On teaching literature (3)

March 23, 2014

It’s only natural to want to share one’s love of reading, but teaching it isn’t quite that simple: I came across many students who didn’t enjoy reading, and who had far more exciting and interesting things that they preferred to spend their time on. So, a certain reality check there: come on down out of that ivory tower…  But there were also students who hadn’t yet met the books that spoke to them, and it was wonderful to see this finally happen: “It’s not the sort of book I’d choose to read myself, but it was really good…I’m glad we read it.” That was enough, for starters.

Boys and girls, male and female students enjoy different things from books, not mutually exclusive, but definitely in need of consideration, as well as tackling gender stereotypes. I always found a great way in was via their own reading: getting them to present a book to the class, read from it, review it, respond to questions on it… it was often astonishing to see what they chose, what they found in a book I’d read and hadn’t noticed, what the interest and reaction of their peers was. I suppose it was all about establishing reading as a normal and enjoyable activity.

Shared enjoyment of texts and introducing students to the idea that you could explore and interpret a book was the key in the early secondary years, where I always felt it was also essential to embed the idea of different people having different opinions and our need to respect those, as well as the idea that in our subject, there were no ‘right’ answers, only your answer and how you justified it. Some loved this, others couldn’t really cope with the freedom…

As we moved towards examination courses, the texts became more adult, the issues they raised more complex and in need of plenty of time to explore: I always insisted on reading every word of a novel together. Every class was different, meaning that teaching the same books year after year never became boring. Of course, the choice of texts was crucial: there had to be some way of linking a text to their experience of life. To Kill A Mockingbird allowed discussion of the idea of justice, growing up, parents; Lord of the Flies meant you could explore the issues of society, rules, law and order, the dark side to the human psyche. And Romeo and Juliet: first love, parents limiting one’s life… where to stop?

At sixth form level, the depth and detail of a writer’s craft emerged even more fully, as well as the development and articulation of personal response to much more challenging texts; the real students emerged through their willingness to read more widely around the narrow syllabus framework, as well as to begin engaging with critics, and to see themselves as potential equals. The joy of teaching for me here was most profound: I had to work as hard as the students, in terms of explaining and justifying my interpretations, countering theirs, arguing and defending my ideas… it kept my brain alive and alert. The greatest revelation for me as a sixth form student was that I could know as much as my teachers, that my ideas were potentially as valid as theirs… I had grown up; I had arrived… magic!

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