August 17th, 2007

woods, Elizabeth, camera, April

Teaching literature

This really should be called "teaching advanced reading" because that's what it is...but this thread is for discussing curriculum redesign where "literature" is part of middle-school and high school studies.

My idea:  if kids have been enjoying reading fiction and poetry up to now, then you can begin teaching them how to recognize why they like what they like--what technical elements go into making a good story (or are lacking in a bad one.)  Many kids, like me, gulp down fiction and poetry for the sheer joy of story or wordplay, without any awareness of the components.  Many kids, like me, do not like dissecting books as much as they like reading them--any more than someone who enjoys a bouquet wants to start slicing every petal apart to look at its cellular structure.  So the trick is to teach them to recognize the components without destroying their enjoyment of the story.

Here's what I would try.  First, find your most enthusiastic readers, and find out what books they like to read.  Not the books they think they ought to like (which previous teachers will have told them) but the books they really like.  These must be books they've already read, and if the books are a year or so behind them, all the better--their pleasure in these books is solidly based.   Enthusiastic readers, working on books they like, will not lose the love of reading while learning how fiction is constructed. 

The purpose here is not to tear down their favorites, but to teach them how fiction works--think of it as giving a tour to roller-coaster enthusiasts on how roller coasters are designed and built.   Just as riding a roller coaster--just riding it--teaches you things about acceleration, deceleration, centrifugal force, the effects of G-forces on humans, etc.--so reading a well-written book even without analyzing it teaches you things about human psychology, about relationships, and many other things.  Learning how books are constructed to accomplish this--what writers do, in other words--can add to the enjoyment if it's done right.   You learn more from a roller-coaster-making tour if you like roller-coasters to start with....students will learn more from analysis of books if it's analysis of books they *like*.

Start with the basic plot, as Aristotle defined it (interesting person with at least one character flaw faces large problem; character's own actions drive much of the plot; his/her flaw makes things worse; final outcome, good or bad, results from character's own actions and feels "justified") and the basic character.   Younger children usually prefer simpler characterization because they  lack the experience to understand complex motivations; depending on the child's experience (which varies widely, right into adulthood) some books may simply overwhelm the reader with a personality he can't understand or find congenial.  So if the student chooses the book for himself/herself, this gives the teacher valuable information about what that child *can* process (remembering that good teaching always begins where the kid is, not where you wish they were.)    Using the basic plotline,  encourage the student to find out where the "ups" are--where the tension is, where the relaxation is, which pages made the student have to read "just one more", and where he/she could put the book down to eat dinner or watch TV.   Where the character made choices--what motivated the character to make those choices?   How was character attached to the plot--did the student think that anyone could have been the protagonist (character not tightly bound to the plotline) or did it seem that only that one person/character could have acted that way?   How much of the plot resulted from outside events over which the character had no control (tornadoes, wars, car wreck when someone else was driving) and how much resulted from the character's own decisions/actions?   (IOW was character active or passive, making things happen or having things happen to him/her?) 

Was there any place in this book where the reader felt the book went "flat"--where he/she lost interest.  Why?   Was there any place where the reader got lost (wasn't sure what was happening, or why someone acted as they did, or lost track of the time/space/emotional connection within the book?)   Compared to other similar books, why did the reader like this one better?   Was there any place in the book where the reader was aware of thinking "That's perfect!"?  Was the ending as satisfying as the rest?  If not, how would the student re-write the ending? 

When discussing students' favorite books, you can introduce the distinction between liking a character, and appreciating how a character is written.  You can also introduce the distinction between character levels--that the protagonist needs to have the most complex characterization, but the guy who collects tickets on the train while the protagonist is having a deep discussion with a friend shouldn't be more than a background figure.  If another character distracts the student from the protagonist, help the student figure out why...how...etc.

It's true that the use of student-preferred books for the study of analysis means not assigning some standards...but it will mean producing better readers who may then go out and read more classics when they're old enough to appreciate them.  (Also, telling kids that a book is "too old" for them can lead them to struggle through it on their own.   I certainly reacted that way...)







woods, Elizabeth, camera, April

Books out of school...

So what DID you read outside of school, if you read outside school?

Here are some of mine (no way to list them all...) 

Bobbsey Twins (starting about age 5, until I got bored with the formula, about 7 books in.  They put me off formula kids' books for years...except, as below, two particular horse series.)

Marguerite Henry's horse books, most of them.  Over and over.  I got Misty of Chincoteague for Christmas when I was six and had finished it by that night.  Black Stallion and Island Stallion books, also over and over (esp, the first Black Stallion book, clearly the best.)   Every horse and dog book I could find in our local library.  I particularly loved Terhune's Sunnybank books.   I hated The Red Pony, and for a long time found Eric Knight's books (Lassie, Come Home and Bob, Son of Battle) unattractive--it helps to be older and understand the human part of the story.  Not all horse and dog stories were written for children or are appropriate for them.) 

In addition to books, I read a lot of magazine fiction--The Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, Ladies' Home Journal, and others were always around--some my mother took, some friends of hers took, and magazines were freely traded around.  They all had fiction (lots of it) back then, and we kids heard adults discussing their favorites. 

My mother took Readers' Digest Condensed Books, and I started reading them at age 8, avoiding the ones that were boring (grownup business and love affairs) but enjoying those having to do with airplanes, technology, politics.  Thus I really liked Nevil Shute's The Rainbow and the Rose, A Town Called Alice, and Trustee from the Toolroom.  As I got older, I read the relatively few novels and short story collections she owned--which included historical novels and some "romances" of a very old type:  Anthony Adverse kept me busy all one summer, and The Rosary (incredibly sentimental but a fine book for a fourteen-year-old girl). gave me an undying passion for English country houses.   She also had paperback mysteries--Agatha Christie, mostly, but also some Nero Wolfes.  While in junior high I fell into a treasure trove--an old lady with a rental house, who had become my friend because I'd stop and talk to her on the way to and from school, gave me boxes of books, many of them classics.  

I was also reading a lot of nonfiction, mostly history (and most of that military history).   I loved spy stories,  escape stories--real or fictional--and was fascinated by anything to do with aviation or space.   But I also loved travel adventure books...hence The Royal Road to Romance (for those who don't know it, nothing to do with relationships, but a partly fictional account of a young man's travels in the East.)   I used to spend my lunch money on paperbacks, in high school...still on my shelves are a few of those.   I didn't read SF until ninth grade; after gobbling up every bit of it in the school and public libraries, I had to start buying it.   Some of my favorite non-SF fiction in this period was by Helen MacInnes (spy adventure), Elizabeth Goudge (fairly complex relationship stories set in England), Mary Stewart (adventure/romance), Leon Uris, Ian Fleming, and Allen Drury.   Somewhere I have my reading list for my senior year of high school...that included, in addition to SF and mystery and spy stories, Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet  (of which I understood very little at that age, being a very naive 17-18, but the language is gorgeous and I did understand that.)   I also read, on my own, a lot of Greek literature in translation, starting with a book on mythology I'd been given very early.

A note on literary sensitivity: I was horse crazy and read every book about horses I could get hold of.  But the one I remembered for years, without remembering its author, was The Maltese Cat...by Kipling, of course.   As soon as I re-found it, and learned who wrote it, I went on a Kipling binge that lasted for years.