Inventive strategies help boys to connect with tales of romance.
Teenage boys tend to prefer gore, violence and explosions to subtle affairs of the heart, which can make teaching classic fiction that explores love between protagonists a challenge. Rather than embracing the nuance of the emotions, male students are likely to resort to laughter, obscenities and general disinterested messing about.
Is their behaviour down to embarrassment about such a personal subject, an unsympathetic view of what love actually is or a lack of understanding at a hormonal time of life? In my experience, it is usually all three.
There is hope, however. Whether you're discussing Heathcliff and Catherine, Romeo and Juliet, or Slim and Curley's wife, getting boys to engage with tales of romance is simply a question of challenging their perceptions and being inventive.
One useful tactic is to first introduce students to the alternative relationships in the text, then lead them into the main love story. The love-struck protagonist may make the "cool" boys uncomfortable, but a father-son relationship that runs through a novel could be a useful starting point, leading, for example, to an understanding that the character needs to act on his feelings for the object of his affections because he feels constrained by parental love.
Another angle of attack is to show students a film adaptation. This can help boys to overcome any initial stand-offishness. Seeing a romance develop on screen prepares them for the scene before they actually read it and reduces some of the embarrassment they may feel.
Alternatively, help students to connect with the novel through textual adaptations, such as manga or comic books. One boy in my class only truly identified with the tragic love story of Wuthering Heights when he read a graphic novel version. Without it, we would both have been at a loss - the student over how to learn and me over how to teach him.
Linking scenes to a current craze can also be beneficial. For example, the relationship between Juliet and her parents has parallels with that of Walter and Jesse in television series Breaking Bad, a new obsession among my classes.
Ultimately, though, the most effective way I have found of teaching romantic literature to teenage boys is to remember that behind all great love stories is an even better tale of hatred, jealousy or murder. These themes have helped me to engage minds that are full of the gore and violence of the Grand Theft Auto video games or the Saw horror films.
Whatever the piece of romantic literature, seek out the gruesome underbelly of the tale and you will easily capture boys' rapt attention. …