Thursday, August 16, 2012

Pondering Teaching Literature in Mid-Grade Years: Part 1

Ten days from the start of the sweet girl's fifth grade year, I find myself pondering -- a lot -- a subject I would have suspected I'd spend very little time contemplating: how to effectively teach literature in the middle grades.

I love literature. It was one of my majors in college, and I've been a bookworm almost since before I can remember (I learned to read very early, and have only one vague recollection of not knowing how to read). I have read to the sweet girl pretty much every day of her life. Our house is full of books. Her dad loves to read, I love to read, she loves to read. She is also beginning to love writing stories, perhaps at least in part because I do too -- and we've spent a lot of time talking about how stories work. We are a story kind of family. I would have told you I had this literature thing down cold -- that it was something I didn't have to think about because reading and loving literature is just a natural part of the way we live.

That's all still true. I do think the most natural way to teach an appreciation and understanding of literature is, quite simply, to a) read a lot, and b) talk a lot about what you love to read. This natural way of teaching and learning is part of why I'm drawn to the Charlotte Mason method of education, which pretty much promotes that kind of learning across the curriculum. Learning is part of life. Approaching it in a natural way fuels learning passions and just plumb makes sense.

So I fully agree with the sentiments in articles like this one, which does a nice job of laying out, simply and clearly, the Charlotte Mason approach to teaching literature. And that is basically like the CM approach to teaching most things: read lots of living books (no twaddle) and then have your children narrate what they learn. Though this discussion of teaching literature adds two tweaks I appreciate: the fact that many books are simply read for enjoyment, not primarily for discussion/narration, and that narration can and should be shaped differently for older students. I think it's that last that I find myself pondering.

What I find myself musing about is the balance between teaching literature the natural way and yet providing my daughter with good tools for beginning analysis of literature -- both the mechanics and literary elements of good writing, and a way of learning to discern deeper meaning in the text. The one thing I don't want to do is turn literature into a dreaded subject by making analysis a heavy lifting exercise, the kind that turns books into chores or into "things" to be decoded. I always think of Billy Collins' poem "Introduction to Poetry" when I think about the way some of us have been taught to 'read', especially the ending:

I want them to waterski   
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope   
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose   
to find out what it really means.

(You can read the whole poem here.)  While I think it takes a lot of time and practice for a student to get to the place where they feel a need to "torture a confession" out of a piece of writing, that's the place where I don't want any student I teach to ultimately end up!

But back to my main reflection. I believe that works of art have inherent, intended, and sometimes even non-intended meaning -- and that the deeper layers of meaning are there for us to find and ponder. That's true of any good work of literature, be it written for children or adults. And while it's true that some works of literature don't require us to "go deeper" to fully enjoy them, many of the best ones do. So part of my job as a teacher of literature is to help students unpack those layers by giving them the knowledge and tools to dig and discern. I also think, as readers/learners get older, it can become an enjoyable thing to be able to see how a writer did something. That may be especially true if you enjoy writing -- because you find yourself beginning to understand the tricks of the trade and to appreciate more deeply the craft it takes to shape a piece of writing.

I've been reading a little book called Deconstructing Penguins where the authors, who travel around to libraries and schools promoting book discussions involving kids and parents, suggest that one way of teaching younger children literary elements/devices is to help them become "book detectives." They suggest teaching children (and they work with kids as young as second grade) elements such as protagonist/antagonist, setting, crisis/conflict/climax, theme, and point of view. They further suggest that an effective way to do so is to help kids understand those elements through discussion of particularly chosen stories, where they're guided to look for "clues" and "evidence" about the "message" of a given book and whether or not an author plays fair and writes honestly. They invite kids to figure out what a book is really "about," and they show, through reporting some of their groups' findings/experiences, some of the creative discussions this method of teaching has engendered.

On the one hand, I'm intrigued by this idea. What kid doesn't love a mystery or enjoy playing detective? There's a playfulness about the approach that I think probably helps it be effective (and from their reporting, I sense they manage to keep the discussions pretty open-ended, not always expecting everyone to come to consensus/agreement). On the other hand, the metaphor does lend itself to the idea of a book, like a mystery, being something that needs "solving" -- as though one could find the footprints and the cigarette ash on the ground and know these things will lead, without a doubt, to a "right" conclusion. (We know how the great Hercule Poirot feels about that idea!) As much as I've enjoyed reading the recaps of their discussions, I think the weakest chapter in the book so far has been the one that should be strongest, where they present their "book detective" approach. The writers themselves seem to realize, even if they don't say it aloud, that there's something intuitively more to discerning meaning than a mere connecting the dots. I think their approach shows better through their discussion recaps than it does through their attempts to explain how it works. 

So...not sure I'm up for the book detective idea, at least not entirely, though I appreciate their insights into the various literary elements, which they explain simply and well on an elementary/late elementary learning level. (Especially good is their discussion of protagonist/antagonist, where they deepen our perception of those terms from simple good guy/bad guy to character trying to push the action forward/character trying to hold the action back. I like the way they emphasize the movement of a story here and elsewhere.)

For the purposes of our learning life together this year, I think an easier and more natural approach will be to simply present literary elements pretty straightforwardly, as ways that help us understand both a story's meaning and art on a deeper level. Some of this, I realize, I've already taught without realizing fully I was teaching it -- just through discussions we've had about books as a family, and perhaps more so through the discussions we've had about the book I'm writing. The sweet girl has a good grasp of the concept of point of view and has even played with using different points of view in her own story-writing. She has begun to ask intrigued questions about certain words that have come up in our book conversations. The other day she wanted me to explain what I meant by "sub-plot" (I had used the word in reference to something we'd been reading in one of the Trixie Belden books). I fumbled around a bit on the spur of the moment, but she must have gotten it. The next day she walked in with her beloved Penderwicks on Gardam Street in hand and announced she had figured out that the main plot was the "Saving Daddy" plan and the subplot was the "Sisters and Sacrifice" play that Jane wrote for Skye. I found that a pretty astute assessment of plot and sub-plot in that particular story! 

I guess what I'm getting at is that many literary elements have come up naturally as we discuss stories we've read and stories we're writing, and I'd like to find a way to tap into that natural learning to make it a little more intentional and explicit. I've thought of having a literary element of the month and using it as a lens to explore whatever books we're reading together as a family (which would likely influence my choice of when we read certain books this year). 

I've been looking for some books and resources that might help me play with this idea and have found at least a couple that look potentially helpful. This post has already gotten very long, so I think I'll save those ideas for part 2.


Louise Bates said...

I'll be very interested in what resources you've found when you post them. I read voraciously as a kid, but we homeschooled using more of what is now called the "unschooling" method, so I didn't really learn critical analysis of a text until college (though I had somewhat intuitively grasped the idea, and I understood how a story should be crafted long before I knew any of the terms). I want to pursue a slightly more structured path with my kids, so looking ahead and thinking about this sort of thing now, even though my oldest is just getting ready for kindergarten, is great.

Beth said...

We're too structured for me to use the term unschooling -- it's a concept I feel fairly comfortable with but which I figured out early on would probably not work very well with my daughter's learning style and personality! Still, we're rather relaxed and eclectic within a certain structure, most heavily influenced by CM and classical approaches. One of the things I love about homeschooling is the freedom it gives us to shape our learning as we go, deepening and revising (or dropping) as necessary.

Hoping to have part 2 up in the next few days. Definitely doing a lot of thinking about this right now as I lesson plan and ponder the year!

And oh -- kindergarten year! I loved, loved, loved that year! Hope your oldest has a wonderful one!

Louise Bates said...

We sort of started kindergarten last winter - at least, she began to learn how to read and we began basic math, but this is our first "official" year. It is tremendously exciting and nerve-wracking, all at once!