Monday, April 25, 2011

On Teaching Literature.

One of the hardest things to do as a teacher is lead a discussion. I still struggle to find a great balance in my classroom with mixed activities and that includes leading discussions. Where my seniors were able to lead their own discussion a couple months ago on Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle, I know that my sophomore classes would melt down into chaos within a few minutes (I prefer my classes on the brink of chaos if you must know).

But discussing literature is a HUGE part of English classes, so discuss we must. There are times when I almost kind of dread it. Sometimes the kids don't get into it and I have to wait uncomfortably through awkward silences until a brave student raises their hand. Other times, they're shouting to get their points across because suddenly, they all have a lot to say.

Discussions are beneficial, however, so I must shove any discomfort I have in leading them aside and well...lead. And lead I do. Because after all, don't I discuss books here on a regular basis?

(Granted, most of you LIKE books and LIKE discussing them, so it is fairly easy to do so in this place).

Anyway, today my sophomore English classes were continuing on in their unit of Civil Rights Era literature. We started to read a speech by Malcolm X on Thursday, and they had to finish it over the weekend and respond to a couple questions:

"Do you think Malcolm X was racist? Why or why not? Do you think his views were justified in light of what he went through?"

In their responses, they had to use textual evidence (still hammering home the idea of "plagiarism") and well thought out answers. I figured we would discuss it for a few minutes and move on to discussing the beginning of A Raisin in the Sun and starting the first Act. But if you know anything about teenagers, it is that they do their own thing.

Both of my sophomore English classes had a LOT to say on the subject of Malcolm X, racism, and the literature we have been reading. And their discussion was insightful and meaningful. So even though they had to take a lot of reading home tonight, they still benefited from our discussion of the literature we're reading.

It was a day like today that I needed, in light of struggles with my other classes. It is when I get to discuss the details and intricacies of literature with my students that I am in my glory. Today was one of those days. They were pulling evidence from the text, analyzing the specific diction that Malcolm X used in this speech, and adding their own background knowledge. It was an English teacher's dream.

More than anything, it made me wish that I could always discuss literature in that way with them. That I could always give them things to read that would engage them, get them riled up, and make them passionate about the words that have been indelibly set in ink for them to read. I would love just to talk to them about the literature they love, add more for them to read, and run the class like a workshop-each student adding knowledge where they WANT to add knowledge, and all of it through reading.

I suppose that might be the dream of many an English teacher. I know I would, after a while, miss the writing portion. I love going through the process of crafting essays, of getting my students to put power and passion in their writing. So, I suppose I would miss that.

But discussing literature on an open stage like that would never get boring. Each and every one of them had an opinion, and you would never cease to hear something new, some connection they've made to their own lives. THAT is the power of literature.

As I sat there and listened to my classes discussing Malcolm X's words and comparing them to Dr. King's, I was again reminded of this place. I know that many of my students will stop discussing literature at some point in the future. For some of them, literature and the world of writing is not something that they will be insanely passionate about. But some? They might be other people out there, writing book blogs and continuing to discuss their love of the written word. And that made me so happy this afternoon, in light of everything else going on.

Because even with all the other "stuff" going on in the world-new gadgets and technology and strife-there is still literature for us to turn to. It is an art form that won't die out as much as people might think it will because it still offers us so much. We still feel the need to make connections to it, to understand the human condition before our time and during our time. I feel reassured knowing that some of my students will carry it on, and so on, and so on.

And while there continues to be people listening, I will continue to do my best to "teach" it in the best way I can-by discussing it even when it scares me.


  1. Great post Allie! Thank you for working so hard to engage teenagers and to bring them the power and excitement that is literature!

  2. Great post, Allie. Your students are lucky to have such a passionate teacher. It sounds like you are doing a wonderful job with them. Here is one book I'd recommend for discussion when you want students to take the lead: Socratic Circles: Fostering Critical Thinking in Middle and High School by Matt Copeland. Reading this book radically changed the way I approached classroom discussion. Hope you continue to have days like today....

  3. Great post! I wish I could be one of your students, your class sounds like something I would love! I hope you get more days like this!

  4. Love this, partially because I so know that feeling of just sick-to-your-stomach-I-hope-they-get-it-ness. What is always really strange to me is how one group can be so "on" while another just sits there like limp noodles.

    It can be so incredibly frustrating, but as you said, when it works, it is GLORIOUS. Glad you had that moment.

  5. You accurately capture a classroom scene. :)

  6. Amazing post!!!!! I wish you were my English teacher!

  7. This was such a great post. There is nothing more exhilarating in the teaching world than that moment where you connect with your kids, in a way that excites and inspires them to learn more. It's hard enough to get teenagers excited about anything these days, much less literature. But it sounds like ya did it. Good for you! I hope you have more of those moments. :)

  8. Wow, I wish I'd had teachers like you! You have practically inspired me to go back and get a teaching certificate.

    My daughter is starting 9th grade next year and I so want to discuss literature with her, but at the moment she would prefer to discuss manga. I just found out her summer reading is The Count of Monte Cristo (unabridged) so I asked if I could read it along with her. She just shrugged. Well, I can only hope. I know her reading next year also includes To Kill a Mockingbird and Animal Farm, two of my favorites.

  9. Again: great post. Did you said something to them about how you felt about that particular class? I think they would have enjoyed knowing how great you thought they were.

  10. Ah -- I'd love to do this. I think it'd be such a great challenge, to sit in a room full of people who don't care, and turn them around.

    (Well, I've never tried it. I know I'd be nervous, but I'd love that feeling, if I make someone see literature in a new way, and love it.)

  11. Oh how awesome! I am so happy to hear this story. I love my book group so I can have those kinds of discussions. How amazing to think of the ways you are helping the younger generation -- especially those who will love literature through life. Reading this post reminded me of all the amazing English teachers I've loved in my life.

  12. I imagine you are a pretty awesome teacher. I teach literature online and there are so many challenges, but the biggest is how to replicatenthe experience of having one of those great classroom experiences.