself with words and phrases like “quixotic” and “tilting at windmills.”

So how can you introduce your students to Don Quixote and Sancho in a single class period? You could let them write a story or improvise a scene to show what it would be like to suddenly find themselves the main character in a story. You could let them act out that experience, or even make a video. I was delighted to tackle this problem for READ magazine in 2006. My answer is, do it dramatically.

Mary J. Gibson

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