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  Others view reading as an antiquated form of entertainment that has been long since been replaced by other more engaging screens and images.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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But It’s Just a Book

How do we respond to a literary culture that continues to seek the low ground?  I am seeing many reviews and discussion of E.L. James’ novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, which amounts to literotica.  On one side there are those who believe all such stuff is harmful and should be avoided even more than the measles.  Others claim that to capture the culture for Christ we should engage with it.  Still others don’t see the point of my question – they either have a view of sex that embraces it in all its forms as healthy expression of human desire (much like the thesis of the novel) or they don’t believe there is any power in written words (one student said to me, “It’s just a book.”).

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The following are my thoughts in short, any one of which could easily be lengthened if I had the time.

Banning Books is Banal

In the past, authorities have simply tried to prevent a book from having any affect on children by banning it from libraries or book stores.  This has typically shot the work in question to the top of the bestseller charts.  Books, as a form of conversation, are going to get around either above or below the ground, as it were.  I don’t think simply placing a Christian boycott on a given work will result in the desired outcomes.

Maintaining a Hierarchy

Not all books are equal.  Some are better and others are worse.  This is true at the level of artistry, or in regard to morality.  But books tend to reveal the general level of morality within their culture.  The preponderance of smutty books, especially in the Young Adult world, indicates that the Sexual Revolution continues, and that words are a part of the battle.  Young people should have appetites in literature that lead them toward that which is better, not worse.  If we taught the arts of reading and writing well, much of our concern would be handled by kids who reject the tawdry for the truly noble.

Managing a Fire Hose

One of the direct results of maintaining this hierarchy of better and worse books is to alleviate that blast of verbiage that currently is erupting in our culture.  Never has there been more to read than now.  And many are finding themselves clueless as to what should be read, so they try to read it all.  Pop culture places them in a pressure cooker to know all the latest references and allusions from the trendy literature and movies of the moment, in part because any decent selling book immediately becomes a film.  When we teach our students to discern, we help them cull the competing titles down to those that will be of some permanent and eternal help.  This is grace imparted.

Books Do Matter

But we cannot forget in all this that books do matter.  I often feel that the movie has taken over for the written word, but movies are the direct result of writing.  There is no book that is “harmless” and some books do shake the foundations.  I don’t think of Fifty Shades… as being one of those, but we have to teach young minds to think through words, not avoid them or try to render them impotent.  Words matter, and we must teach the Liberal Arts in part to help us discern what words should matter most.  The best of liberal education is so that its students can “smell a rat.”