Why and How Do You Teach Literature?

by Kendall Myers

Why should students be introduced to a range of literature? What are effective strategies for using stories? Kendall explains that through stories, students can grow in wisdom, in understanding themselves and others. He offers examples of questions and activities that can guide students in reading and responding to literature, and provides examples of two stories he uses in high school literature.

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Through literature, through stories, students get more experiences, experiences that are wider than just their own history, their own experiences in life. They come to greater insights in life. Stories often help students understand things they know maybe at a head level but come to feel more deeply. When a student feels the truth rather than just knowing it, it begins to actually change their values and their decisions, I believe. I think that’s part of that transition from knowledge to wisdom. Students are more likely to live out of that truth if they feel it deeply.

Pearl S. Buck has a story called “The Frill.” In that story there are some Americans that are living in China, some American ladies, and they hire a Chinese tailor to make some clothes for them. The Americans in the story pride themselves on being superior to the people that they’re around. But through the story the students, the reader, sees that the Chinese tailor is actually a much more likable and admirable character than what the Americans are. I’ve seen students reconsider their own prejudices through that story and realize that people that are different from them are very human and they have a lot of common with them and they are worthy of our respect.

I’ll often use questions to try to explore the stories. I try to lead them to discover the truth for themselves and not simply tell them what I think the value or the meaning in the text is. I try to establish what happens in the story. I often start with questions that have more to do with setting and the plot of the story. That would lead into “Why is it happening?” and then “What does that mean or what is the theme?” “What values are evident in that story that we can learn from and assimilate or what negative values are expressed that are obvious problems, things we want to avoid?”

A story that I enjoy going over with my students is one by Langston Hughes called “Thank You Ma’am,” and in that story a young male runs up and tries to snatch the purse from this older lady that’s walking home from work late at night in an inner city setting. She’s pretty rough with him at first—kind of drags him back to her apartment—but then ends up really caring for him giving him food and helping him—showing him love—and it’s kind of a transformative time in his life.

When we read that, I ask students to describe the characters, setting of the story, maybe get somebody to summarize the plot briefly so that we have that in front of us and then began to explore the meaning of that story. I like to ask, “How do you feel about the older lady’s response to the young man after she was attacked by him? Do you feel like she has a Christ like response to him? Do you feel like this is an appropriate way for us as nonresistant Christians to respond?” Try to find places of connection where they would apply the meaning of the story to their own life. Maybe also ask questions like, “How does this lady’s response contrast to the typical response in our society?” Notice the different outcome based on her response compared to calling the police, putting him in a juvenile delinquent center. By showing love to him she actually doesn’t just bring justice but she actually brings up the possibility of a change in his life.

One of the assignments that I like to do in literature class is to have students prepare an observation or a question on a particular story or selection or maybe even a couple of observations or questions and then ask them to write those down and bring them to class the next day and that often helps prepare them to discuss. And then sometimes I’ll break them up into small groups and have them interact together as a small group before getting together as an entire class. It seems like in a small group setting they’ll talk more, and generate ideas and sometimes that will lead to more of a whole group discussion. It’s also a chance to assign writing assignments—to develop the writing skills such as character analysis, summarizing the story, writing a response—more of a personal response—“What would you have done in that setting”? Reading good literature—quality writing—helps prepare a student to become a better speaker and writer themselves.

I’ve always enjoyed seeing students come alive when they figure out what a text really is saying or find a story affecting them in a certain way.

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CONTRIBUTOR: Kendall Myers

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