Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Secret to Teaching Literature

In her Welcome to the 2009 NCTE Annual Convention, Carol Jago explains that the convention theme “‘Once and Future Classics: Reading Between the Lines,’ is designed to inspire courageous conversations about traditional and contemporary literature and foster lively discussions of how we teach as well as what we teach.”

Literature gives us so much to talk about, but eventually, we end up discussing how to teach the subject in ways that engage students while challenging them to think critically about what they read. The secret isn’t knowing how to identify every image or literary element. It’s not about finding some absolute set of classic texts. It’s not memorizing facts about the authors. It’s not telling students what makes a work great or even that a work is great.

For me, the secret is in my own attitude and reaction to the texts. If my choices and reactions show an enthusiastic and broad appreciation for literature, students are more likely to engage in deeper conversations about the texts.

The solution isn’t simply to gush over what we read. It’s far more complicated and nuanced. It has to do with how I think about literature itself and how my choices foster an open, supportive literacy community. Here are my secrets:

  1. Remember that any text can be a classic. There’s no useful reason to limit the definition of literature to certain genres, canonical texts, or popular choices. Literature can be anything from a graphic novel to a haiku, from the latest Gossip Girls novel to medieval madrigals. It doesn’t have to be a particular format. It doesn’t have to be in English. It can be fiction or nonfiction. Any text can be a “once and future classic” in the classroom. When all texts are welcome, the options multiply exponentially and readers are more likely to find a text they can engage with and enjoy.
  2. Recognize that the word text is not limited to print artifacts. As bookstores eagerly push ereaders like Kindle and Nook, we cannot deny that the age of paper-only literature is no more. Literature includes many media, from print to digital, and from films to video games. Classroom discussion can make connections to these many kinds of artifacts. We don’t even have to have computers and projectors in the classroom. Literary elements like plot and setting stretch from one medium to another. 21st century definitions of literacy respect these connections, and I prefer to welcome the full range of literature to the classroom.
  3. Find and build connections to and among texts. Simply reading one word after another or viewing one image after another is never enough. Literature isn’t important because of what it is. It’s important because of our reactions and interactions with it. Welcoming connections openly and supportively can make all the difference in teaching literature effectively. Students may identify with a feeling or experience. They may reject a presentation of reality or a decision a character makes. They may find that events in wildly different texts have more in common than they expected. These connections are what makes literature engaging and alive.


ProfessorNana said...

Bravo! This is one of the best postings on this topic I have seen in quite a while. It resonates with me, but more importantly, it is exactly how we can make books and reading resonate with our students.

Carol Hopson said...

Thanks for permission. I sometimes feel guilty about referencing or (gasp) teaching texts that some don't consider "classic" or "wothy" of time in the classroom. I'll post this blog on my website and perhaps outside my door and chat away about books with my students!

Anonymous said...

Super Traci. . .I think the theme of the conference will serve us well that are in-tune with the latest YA releases and their impact on student readers. I have at least four students reading ARCs into March of 2010 and they love being ahead of the pack so that they can recommend books as they release. . .only contemporary texts will allow for this opportunity. . .

See you at NCTE


Paul W. Hankins

Chuck Hamilton said...

You're right, the connection with the reader is what's important. There are many texts that are important that are not included in the cannon. We keep referring to Louise Rosenblatt's book Literature as Exploration, in which she creates the Transactional Theory of reading and responding to a text. It's the combination of the literature, the text, and the reader that produce meaning - with no one part out-weighing another. The text has no meaning on its own, it requires a reader and that reader's relationship to provide meaning.

Nancy Martin said...

"Literature isn’t important because of what it is. It’s important because of our reactions and interactions with it." This is so well put Traci. I am constantly encouraging my students to enter into a conversation with the author and this happens best when we talk about a text (whether it's a book, a film, an online article) with fellow readers. We also need to reinforce this through our assessments. Though it is more time-consuming, having students respond to literature is much more important than having them regurgitate literary elements and factoids about genres and authors.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great comments. I have written two of your sentences for my quote-of-the-day. "Literature isn't important because of what it is. It's important because of our reactions and intereactions with it." I'm also just starting my own literature response blog and I'm somewhat apprehensive. What can I do besides jump in with both feet? Keep up the good work!

John Chorazy said...

Can "any" text really be a "classic"? While we refine and redefine our understanding of L/literature, is all of it assumed somehow "great"? No book is "unworthy" of study, and all of it can be considered lower case l literature in some regard, but some texts are obviously significant for scholarly attention. And whether or not any person presently has a reaction - negative, positive, or apathetic - to a extant text, we know these texts have nonetheless impacted the world... and that's why Literature is what it is and is important. What seems to be confused herein between the various critical theories suggested is whether the crux is more a matter of creating happy readers or informed scholars; it seems that teaching capital L Literature continues to fall away from the postmodern classroom. I'm interested, as I'll assume most are, in creating both happy and informed students - isn't that why we make contemporary connections to Shakespeare, and why "Twilight" borrows so much from "Wuthering Heights"? A competent reader is one comfortable in any genre, and one with metacognitive strategies and sufficient prior knowledge enough to dwell in the language of any L/literature he or she is presented with.

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