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Ideas and Ideals: The Study of Literature

The following article by English Chair Karen Davis, appeared in the winter 2015 issue of Saint David's Magazine:

When one steps into the pages of a literary novel, an immediate transformation takes place.  It is about experiencing the fictional world of the protagonist on his or her terms, exactly as that character experiences it. The beauty of great literature is that it creates an automatic transport system through all kinds of difficult journeys, giving the reader amazing access into that which can be experienced from the safety of one’s own sofa on a cold, rainy Sunday afternoon. 

Even more than that, tapping into the feelings of connection and empathy that are built through such literature should be the ultimate goal in reading shared texts in schools because it, “prompts the reader to imagine the characters’ introspective dialogues. This psychological awareness carries over into the real world, which is full of complicated individuals whose inner lives are usually difficult to fathom. Although literary fiction tends to be more realistic than popular fiction, the characters disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes. They support and teach us values about social behavior, such as the importance of understanding those who are different from ourselves.”(1)  Therefore, building empathy through the study of literature provides a safe place to explore these new ideas and ideals, and for young readers, that skill is one of the greatest gifts we can give.

Many times during my own elementary and middle school years I would walk the halls with my nose between the pages of a book or surreptitiously sneak peeks at one under the edge of my desk, desperately trying to finish that last chapter during science or math (Sorry, Sister Mary Ann).  I had to know how The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles ended or how the children were going to escape from the dangers of Narnia.  This usually happened because I had fallen deeply in love with a character with whom I could identify, and thus I was worried for them or angry with them or excited to see the outcome of a decision that had been made deep within the pages of that book.  My best overall reading experiences came out of the connection forged with the character I was reading about, and in that instant, watching what happened to them would often inform my own life as a fourth or eighth grader, and even still does to this day.

Which brings me to literature discussions in our English and Language Arts classes, where — as a teacher — I always feel excited to listen and learn. We embark on a journey in which we pull apart each novel and carefully and thoughtfully analyze it based on close reading techniques. We often begin by noticing moments where characters act in ways that contradict what we would have expected, and we ask ourselves why. We track concepts or objects that come up again and again as a way to start thinking about symbols.  

We look for “Aha!” moments of realization that uncover lessons and evolve our understanding of themes. We tackle open-ended questions such as: “Did the protagonist make a good decision? Why did this conflict develop? What makes this moment significant?” And we follow up in that moment by discussing what happens in the text to make us feel this way. Doing so allows the boys to test their own ideas about what they have read alongside the opinions of each classmate. 

We clear the center of the room and create an inner and outer circle of chairs in a type of “fishbowl” discussion that allows each boy’s voice to be heard and valued.  They test their theories against those of their classmates in an environment rich with debate and independent thinking, Socratic seminar style. With each question, students search for light bulb moments of connection to the text that allow them all to gain a sense of themselves in a now much larger world.

None of our boys have literally experienced being an outsider on the streets of an Oklahoma town — divided into those from the west side versus those from the east side — but as New Yorkers, we can certainly imagine.  None have been stranded for months on a deserted island after a plane crash, but now suddenly we can debate the choices that each character makes in light of our own feelings about what is morally right and wrong.  This technique for discussion and analysis moves the boys past the realm of filling in the blank with the one right answer and into the real-world experience where there is not always a right answer at all, because the lessons discovered are richer that way.

In addition, we devote such chunks of valuable time to class discussion because the texts we are sharing are full of moments worth talking about, and when a class reads a novel together, the transformation we experience with that protagonist is collective. Together we mull it over, discussing the finer details of all that has happened in such a way as to inform our lives differently and make us better critical thinkers. 

No longer are we solitary readers connecting only our story to a character in a book. Rather, we are a group of similarly informed readers who are hashing out our opinions and beliefs in a supportive environment that seeks to develop us as moral and reflective thinkers in ways we might not have considered before. By taking our initial understanding of the text and shaping it through class discussions, ideas change and grow in unexpected ways that develop deeper connections to the text, and more importantly, to each other as classmates.

The carefully crafted choices for the study of literature at Saint David’s have come out of our genuine belief in the importance of presenting each boy with stories that he can connect to, all the while developing his own beliefs about what it means to be a good man.  The empathy he feels toward a character who is faced with a no-win situation staring down a rabid wolf might someday come back to help him make a better decision in the real world.  So we rehearse these moments of decision-making in our literature discussions exactly for that reason.  The connections forged with characters in our shared texts help our own community and give each boy a collective experience from which to draw on as a lifelong learner.

Our hope is to develop a group of avid readers who also look toward literature and our discussions as a means of adding bricks to the foundation of their thinking.  I think of my own book groups where a few weeks ago we met over dinner to discuss what we’ve read recently in exactly this way — to think about the ideas and ideals painted across the pages of the texts and to broaden our experiences and understandings of the significant moments together.  And the best thing about each meeting is that I leave with a new list of books I want to read next, ever adding to my experiences and discovering something new in between the pages of each one.  We hope the boys feel exactly the same way as they leave our classes.

(1)  Chiaet, Julianne. “Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy.” Scientific American Global RSS. Scientific American, 4 Oct. 2013. Web. 17 Nov. 2014


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