Thoughts on How Best to Read Literature with the Modern High School Student

The following are my own meditations on reading literature in our modern setting with high school students.  I have struggled with this idea for some time.  I find very few who truly love reading.  Some view it as a means toward the education they believe will lead to big paycheck.  Others view reading as an antiquated form of entertainment that has been long since been replaced by other more engaging screens and images.  So if my job is to engage students in a study of literature, it would seem I must convince them of its being worthwhile, then leading them toward a delight in and felicity with great literature.  This would include heightening their taste, training their abilities, and directing them toward self-motivated reading.

Why are we even doing this?  Literature is a part of the Humanities.  It is how we prepare young people to pursue the moral maturity that adult humans must have to be happy.  Fictional stories cultivate a moral imagination in young people.  Poetry brings them to feel sublime.  Truth is posited, Goodness exemplified, and Beauty is loved in the great works of literature.

So my first task is to present to their minds an apologetic for reading, and for reading great literature so as to develop a moral imagination.  Hence my first “lesson” must be the construction of the idea of a moral imagination, using mimetic teaching to birth this notion in their own hearts.  Vigen Guroian has written most helpfully on this subject in many places, including here.

I believe that the experience of a good literature class will do more than a single lecture to convince students of their need for a moral imagination, but that is where is should start.  Moving beyond simply saying they should pursue a moral imagination through great literature, the class should delight itself in that literature.  I currently teach two literature classes:  American and British.  Delighting in these things includes a good understanding of the context of these works, having some knowledge of the authors, but mostly would include the following key components:  having the time to delight (no break neck speed or firehose velocity here), allowing students to find what they like rather than telling them what to like, and open discussion that hears the students more than the teacher.

So how does one teach a student to read with delight?  I think there are three levels to this delight:  simple apprehension, connections, and reflections.  In simple apprehension, the student skims over the story looking for hints as to the characters, places, and such.  In short, finding the nouns.  It amuses me that for many literature classes, this is all that is expected, is converted to objective questions on a test, and every one claps their hands.  But that is only very surface enjoyment.  Going deeper, the student seeks to find the connections, how the plot is developed by the characters, places, “things” of the story.  Here he is in essence seeking the verbs.  What led to what?  What are the causes and effects?  But the best is kept for a final reading of the text, this time with the heart.  Given my knowledge of the text, having skimmed it over twice now, what passages move me?  What do I like about this text?  What is meaningful to me and why?

An easy way to teach this reading, and it can be done independently in this manner, is teach the student to mark the text in each reading with a differing color.  Having the student mark the important nouns in pink, the connecting verbs in green, and the really good stuff in blue allows them to return with the teacher to the text in class and discuss it well.  Yes this means they have to own the books, but this is a small price to pay for truly great reading and discussion.  If highlighter is not your thing, give them alternative ways to mark these three layers of reading.

This leads to a pedagogy something like the following for most texts (any form of text):

  1. Preparation – saying just enough about the text to gain the student’s interest, give them a context for the book, and guide their mind toward the one or two great ideas of the work. The key here is brevity with engagement.  Wow, I really want to read this book now.
  2. Direct Interaction with the text – whether alone or in the classroom, the student should read the text twice quickly and then a third time slowly, following the pursuits and markings mentioned above.
  3. Discussion – the great texts are above everyone’s head. This is why we read them.  Thus they are best when discussed with others.  Students have to be taught dialectic to do this well.  Some success can come from a teacher presenting them with key passages to be discussed, but often a simple “playing the blues” or discussion of those things they have highlighted in blue will suffice.  The key is to focus on the moral aspects of the story.  What was true, good, and beautiful?
  4. Fastening – I don’t like the term assessment in relation to good reading. Schooling demands feedback, but this is much more mentoring, discipleship, and apprenticeship than mastering a discreet set of information.  The content, skills, and understanding can be assessed, but one should always remember this is much more a start than an end.  The best form of assessing one’s interaction with great literature is writing.    While the essay or paper is certainly good and legit, more is gained by guided journaling.  Here is a great blog on that issue.

All this to say that great literature classes are an art form.  At the heart of it is the teacher’s own passion and enjoyment of great literature.  Beyond that, we are trying to see ice to Eskimos, but when we really passionately love the ice, it sells itself.

And if any of this needs more, I have written on these things before: here, here, and here are some that come readily to mind.

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Ranting at the End of a Long Week About Education’s Ability to Impart Joy…

Is education still possible in a dead culture?  Is learning capable of being what is now called, “fun”?  What does it mean to care?  As in, “I don’t care about what we are doing in school.”  Or what about the best moment of the week, when I was told, “It’s the teachers job to make learning fun.”

So let’s deal with the term first.  Fun seems to mean, in most of my student’s usage, enjoyable.  So how is learning linked to joy?  It would seem to indicate a possible dichotomy between means and end.

I think this is where things are breaking down for us in education, at least in part.  I was taught when I was young to enjoy something either by finding joy in the doing of it or the end results.  I was hard pressed to enjoy suicides in full pads on the football field, but I really enjoyed the win.  Mowing the yard was a pain, but that moment of silence when the loud engine is cut off, the waft of newly mown grass is breathed in, and the look of all that uniform green grass is surveyed that true joy is there for the moment.  But what if the pain of the suicide or the sweat and heat of the mower caused me to quit before the end?  No joy.  The end only comes at the completion of the means.

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But I think that analogy is inaccurate to what I face on long weeks like this one.  I think instead a habit has been instilled in many students that leads them to avoid all means but the one they consider necessary.  They don’t run any extra laps or go ahead and trim the hedges as well.  Instead, they seek whatever gets them the end (re: the grade) and thus have no joy in either the means or the real end that would bring joy, an education.  They get the diploma without any reality in it.

So my students sit there wanting me to make learning fun.  But they don’t want to learn, they want to get past “school” to the party they perceive to be waiting for them out beyond the school walls.  Their habits of life, the means they enjoy that they hope lead them to joyful ends, are antithetical to a real education.  They enjoy texting, but not reading a challenging text (in fact they don’t equate books and written passages with a text, they think a text is something on a mobile device).  They love to talk, but they don’t want to do so with any clear definition of terms, careful exposition of their thoughts, etc.  “Why you have to be smart all the time; you should be more dumb like us, Mr. El.”  And I will leave the skills of writing and listening alone, because it has been a long week of grading papers and speaking to a non-listening group of students.

These habits will greatly limit the joy my students can have in life.  They are headed for Thoreau’s “life of quiet desperation” but I am not sure how to give them an appetite for real joy.  I love them.  I want life’s best for them.  I recognize that my frustration with them only disrupts their perception of the joy that I have in my own life in both the means and ends of a vibrant and joyful life of learning. God save me from myself and draw my students out of their caves and into the bright light of truth.

Let’s Get Out of this Cave!

It happened some years ago now, but I think it could still happen today.  I started a conversation without defining my terms.  Some teens and I were talking about classical music.  At some point it was clear they were thinking of the Beatles and I had Bach in mind.  Once they understood how I was using the term, two more things became all too clear.  First, they knew very little of orchestral or “classical” music and secondly, they did not wish to do the work necessary to get to know it.  When I played just a little of Bach’s most accessible stuff (his Air on the G string, BWV 1068) they recoiled with distaste.  Just not our thing, Mr. E.  The Beatles were old, but still kinda cool; Bach was dust.

I thought of that moment again recently when talking with teens about Plato’s cave analogy.  I was captivated with the collateral response.  Plato makes it clear that if the guide returned to the cave to free another “slave” he would be killed if they could get their hands on him.  Killed.  For leading men into the light of truth!  Ask Socrates about that kind of thanks.

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Our modern word “educate” has as its roots the meaning, “to lead out.”  That is the educational enterprise, according to the word’s root meaning.  I can’t contemplate that well without Plato’s cave coming to the forefront my mind.  My job as teacher is to educate, to lead those enjoying shadows in the cave out into the brilliant light of the truth.  While I can take their hand and lead them, they must follow.  There seem to be many who wish to stay in their chains.  “We are okay with the Beatles, but kindly keep Bach to yourself.”

I came away from my music discussion thinking about this issue of taste.  Lots of questions come to mind.  What is good taste?  Is there something that defines Bach as better than the Beatles?  Who am I to assert that my taste is better than a teen’s?  How do you lead someone toward higher tastes?  What relationship is there between knowledge and taste?  Is it a fair reading of the Cave Analogy to state it involves the improvement or heightening of taste?

Good leading out “converts” the one led.  This much is clear in Plato.  They don’t want back in the cave once they are used to life in the real world.  Their affections have become more rightly ordered.  So there is something that occurs in the heart of the one who leaves the cave.  None in the cave want to leave, but those who do, do not wish to return.  Their tastes have changed.  The teacher is a convert themselves, so if they remember the cave, they should have mercy on those still chained.  I find myself hanging around the door of the cave and thinking about these things.  So few of my students have found their way out into the light.  To some extent this is me.  But I can’t get past the notion that our society has trained the youth to enjoy the video lit dimness of the modern cave.  Come out.

 

Should School Be Hard?

I want to think more deeply about an issue I raised years ago on this blog.  Should someone’s experience in school be “hard”?  Of course such an ambiguous term needs defining first.

My use of the term “hard” here refers to activity which is challenging, difficult, causes the student to expend effort.  While many today believe it to be the opposite of “fun” I disagree and will develop that disagreement below.  But if we can agree to stick with this basic definition of not easy, but hard, difficult, making the student have to rise above their normal level of effort, then we can progress with the question.

My answer, as with most really good questions, is mixed.  It depends on why the student finds the activity challenging.  I can think of at least three reasons for school to be hard, and they each have a differing level of legitimacy in my mind.  I will label these three reasons as: ability, motivation, engagement.  I think any given person may experience all three even in the same day of school.

Ability

In this case, the student finds school activity difficult or hard because they have been attempting some act of learning for which they are ill prepared.  If a teacher assigns work that the student lacks the ability to do well, it will be difficult for them.  This is not necessarily illegitimate by the by.  Math and foreign language teachers do this every day (or should).  Here is a problem or translation, go see how you do on it then we can work on the issues it raises when you have tried and fallen short.  If the teacher does this too early, without proper preparation for the exercise, the hardness of the experience may cause frustration before it can be used to any learning advantage.  But if it is timed correctly, the student is shown his areas of lack and the learning curve actually picks up speed.  While I do see teachers ask things of students that they have no idea how to do, it is really what happens once that ignorance is discovered that matters in our question.  I think this is an excellent part of a good education, if done well.

Motivation

Some school activity requires a willingness from the student to push through a difficult moment, or to invest time in the work that they may wish to invest elsewhere.  I stop short of calling this form of hardness “laziness” but some will call it such.  I don’t just mean kids who don’t want to work at all (though they should find school “hard”) but in particular the common problem of competing motivations.  A simple and common illustration of this is the household rule, “homework before play.”  The parent sets boundaries in order to get the less desirable work of Algebra done before hours of “work” are put in on basketball.  Note: this is an issue of motivation because I can guarantee you the student will put forth more physical and character effort practicing their free throws than will be expended on quadratic equations, but they will “feel” as though the later was more difficult than the former.

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Engagement

I think the last note above leads right into the heart of this issue.  There is a point in school at which a student’s mind changes its view of whatever is at hand in the classroom to that of a delight rather than a chore.  The physics class falls away, with all its attendant details and difficulties as the newly lit light bulb of understanding the lesson transports the student to a moment when they no longer are considering anything other than this beautiful new idea.  They have forgotten the work for the pleasure of what the work has wrought.  This is the most compelling category of my question.  Whether the transport happens because of the genius of the teacher, or the nature of the student, or both, or neither, is for other considerations.  But the fact that truly engaged students, students who have moved into the reality of the lesson, forget the hardness for the wonder and awe, motivates me as a teacher to get them there if I can.

I regularly hear from students that school is hard.  It is said often in a way that implies they would like it to be easy.  I, as a student, commiserate with their wish.  But proper hardness and difficulty lead to winning the game at the free throw line with 2 seconds left, and finding that new idea to be beautiful and exciting and even transporting.  The blood, sweat, and tears are worth it.

The Fear of God

I have been contemplating thoughts about educational motivation for some months now, working off this map of motivation.  I have considered external motivations, and have now worked my way through several fears, such as ignorance, materialism and other’s expectations.  So now I turn to one last fear, the fear of God, which is the beginning of wisdom.  As fears go, it is the most preferable as a motivating factor.

I am entering into a discussion of theology here, and must assert my lay amateur status in doing so.  I have a degree in Theology which makes me dangerous, not authoritative.  So please understand that I admit there is lots of room for error.

That being said, I understand the many passages in Scripture that command us to “fear the Lord” and state that this fear is the beginning of wisdom are aiming us at the source of truth, goodness, and beauty.  We cannot be wise (live according to the truth) if we do know the source of wisdom – God.  And we cannot rightly know God without a proper fear or reverence or awe for Who He Is.

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So this fear is not the same as the fear considered in previous blogs, as it is proper to see God as One Who is above us, beyond us, sovereign over us.  It may be a lack of courage that causes us to fear for our own well being to the point of fearing ignorance, materialism, or other’s opinions/expectations of us, but fearing God is a legitimate and virtuous thing for all people.

In future meditations I will discuss the motivating factors of love and appetite, but must state that proper love and appetite for learning originate and proceed from this fear.  Thus any teacher seeking to properly motivate learning must direct the student’s heart toward the fear of God.  I don’t think any proper learning will occur without it.  Whatever is gained through learning apart from this fear will end in frustration and ruin.

This idea, of course, can be meditated upon and have corollaries extrapolated from it ad infinitum.  But I will stick to some basic thoughts, questions that come from this concept:

  • This fear is not a call to manipulation – I don’t hold God over a child’s head to scare him into performance. That would not be a fear of God but a fear of punishment.
  • I don’t think this fear can be instilled in a student if it is absent from the teacher. It is not a science inculcated through lecture, but an art caught from observation of others, most notably the parents and teachers.
  • The integration of all learning begins in this fear – God is the source of all Truth, and its only proper end. This is, by the by, a strong argument against the current manner of public education which seeks to educate apart from any reference to God.  As I have said many times before, “Real education is illegal in the American government schools.”
  • This fear is a positive thing, not a negative thing. It comes from and adds to our love for God but is not the same concept.  Loving God includes fearing Him or rightly seeing Him for Who He is.
  • It is impossible to fear both God and man. I think many educational choices boil down to Whom it is that I fear most – God or man.

I am sure there is much more here, but those are my current courses of thought on this huge subject.

Fear of Others Expectations

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It is a human desire to please those we love.  It is also quite human to try and please those who have the power to enrich or empower us.

“I have more than once observed to Lady Catherine that her charming daughter seemed born to be a duchess, and that the most elevated rank, instead of giving her consequence, would be adorned by her. — These are the kind of little things which please her ladyship, and it is a sort of attention which I conceive myself peculiarly bound to pay.” – Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, Vol. 1, Ch. 14

In considering how to motivate learners to good learning, I have considered first the external motivations, then have begun to consider the internal motivation of fear, first considering ignorance, than materialism.  So now I turn to this fear, the fear of violating other’s expectations for me.

Parental expectations are probably the most common issue here.  I will not enter into a psychological review of this, but rather admit that many students simply fear upsetting Mom or Dad and thus seek to get good grades in school.  Or they fear what some future employer or a college may expect of them, so they go about earning the diploma or grade they perceive will unlock those future expectations.  But such motivations are temporary at best.  At some point they no longer promote good learning.  I am not sure they ever promote true learning, but push students into the way of an education almost by reluctance.  “I don’t want to really learn, but they want me to, and I want to please them, or at least not get in trouble with them, so I will learn because they want me to.”

Every teacher meets with this regularly, but overcoming it is difficult.  The desire to please is not always bad.  But there are greater motives than this.  Perhaps this issue highlights one aspect of motivation: there is are greater and lesser motives.  The summum bonum, considered regularly on this blog, is the greatest motivation.  To get a good job or keep from getting grounded are good motives.  To obtain a better life by seeking its highest good is a much better motive than the others.

This smaller motive or fear can be overcome by something greater than itself.  And I don’t mean fastening the student on graduate school rather than just a Bachelors.  I mean that the Greatest can overcome the simply Good.  This again is an issue of appetites.  Wanting, desiring, seeking the positively best will help the student overcome fears about the lesser things.

The only help I know for this is to find teachers who love higher things.  A teacher seeking truth is going to spark that passion in others if they get the chance.  A good school will seek such teachers and then seek to keep them, and get them near as many students as they can.  Keeping all the right people properly flattered can then be left for folks like Mr. Collins (may their tribe find an island far away from me).