Families want to know why we teach Shakespeare instead of how to write business reports. Students want to know why they need to read Huck Finn instead of writing resumes. Politicians want to know why we talk about Emily Dickinson instead of doing test prep.
In her report this week, Carol Jago explains that by studying literature, students learn to read and think critically. They learn about the human condition. They learn to explore and critique the many texts that they encounter, from novels and poetry to blog posts and YouTube videos. These are true, well-established reasons, but families, students, and communities who are asking the questions sometimes have a difficulty relating these explanations to their personal experiences.
Here's my solution: rather than telling people the benefits of literature, let's ask them to tell us. Let's ask them to share what they've gained from reading literature. We can take advantage of the popularity of short surveys, quizzes, and lists on sites like Facebook and MySpace by creating our own five questions that demonstrate why people read literature.
What to Do
Copy the questions and instructions below, and paste them into a blog entry, a note on Facebook, or a discussion forum—anywhere that you can reach the people you want to. You can use the comments area on this blog entry if you'd like as well. Delete my answers to the questions, and add your own. Feel free to any extra instructions or invite specific people to answer the questions when you post them. You might ask all the students in your class to complete the questions in their journals or as part of a exam review activity, for instance.
Think about the literature you've read—short stories, novels, plays, memoirs, and poetry. Any literature counts, from picture books to epic poems, and from romance novels to sci-fi fan-fiction. Answer each question, and explain your response in a few sentences. Just copy the questions, remove my answers, add your own, and then invite others to respond.
- What piece of literature has stayed with you, even though you haven't read it recently? Robert Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay" comes back to me every spring, when I look at the freshly sprouting trees. When I read this poem in college, my professor pointed to the tree outside the classroom window. As if by design, the sprouting leaves on the trees were a perfect blend of greenish-yellow. They seemed both green and gold, depending upon how you thought of the color. Each spring as the trees wake up and start to leaf, I think about Frost's poem, the incredible serendipity of reading it on that day when the tree outside was a perfect match, and how true it is that "Nothing Gold Can Stay."
- What character or story has influenced something you've done? Richard Wilbur’s "The Writer" is a poem that I like to teach, but it's also one that influences me as a writer. Often when I'm struggling with something that I'm writing, I find myself flailing against the topic, making no progress. I get angry. I cross things out. I start dozens of sentences that trail off into nothing. I write and write and write, but I say nothing useful. And then I remember "The Writer" and the "dazed starling," both of whom struggle so hard to meet their goal. I forgive myself a little, gather "the wits to try it again," and try a bit harder, knowing that eventually I'll find the right words.
- What character or piece of literature seemed to relate to a recent news story or personal experience? The recent stories about jurors using digital technologies (iPhones, Blackberries, etc.) to look up information about the trials they were hearing made me think about 12 Angry Men. It's illegal for jurors to check facts in Wikipedia or look up news stories on the lawyers or their clients. As I thought about the desire to look up the answers, I found myself wondering, "Was it strictly legal for Juror 8 to go out in search of a duplicate to the knife that was used to commit the murder that is the focus of 12 Angry Men?"
- What character has make you wonder why he or she did/said something? Walter Lee Younger in A Raisin in the Sun makes me crazy. What would make someone think that opening a liquor store would be a better use of money than sending someone to medical school? When I first read the play, his actions left me angry and confused. I could have joined his mother in slapping him. I spent many hours thinking about his motivation and the personal struggles that he faces. Since then, of course, I've had plenty of time to study the play, and I think I understand his actions. Still, though, there's something about a male character deciding that his liquor store is more important than a female character's college education that makes me want to shout at him.
- Name something from a work of literature (such as a character, setting, or quotation) that you find beautiful or vivid. The most lasting image for me is always Ezra Pound's "In a Station of the Metro." It's a distinct, vibrant, specific image. If reduced to a description though, the summary would say simply, "The speaker sees some people waiting for the Metro." The poem, however, is a single moment that is deeper and more vivid than any summary could ever capture. The poem makes me feel as if I too can see these soulless, wandering people, there on the metro platform.
As families, students, friends, and others answer the questions, they are actually proving that literature has influenced who they are. Each of the questions has a concrete purpose, to focus on a specific reason that we read literature. Compare the questions to these underlying messages:
- Literature has enduring value to the reader.
- Literature influences our actions and beliefs.
- Literature connects to our own time and place in the world.
- Literature inspires critical thinking.
- Literature has lasting beauty.
Together, the five questions tell us not only what a specific person has gained from reading literature, but also the very reasons that students should read and write about literature throughout their lives. Literature matters. No question about it.