The Art in Teaching the Literature Instead of the Literature’s Art

Teachers need to give their students credit. This is the first lesson in teaching I learned on the job, but for whatever reason, one that escapes many fellow teachers and college professors.

I am reminded of an essay I wrote my first year of university in my Introduction to English 1000 class. It was about the patriarchal society in The Vicar of Wakefield (the bane of my literary existence), and how I struggled to identify with its themes as a contemporary feminist.

It was also my professor’s favorite novel. Of all time.

I got an F.

The essay wasn’t that bad. Sure, there were some grammatical errors, some formatting issues, but on a fundamental, novice post-secondary, level the paper was OK, maybe a low B or high C. At least that is what the other three professors said when I asked them for another opinion.

On that fateful marking day I was faced with the most important lesson I would learn as a Red pencil marking an F on paper close up. Image shot 2009. Exact date unknown.university student (and one I would avoid as a teacher): contrary to popular belief, a student’s opinion is not always welcome in a classroom, and how a teacher teaches is the difference between a pass and a fail.

Northwestern Fellow, Gary Saul Morson, thinks that the teaching of literature is the very reason why so many current university students are avoiding it. I am inclined to agree. In his article, “Why College Kids are Avoiding the Study of Literature,” Morson makes a number of compelling arguments for his theory.

First, teachers need to approach their lessons from the perspective of a student who knows nothing about the very subject that the teacher knows absolutely everything about. I can attest that once you allow your own mind to be engaged, and dare I say, changed, if only for a millisecond, you will garner the respect of your students and, in turn, they will allow themselves to be engaged by you.

Next, if you want your students to appreciate a sense of time and place, don’t make the book only about the setting. Let the setting be accentuated by the reader’s experience, first with the characters, then by the awe of the times. As Morson points out, if you really want to hit home about the hard times workers endured in Victorian England, a short factory inspectors report would be a lot more revealing than a lengthy novel by Dickens.

This brings me to my last point: let the students connect to the stories in their own way.

If you are teaching a book only to teach its syntactical elements and figurative language then forget about it. Crickets are already chirping. Stories need to matter to the reader; even the novice student who doesn’t understand the term “protagonist” has to identify with the bare bones of the story. One way to do this is to emphasize the empathy and the human factor of a narrative, then the elements of fiction will follow. I actually gasped out loud at the passage about the professor who admitted that he tells his students never to read the characters as real people. Why on earth would you expect anyone to spend any amount of time with any character if the suspension of disbelief could not allow the reader to see through the characters eyes, to feel their pain, to love as passionately, and to live implicitly? Why teach literature at all?!

A reader must be allowed a personal experience with a story, even one that does not conform to the teacher’s own agenda or point of view. Sadly, many students will learn that there is often only one way of approaching a paper, only one possible analysis of a poem, and a right and a wrong thesis statement.

In my own class I preface each course by assuring students that I am open to any and all narrative interpretations, so long as they can prove their arguments thoroughly. As a result, I read wonderfully creative and insightful takes on the literature I love,  the literature I believe I am an expert on. How wonderful it is to realize that, maybe in the end, I am not an expert at all. The beauty of literature is that there is just so much to learn!

By Leigha Chiasson-Locke

To read or not to read (because of censorship). That is the question.

This is a strange time to be literary.

I have an intrinsic desire to share all the amazing books I have read with absolutely everyone I know. Like Whitman, I want to “sound my barbaric yawp from the rooftops of the world” when I truly love a book.

But sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t.

I am not allowed.

We live in an over protective society that has built glass walls around our children. Of the many issues I have with this fact, the censorship of books is at the top of my list.

It is a struggle, as a teacher, to know how a student, a parent, or a colleague is going to react to my choice of reading material. I have been approached because The Call of the Wild is too difficult for a vegetarian to read, Peter Pan has the word “orgy” in it, and the concern that Harry Potter is not, in fact, appropriate literature for private school students. Everything is a touchy subject with someone. Luckily, I have not had to stop teaching a book. I am fortunate.

Recently, a third grade teacher in North Carolina resigned after receiving little support from his school board for his read aloud of King and King, a picture book addressing the presence of o-KINGANDKING-570 same-sex marriages in our contemporary society. In the same week, a college student and her parents asked for the “eradication” of seminal graphic novels: Fun Home, Persepolis and Sandman (in a graphic novel English course, by the way), because she found the content too sexually explicit and violent.

She said she was expecting Batman and Robin, she obviously hasn’t read The Killing Joke, but I digress…. She, and her parents, called the books garbage.

They are among three of my favourite books, and since I consider myself to be quite literary, I refuse to accept the undignified slander she and her parents impose upon them. A word of wisdom, one needn’t like everything, but one should not insult nor eradicate books that bring pleasure to others.

If only more people were so obliging.

There was a time when teaching was content oriented and teacher centric. This is no longer the case. I teach the kids I have in front of me, I decide the content once I know them. Since the 1960’s teachers have been introducing kids to books that speak to them, about their lives, feelings and pressing social concerns. We treat the students as people who should be heard, who have an opinion. Trust me, teaching them this way is much more enjoyable for them and for us as teachers. The discussion is rich and engaging, and if we can successfully address some metaphor and alliteration along the way, bonus! Teachers are yearning to give their students choices for reading and a platform to sound their voices in the hallways of their schools, but those academic institutions who are slow on this transition are letting books be banned, and worse, are letting good teachers go as a result.

We are no longer teaching our students to anticipate the adult lives of the middle-class European white man or woman. We are teaching them to be global citizens who are aware of the ever-shrinking world we live in; aware of the connectivity between countries, classes, regions, religions, and culture. Our North American countries are increasingly becoming multicultural. They are becoming more accepting of sexuality and gender equality. Why should our youth not be allowed to read books that address these contemporary issues?

Even in libraries, some school library technicians I know are putting books behind their counters and in the office off the floor because parents do not want their kids exposed to the gruesome realities of mummification or the busting bosoms of caricatures in comic books.

I look at the list of most banned books, scanning titles like, Of Mice and Men, I know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Catcher in the Rye, and Lord of the Flies, and I am disheartened, knowing that the opportunity for some youth to enjoy these books has vanished.

This year, Sherman Alexi’s book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, was the most banned book in North America. I love this book. I would teach this book. I recommend it to The_Absolutely_True_Diary_of_a_Part-Time_Indiananyone who will listen to me talk about it. But many feel it is inappropriate because it deals with bullying, drugs and alcohol, and sexuality. It also addresses some racial tension between American aboriginal people and European descendants, an issue I suspect has more to do with it’s banning than the few passages about sex. The sad truth is that in the curriculum students do not get a real glimpse into the hardships suffered by the aboriginal people in North America. God forbid we should try to rectify that problem by reading a book about them by a member of their own community.

I feel bad for the kids growing up today. When I was a preteen I was fully immersed in overtly sexual films like Grease and Dirty Dancing. My parents bought me the movie, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, for Christmas when I was twelve. I understood Romeo and Juliet before the end of elementary school and loafed with Walt Whitman before I was old enough to legally drive. I read contentious material, and I grew up fine. Much better than my students who live in glass houses.

It is a strange time to be literary; the adults of our world are attacking so much of the quality literature available to us, to kids, for being too something-or-other. The adults are put off by the words in these books. The kids aren’t. The kids are excited by them, they long for them.

What are the adults so afraid of?

I hope I am always the teacher who shares these books with the students who need them.

I hope I can guide their understanding of the world around them when the other adults in their lives refuse to, and in the process, I hope these kids learn to love to read.

By Leigha Chiasson-Locke

Why I Can’t Afford to be a Book Snob

I can be a snob.

In fact, I guarantee you that I will exude snobbery in the following situations:

  • If you try to be a bigger PInk Floyd fan than me. Not gonna happen, my friend. Let it go.
  • That being said, if you try to be a bigger Pearl Jam fan than me I might disown you. Depending. Maybe.
  • If you try to argue the point of the Oxford comma. I like it, move on.
  • If you presume that I am not a qualified geek because I didn’t read Marvel growing up. Snikt! You got a problem with that, Bub?

But there is one situation in which I will never be a snob, and that is when it comes to books.

I will never be a book snob.

Recently I was engaged in a discussion with a number of avid readers about the merits, or lack thereof, of teaching contemporary novels in high school classrooms. I was shocked to discover that many of my bookish peers were against the inclusion of new material to secondary English syllabi, preferring instead to travel only the well worn paths of canon. After all, they learned the classics and they came out splendidly intelligent. Why change something that has worked for so long?

Because it’s not working. Not really.

I cannot be a book snob because I am a teacher. An English teacher, in fact.

I have been tremendously lucky to teach advanced, academic, and communications English to my secondary students over the last number of years. Together we have plotted with Oberon, travelled to Mordor,  stood on the gallows of Salem, branded ourselves with a scarlet letter, had great expectations, fought an uprising of pigs, partied with Gatsby, deduced with Sherlock, and laid in a tomb with star-crossed lovers. We did the standard syllabus. I threw in some Chaucer, Thoreau, Whitman, and Frost for good measure. And I adore every minute I spend with these characters, authors, and my students. I love teaching these books largely because I have read them and I enjoy reading them again and again. That is, after all, what a lover of books and a lover of the classics does. But those of us who can withstand the bombardment of iambic pentameter and archaic language are few and far between. The truth is that many students today are not resonating or engaging with these texts. The themes, yes. The texts not so much. It is a somber truth.

The trick, as I have learned, is to cater to my students, not to the expectation of what they should be reading because of what I read when I was their age (reading I did largely out of pleasure, not for academia). The majority of them will be reluctant readers. This is a challenge in of itself without trying to shove Shakespeare or Dickens down their throats. But the silver lining is in the word “reluctant”. Reluctant. Not unwilling. Finding the right book for a student, regardless of age or grade, can create a life long learner, an enthusiastic reader, a lover of books.

Many of the books I include in my syllabus, along with the classics, are contemporary. Some are fantasy  novels like Tuck Everlasting and A Wrinkle in Time. Stories that address the concepts of love, change and impermanence. Themes students themselves are struggling to understand in their everyday lives.

We talk about Sartre and the notions of existentialism and then debate whether Dumbledore and the Mirror of Erised are not existential themselves.

We flip heads and tails with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead to make more sense of Hamlet when we get to it.

We read comics. Maus, Persepolis, Superman Red Son, An American Born Chinese, because these stories teach us history in a meaningful and visually stunning way that today’s kids get. Man, do they ever GET IT.

We have seen two roads diverge in a wood in Riverdale with Archie Andrews.

We come of age with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

We struggle to make sense of art with The Soloist.

We have mourned the treatment of indigenous peoples with April Raintree. We have read secrets in the The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian.

We have followed Elie Wisel into the very darkest Night.

And the students engage. They connect, they feel, and they ask for more books to read.

That’s why we can’t stick to the classics alone. With them only some students will ask for more. The goal is to encourage them all to ask for more. Why close my mind to a book because it is new? Why create a negative reading experience for my students because their preference is contemporary?

I may be a snob sometimes, but I will never be a book snob. I am a teacher, I need to read, to learn, and to relate.

That and I love to read. I love to read everything.

By Leigha Chiasson-Locke  @ldchiasson17

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Parents and Teachers: Superhero Responsibly

This post is an extension of a radio interview that I participated in addressing the presence of superheroes in the classroom.

superheroThe board and faculty of a private school in my hometown has, with the support of many parents, endeavoured to ban superheroes from its halls. As both a teacher and mother I cannot condone these choices. It goes without saying that as a comic book enthusiast I am deeply disappointed. To the parents and teachers willing to censure superheroes I have this to say: please, superhero responsibly.

With the advent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) And recent DC films, superheroes are at a cultural peak. Those who do not understand the broad scope of superhero literature, its many facets and depth, choose to select this medium as a scapegoat for undesirable behaviour and disinterest in reading. Superheroes are not the problem; disrespect for the power of comics is the problem.  Arguments against superheroes in the classroom and hallways of schools range from being too violent, addressing only very basic story lines, and stamped with the label “bad” literature. There are many adults in the education system who still devalue the worth of the graphic novel as a medium for teaching literature. It is not only a question of misunderstanding superheroes, but of graphic storytelling and art as a whole. A paradigm shift needs to occur to eradicate this archaic perception.

I do not, under any circumstances, want my six year old son watching violent television, film, or reading violent books. So he doesn’t, but he watches and knows all about superheroes. As the responsible adult in our relationship, I monitor what he reads and watches to ensure its age appropriateness. The popular films from the MCU, along with the Christopher Nolan Batman films and DC’s burgeoning Justice League films are not for children. Nor are the majority of graphic novels and weekly and monthly single issues at your local comic book store. Superhero comics are largely targeted towards young adults and adult audiences. The characters are targeted to children. Books, comics and films for children do not touch on the same themes as the films you watch or hear about in popular culture. The Superhero Squad, for example, treat themes of friendship, teamwork and personal growth. Doctor Doom is always bested, sometimes with Iron Man’s blasters, but more than the fighting are the plot driven discussions about why the problem at hand exists. Often the show ends with a moral. My son can watch this show. He is not violent as a result. He uses his words, not his actions when faced with a disgruntled friend. He wants to be as good a friend as Wolverine and as strong a leader as Iron Man and Captain America are. It is ok that he doesn’t know exactly what Wolverine is best at, but when he does find out later on he will already know that Wolverine is a character that can be counted on- a leader who makes tough choices. Wolverine will become more believable as my son’s world becomes more real. My son lives in a violent world. He doesn’t need comics to teach him that. If anything, they can help him escape it.

Superheroes are only written into simple story lines in the minds of the uneducated people who don’t read comics. I would argue they are full of substance, figurative language, advanced vocabulary and rich plot detail. I have a degree in English Literature, a degree in education, and soon I will have a degree in library sciences. I know good literature when I see it, or read it; and I read A LOT.

As a teacher I would often use superhero story lines in my English and senior history classes. For example, Superman: Red Son is the story of Superman’s crash landing in Russia. In my History 12 Global Studies class, we consider the outcome of the Cold War if Superman had been raised in the Soviet Union. The purpose is to encourage students to think outside of the box. To buoy their curiosity as they consider what they take for granted as normal and look at it from another perspective. Our role as teachers is not to indoctrinate our beliefs and ideas, it is to inspire youth to acknowledge their own. If I use Superman as a vehicle to get them to think of the world from a soviet lens, then I have granted them permission to reject, momentarily, what they know for what could have been. Similarly, in an effort to make Hercules more interesting to a disinterested World History 10 student, I suggest All Star Superman, where our protagonist takes on Herculean trials as the student realizes his hero is a flawed being; god-like, but not a god.

Superheroes are flawed. Stripped bare of their powers and technology they are flawed men and women who do not conform and fit into conventional society. The X-men are spokesmodels for the marginalized. Batman is constantly seeking an outlet for dealing with the death of his parents. Captain America struggles in vain to ensure morality, ethics and values in a world saturated in corruption. Readers, every single one of us, are flawed beings. Each of us longing to belong. Why not let our young readers engage with the stories of their cultural icons and heroes who reflect the very struggles they endure?

The role of the parent, the teacher, and the educational system is to provide mentorship for our students. To enlighten a future society to appreciate and concede to the perspectives of others. Teaching them that the literature and the characters they admire and love are not appropriate, unacceptable, or rubbish is teaching them to censure what they do not understand. Censorship is fundamentally backwards in a society where we value free thinking and education.

I will continue to teach with superheroes. When my students walk into my classroom they will be greeted with a poster of Spiderman and a collection of comic figurines lining my desk. I will discuss the movies they watch, the comics they read, and in turn students will continue to ask to be in my homeroom; the space they feel safe to express who they are and where they see their interests proudly positioned on the walls around them. My son will be encouraged to learn more about the superheroes he loves, he will be praised for the comics he himself creates, and when the time comes, with his mom and dad as excited as he is, he will watch superheroes on the big screen.

Banning superheroes is an act akin to the malevolence of super villains.

Don’t be a villain. Superhero responsibly.

By Leigha Chiasson-Locke   @ldchiasson17