Charles Dickens: Reality TV

When I saw the title of this article, I immediately thought of Dr. Woodworth and her Charles Dickens’ class.  It is also a perfect example of a teacher using non-traditional methods to reach his students. 

The article outlines how a high school English teacher, Joe Bucolo, has used reality TV to teach Charles Dickens’s Great Expectation in his ninth grade class.

The idea came to Bucolo while teaching Great Expectation and he realized that the students were paying more attention to what was going on outside (the snow) than what was going on inside the classroom (a discussion about Estella).  Bucolo made a comment comparing Estella to a character out of The Hills.  “Suddenly, all eyes were on [him] and students were asking, ‘You watch The Hills?’ They began to sit up and come back to life, firing reality-TV questions at [him] as if they had just realized that teachers have televisions.

Teaching in Installments

Just like that, Bucolo, had stumbled across something that his students were interested in and could actually relate to.  From then on, teaching and learning about Great Expectation became easier and more enjoyable.  They “became a more close-knit community of learners.”  In order to enhance their classroom community, Bucolo began teaching Great Expectations in installments just as the original novel was published.  Students felt that teaching the novel in installments throughout the entire school year not only gave them ample time to read and enjoy the novel but also experience the novel just as they did when it was first written and it made the story more suspenseful.  One student even commented that ‘[They] were able to see the changes in Pip’s life while [they] were experiencing some of the very same changes in [their] first year of high school.’  However Bucolo did not stop there, he actually created his own reality-TV shows centered on the novel.

The Bachelorette Meets Survivor

Of course, Estella is the bachelorette, and Pip is trying to get her to present him with a rose.  His pursuit of Estella takes him from the loneliness of the marshes to the chaos of London to the isolation of debtor’s prison in a series of ups and downs.  Now what does that plot summary remind you of?  You guessed it . . . Survivor!

The Marshes

This is a classroom activity where students identify the novel’s “super-couples” and what they learned from them.  In identifying the couples they combined their names.  For example Pipe and Estella became ‘Pipella’ or ‘Estellip.’  Clara and Herbert became ‘Clarbert.’ Pip and Biddy became ‘Piddy.’ Drummle and Estella became ‘Drummella.’  After identifying these super couples and naming them the students then went on to identify what they learned from each couple.  The success of the activity is by the students’ heightened interest in the novel and “by the depth of their understanding of human nature and what draws two people to one another.”  This was a new way of looking at the novel even for me.


Here the students examine those relationships that are not of the romantic nature; for instance, the relationship between Pip and his BFF Herbert Pocket.  Herbert was one of the students’ favorite characters.  The relationship he shared with Pip reminded the students that a friendship involves give and take.  You each bring different things to the relationship that make you both better.  I loved the term “bromance” to descripe the friendship of the two boys!

Coming Next Season . . .

At the end of the year, Bucolo allows the students to come up with their own ideas for Dickens-base reality-TV shows.  Here is some of the things the ninth graders came up with:

  • Cribs:  The Greatest Expectations – examines the values of the characters in each of the novel’s main settings, including Walworth, Bernard’s Inn, the Forge, and Satis House
  • 23 and in Trouble – follows the ‘troubles faced by a young, convict-harboring, lovesick boy’
  • True Life:  I Burst into Flames – provides ‘a day-to-day account of Miss Havisham’s life from her abandonment on her wedding day to the fateful day when flames consumed her

We did a lot of things with Dickens in Dr. W’s class, but I don’t think we did anything like what Bucolo did with his ninth graders.  I was blown away by some of the things they did.  I would say I was blown away with how receptive the students were to those things and how successful they were but I would be lying.  I am a firm believer that children learn and understand things better when they can relate to them.  Everyone is familiar and some are even addicted to reality-TV nowadays and children are no different.  My daughter can tell me Jersey Shore. Basketball Wives, Toddlers and Tiaras, Dance Moms, and I am sure that she can relate some of the things and characters found in these shows to something that she is learning in school.  She just has to be given the opportunity to do so.  Children know so much more than we give them credit for.  As adults and educators we tend to want to impart all of our knowledge on our children and students. How often do we stop and listen to them and what they have to say about education and life in general?  Not enough.  Bucolo’s creativity allowed his students to be creative as well. 

Bucolo, Joe.  “Survivor:  Satis House:  Creating Classroom Community while Teaching Dickens in a Reality-TV World.”  English Journal 100.5 (2011):  29-32.

Bucolo, Joe.  “Stay Tuned for Our Next Episode:  Teaching Great Expectations in Installments.”  English Journal 89.2 (1999):  33-39.

3 Responses to “Charles Dickens: Reality TV”
  1. I love, love, love reading about other educators who are innovative. We’re told again and again that we need to make the material meaningful for our students, and he has done that! And they probably did more critical thinking, digging, connecting, and synthesizing with these assignments that a five-parapraph literary essay. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Holy David Copperfield! I love this. Dickens IS everywhere. Always thought about him as a 19th c. soap opera guru, but never made the connection between his novels and reality TV–but this is so clear now. I’m not probably going to watch reality TV much, no time at this point in my life, but I like the possibilities for students! What a great thing to share–thanks so much!

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