Teaching Literature

20 Sep

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.




Getting Started

31 Aug

This morning, I sat down to write our first blog post, opened up my word processor, and stared at the blank page… for the next sixty minutes. I knew what I wanted to write about in general; I even had ideas for some specific points I wanted to make. But that didn’t make the first sentence any easier. Why was I having such trouble? Certainly not because of a lack of experience. I have both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in English, and I’ve just started my fourth year teaching writing at the local university. By all accounts, I’m an experienced writer. None of that seemed to matter, though, in part because there are no established guidelines for what a first blog post should look like. Not having any guidelines is terrifying.

And yet, that type of paralyzing fear is what many students go through every time they are told to write without being given any step-by-step instruction. Even if the students already have topics picked out, they probably won’t have any idea how to start their essays or stories or journal entries.

The fact that Writing Strands doesn’t take that approach to writing was one of the things I loved most when I started working for the company in January 2007. Dave didn’t think it was fair to grade students on their writing without first teaching them how to write. That sounds like common sense, but plenty of teachers assign and grade research papers without first teaching the basics, such as: What makes a good sentence? How do you write one? What makes a good paragraph? How do you connect one paragraph to the next?

In fact, at the beginning of every semester, my students present me with solid evidence that many schools aren’t teaching the basics of writing. The students who come into my class may be able to name the parts of a paper; they might even be able to explain that every paragraph needs a topic sentence. But they don’t know how to develop good topic sentences in their own writing. They don’t know how to write clear and succinct introductory paragraphs, and they definitely don’t know how to write powerful conclusions. Even the naturally talented writers, who may be able to pull off great papers, get their success from a kind of alchemy – they know what earns the grades, but they don’t know why. Then there are the students that have been taught to hate writing and to believe they are worthless as writers. These kids often have good ideas, but they’re equal parts too mad and too scared to turn those ideas into papers.

These are some of the problems that Writing Strands hopes to try to fix, or better yet, prevent. Every exercise in Writing Strands uses a step-by-step approach to teach kids one skill at a time. Each exercise is simple and focused so students won’t feel overwhelmed, and examples show them what to aim for. Writing Strands also has guidance for parents. In addition to the parents’ manual (Evaluating Writing), each book begins with the Writing Strands philosophy, which holds that parents should use their feedback to build their children’s confidence, not to destroy it. I can’t help but think that, if my students had been home schooled with this curriculum, they’d be much better off.

Interestingly, Writing Strands didn’t begin in a home school. Dave and his wife, Lea, were both educators in the public school system, and their son, Corey, attended public schools. When Corey reached the fourth grade, Dave and Lea could see he wasn’t really being taught how to write, so they created exercises to supplement his language arts education. Over the next few years, Corey worked through all the exercises, and when he was 12, Dave and Lea enrolled him in a college English course at Lake Michigan College. (By the way, he aced it and went on to eventually become a poet and professor.)

Dave and Lea were eager for other children to have the same kind of success with writing as their son. They developed the exercises into an entire curriculum, and in 1988, Writing Strands was born.

I didn’t come to the company until much later, and unfortunately, I never got to meet Dave. He passed away in 2003, but he’s been such an incredible influence on my life. He’s made me a better teacher and a better writer, and I know he’s helped hundreds of thousands of families all over the world. I certainly can’t fill those shoes, but I hope you’ll find my perspective as a college teacher working with Writing Strands useful in its own way.