21st Century Cliff Notes

OK, when I was in high school English and needed some “help” with understanding an assigned book, I could avail myself of Mr. Cliff’s seemingly limitless knowledge of classic literature. (This venerable series was actually started by a man named Cliff Hillegass; I always wrongly assumed that Cliff was his last name.) You may have relied on these familiar yellow-and-black-striped books yourself, or maybe you spent more time with Spark Notes or Pink Monkey notes.

As a student I always felt a bit disingenuous consulting books like these, as if I were cheating somehow (even though I don’t recall any teacher explicitly forbidding us from using them). As a teacher, I encouraged my students to use resources like Cliffs Notes or Spark Notes since they helped them establish a clear sense of what was happening in the text; as a scaffold, these resources could be very helpful, as long as they didn’t take the place of reading the actual, assigned texts.

Today’s students, though, can take advantage of some hip, modern resources to provide both summary and helpful analysis of classic and even some young adult texts. The first comes from the immensely popular YA author John Green, who is also quite a YouTube star. He hosts a YouTube series called “Crash Course” that includes a number of videos where Green discusses classic literature. His videos include summaries of texts as well as reflections on meaning and interpretations of the literature. Here’s part one of his discussion of The Great Gatsby:

Green is a very smart guy, clearly well read, and has tremendous appeal to today’s teenagers. My guess is, most of my students would have listened far more closely to the things he has to say about a book like Gatsby than they did to our class discussions.

Now, from a different neighborhood (figuratively and literally), comes another source of video-enhanced literary commentary, more in line (in structure, at least) with the┬átraditional resources I mentioned at the beginning of this post. These are Thug Notes, and again they cover a variety of (mostly) classical literature, including some less familiar titles like Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. Each video contains a brief summary of the text, accompanied with illustrations and simple animations, followed by an analysis of the themes and ideas from the text. The videos are hosted by Sparky Sweets, PhD, an “original gangster” and the vocabulary and phrasing used are reflective of a “thug” professor. So these aren’t suitable for younger students, and some might be put off by the style and scattered profanity, but there’s a certain audience that will find these a pretty compelling way to receive some help. They’re clever videos, juxtaposing a gangster persona with the classical, conservative library setting and the canonical literature.

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So how does a teacher use these in the classroom? (Well, Thug Notes probably wouldn’t work in most classrooms, honestly.) Two things come to mind here. First, I don’t think we should give into the fear that sometimes accompanies resources like this. We’re not going to be able to stop┬ástudents from seeing and accessing these, so why not embrace them and be upfront about them in the classroom? When I acknowledged with students that I knew about Pink Monkey and had read those notes through myself, we were able to have a frank discussion about how the use of notes like these might or might not be considered “cheating” in our study of literature. And second, I think we must acknowledge that with difficult texts, some scaffolding is necessary for many of our students. Giving my ninth graders a handout with scene-by-scene summaries of Romeo & Juliet before we read anything in the play was a deliberate move on my part: knowing what to expect in terms of plot before they started into the reading helped them make sense of the scenes. And once we understood what was going on in a scene, we could more quickly (and meaningfully) talk about the implications of what we were reading. John Green and Sparky Sweets are more interesting than Cliff and his notes, and I suspect that our students will find these resources engaging and helpful if we embrace them properly in class.

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