Sixteen Lessons I’ve Learned Teaching Literature

When I was in high school, I asked my English teacher, “What’s the point of English class? How is “reading stories” a subject?” Her answer was lame: we read stories to build our vocabulary and so we have something to write or speak about. This helps prepare us for college.

I wasn’t sure how to articulate the question, and I honestly didn’t know the answer; but English class seemed really out of place, and besides, I was confused how one might “teach” something as personal and subjective as literature. That isn’t to say that every answer is a right answer, or that because there may be multiple ways of receiving a story that any way of receiving a story is valid. It is to say that, as far as I can tell, the only true way to discuss and write about literature and to arrive at a single grade for students, that is perceived as fair, is to test on structural elements, such as literary terms and vocabulary, or to construct detailed writing rubrics, which necessarily narrows the diversity of thought and expression.

This is probably why English classes are gravitating towards nonfiction writing. First, it’s easier to create meaningful and fair assessments using nonfiction text (although some of the same problems exist). Second, there is a gross underestimation as to the purpose of literature. I think most people would say that reading fiction or narrative nonfiction is for entertainment, or to build the kind of vocabulary that better prepares you for the SATs. Those are both true statements, but statements that vastly understates the significance of literature.

Most learning comes from experience, but there are things that we literally can’t, or wouldn’t want to, experience. Stories act as vicarious experience. We can’t go back and experience the 17th century, and most of us don’t have the experience of being a double amputee. This we could roughly categorize as “experiences of the physical realm.” Stories, like art and performance in general, also work as apertures into the nonphysical realm. It’s the closest thing to prayer that you’ll get in a public school. Or, if the idea of prayer makes you feel icky, it’s the closest thing to drawing a personal connection to the collective consciousness of all humanity, and humanity’s place within the physical and nonphysical world, both today and for all of history. Stories are peepholes that allow you to catch a glimpse of divinity. Fiction isn’t “fake.” Stories aren’t “made up.” They get to the root of who we are and the possibilities of what we may be.

It’s also overly simplistic to reduce books to a series of “lessons learned” but I’m going to do it anyway. For one, it’s fun. For another, I’ve learned a lot by “teaching” stories – way more than I ever did reading them, which is a lesson in itself. Enjoy!

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