I’m pretty excited. This semester, I get to teach literature – something that hasn’t been a major component of my classes for a few years. At the university where I teach, the English department dictates the curriculum for all the freshman composition classes. The first year I taught, the department’s curriculum focused on teaching writing through literary analysis. This meant I got to teach whatever literature I wanted all semester long, so long as my students learned to write analytical papers. The next year, however, the department completely changed the curriculum to focus on rhetoric. There are plenty of good things to say about the new curriculum, but unfortunately the curriculum doesn’t leave much room for literature. Instead of analyzing literary texts, students analyze new types of texts, such as online advertisements and Post Secret cards, and write about current social issues. For those of us who decided to become English teachers because we loved analyzing literature, this curriculum requires a bit of adjustment. All this is to say – when I found out that, in addition to a normal freshman composition class, I would be teaching two special sections of freshman composition that would be based on literary analysis instead of the department’s rhetoric curriculum, I was delighted.
Now, four weeks in, I’ve found my groove in both courses, but they are radically different. One key difference between my normal freshman composition class and my literature-based classes is the student-makeup in each. My normal freshman composition class includes students of all classifications (freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and even some seniors who managed to sneak by this long without a core English credit) with varying levels of experience, intelligence, and work ethic. My literature-based classes, though, are for a special group of kids who are participating in the university’s program for gifted math-and-science teenagers. These students spend their junior and senior years of high school at the university and complete at the same time their freshman and sophomore years of college. So, these students are younger (they’re all 16) and brighter. But more importantly, they’re used to being challenged, and they are eager to learn. As such, they seem to me to be a lot closer to homeschoolers than a normal class would be.
The other key difference between the two courses is that the rhetoric curriculum is information-based while the literature curriculum is process-based. For the rhetoric curriculum, my students aren’t writing standard essays; instead, they’re writing special rhetorical exercises, called progymnasmata. Each progymnasmata exercise requires specific information, such as what a chreia is, how to use kairos in your writing, why enthymemes are useful as paper topics, and what elements are required in an introduction of law. In short, there’s a lot of information I have to teach my students in order for them to complete each assignment. In contrast, in the literature classes, I teach the students how to think about literature, how to break it down into its parts, and how to analyze how those parts work. Then, we apply that process to everything we read. In the end, both sets of students are learning similar basic skills – what makes a good paragraph, when to adjust style to an audience, how to support a point with evidence – but the ways they get there are dramatically different. I know I’m a bit biased since I’m a process-oriented learner (I can easily pick up any subject that involves learning a rule/process and applying it, such as foreign language, calculus, or chemistry), but I tend to think processes have more staying power with students. What are the chances my rhetoric students will remember what a syllogism is next year? Not great. But I think there’s a strong probability my literature students will remember how to break a short story down into analyzable elements. There’s also a greater sense of carryover: my literature students will be able to use their new analytical skills in all their classes, not just the literature courses.
This process – of breaking literature down into its elements and then analyzing them – is exactly what our book Reading Strands is about. Dave didn’t think students would learn about literature by writing summaries or taking reading comprehension quizzes. (Those types of exercises serve mainly to evaluate whether or not a student did the reading, not how well they thought about it. When you’re homeschooling, you don’t have to give your kids a quiz to find out whether they read the books. If you’ve seen them lying on the floor buried in their books, you know they’ve done the reading.) Instead, Dave wanted to teach kids to think about literature, and he believed that you could teach thinking separately from teaching writing. Reading Strands isn’t a book about how to make kids write essays about literature – it’s about teaching them to think and to talk about literature. The book shows how any piece of fiction can be broken down into four main elements: setting, character, conflict, and resolution. And by asking your kids open-ended questions about these elements, your kids will learn to think analytically about what they’re reading.
What’s interesting about Reading Strands is that the process it teaches is exactly the process that college literature classes use. I’ve known this from the day I first heard about Reading Strands, but my classes the past couple of weeks have really brought the point home. We spend almost all of our class time discussing literature (whatever was assigned that week) and how its elements are working together. We’ve just finished Christopher Fry’s play The Lady’s Not for Burning. The main conflict is between society and the hero and heroine. The hero is tired of living and wants to be executed, but the town refuses to hang him. The heroine is accused of witchcraft and is sentenced to death though she wants to live. My students were able to describe each character and to summarize the plot, but I had to walk them through the process of thinking about how the setting, characters, plot, and resolution worked together. For example, each of the female characters in the play has a general sort of independence that, to modern readers, isn’t very remarkable. However, the play is set in the 1400s, presumably inEngland or somewhere else inWestern Europe. In that context, the independent women are quite extraordinary and can be interpreted as symbols for social change. We also talked about genre – the play is funny, but plenty of tragedies are funny as well. The deciding factor in a play’s genre is the resolution: do the characters die, or do they pair off into married couples? (Spoiler alert: they pair off.) I also asked them to think about ways in which the setting influences the ending and vice versa – what does the romantic coupling at the end suggest about the realities of the historical context? Once I’d walked my students through this analytical process a few times (with the play and with a few poems), I asked them to develop their own arguments about the play. I haven’t seen the final drafts yet, but based on the rough drafts, these kids are jumping head-first into literary analysis. How exciting!
That’s perhaps what I love most about teaching literature – seeing how other minds come up with entirely new analytical claims. Once a story has been broken down into its many parts, those parts can be reassembled in a practically infinite number of ways.