exploring literature instruction in my classroom, part 1

In my first two years at Avasara, I taught English literature to our first graduating class. I am still learning and understanding the demands of the curriculum and the needs of our students and how to successfully bridge the two. However, the most important choices I made to build critical reading and analytical writing skills were deeply rooted in my beliefs about excellent education. This blog series attempts to explore the key premises that guided my choices and the resulting consequences for teaching and learning in my classroom.

One: I’m not an expert.

I do not have a doctorate in literature, language instruction, or, well, anything. I am not an expert. I am a reader of literature and literary criticism. I am literary: I read book reviews, I listen to podcast interviews of authors, and I engage in debates that reviewers and critics have about contemporary literature.

As a result, my planning is built around several key practices:

  1. I read diligently to expand my knowledge and address my shortcomings. The biggest consequence of believing that I’m not an expert is the acceptance that I must at least try to become one. As a result, that means I read widely and carefully to build the foundation of knowledge on which I build instructional plans. I try to ensure that at least half of the reading I do will translate to improvement in the classroom by reading up about teaching and learning, literature and literary analysis, and high school English teaching, or simply by expanding my exposure to adult literature by, well, reading it. I search for resources across EdX, JSTOR, and bookstores to know more and come to a better understanding of what I don’t know and where I need to push deeper (or broader).
  2. I build knowledge about areas I am interested in and am unafraid of bringing in what I do know into the classroom. I read few white men and many writers whose writing is shaped by oppression in its many forms. As a political science student, I pursued thinkers who wrote about colonialism and misogyny. While most of the books I read are history or social science, some, like Edward Said in Orientalism, marry cultural criticism with political commentary. In short, while I am by no means an expert, I am better informed than my students, particularly in the areas in which I have a sustained interest. While I am committed to establishing a classroom culture where we learn collectively, it would be irresponsible for me not to bring in the knowledge I do have to push students further and deeper as they read and evaluate. When students squirmed at a sex scene in Andrea Levy’s Small Island, for example, and complained that the other World War II novels they’d read had omitted such descriptions, relevant comparisons helped students better understand the significance of Levy’s identity as a woman and the 2003 publication date. My own interest in contemporary literature meant that I could give students summaries and excerpts from other books I’d read recently, from The Poisonwood Bible to The Namesake, so that students could understand how Small Island was in conversation with other writers who write in similar settings or with similar themes.
  3. I forgive myself for choosing texts where I know something. When, last year, I chose Death and the King’s Horseman as the 11th grade set text over Shakespeare’s Henry IV, I felt guilty for weeks. I wasn’t doubting that I had made the right decision – there are many reasons why my students wouldn’t necessarily fare well with a relatively obscure Shakespeare play – but I couldn’t forgive myself for why I had pushed so hard for the decision. I knew I had more to add as an instructor of Death and the King’s Horseman because I’d written a research paper on British colonialism in Nigeria and participated in a simulation of the Biafran War in college. I wasn’t an expert on either text, but at least I could bring in something of value. But, at the same time, I was filled with doubt that I’d made a high-stakes decision for my students almost entirely as a result of my own lack of knowledge, preparation, and formal study. But, quite frankly, time has taught me that there isn’t really an alternative. The only thing I can do is teach students what I know best, while frantically trying to know more so that I don’t limit students’ options to the same extent in the future. I still feel guilt, but I’ve learned, slowly and imperfectly, to forgive myself too.
  4. I push for independent reading and share my experiences as a reader consistently. What I have learned about being a reader or writer, I have learned by reading or writing. While I have taken courses in English, most of my knowledge comes from voluminous, relevant, and rigorous reading. I push students to also learn from the same experiences. I nudge students to read books that I have read, when I can identify books that I believe that they would enjoy, so that I can facilitate conversation on reading and push students to be more detail-oriented and interpretative with their books. The only way to ask students to build their own expertise of language and literature is to model and bring in my reader self into the classroom. I carry the book I’m currently reading to the classroom outside of my backpack, so that curious students can ask questions about what I’m reading and why I picked it up in the seconds before or after class. I keep a reading log of the books I’m reading on the whiteboard in class – not just books that I think my students will like, but all the books that I read, even ones for professional development. My students begin class with 15-20 minutes of reading time, during which I check in with as many students as I can. When that time ends, I try to read aloud a paragraph or a sentence from the book that I’m reading, and in a minute try to convey why I loved it. In addition to these informal ways of bringing my reading self into the classroom, I sometimes construct full lessons in which reading preferences and personality are front and center. For example, when Toni Morrison passed away, my 12th grade students and I spent an hour reading through other authors’ tributes to Morrison and her impact on their writing. I shared my favourite books by both the authors writing the tributes and Morrison herself and used the opportunity to show students the review I most frequently read as I construct my reading wish list.

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