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Drawing Students into the World of Literature

By Jacque Hayden, M.Ed., English Teacher at Hospitality High Public Charter School in Washington DC

As a teacher of urban youth I have often been challenged with getting my students to read literature that they may not have been exposed to or may initially feel intimidated by. Building excitement, making real-world/life connections, and offering meaningful projects with a range of options has been the key to getting my students to buy into literature of all types. With this approach I am able to open the world and the world of literature to my students in ways that they may otherwise not be exposed to.

My students are as excited about the class content as I am. In my early years of teaching I realized that my fear, boredom and even intimidation was as contagious to my students as was my joy, love, passion and excitement. I decided then that part of my job as a teacher was that of an actress. If my students are going to be influenced by my attitude and outlook then I better be sure that I communicate what I truly want them to feel about the world of literature. When I introduce a work of literature I am excited. I love it! My students say, ‘Ms. Hayden you love everything we read. Why do you love books so much?’ This lets me know that I am achieving the intended effect.’

No matter what we are reading I always bring in background information about the historical, political, and religious influences during the time that the literature was written in the form of news clippings, pictures, artifacts or even food. I have the students make connections between what was going on in the world during the time that any piece of literature was written. This helps them see into the world of the author and to understand the motivation and purpose for writing. I also have students compare and contrast the historical, political and religious influences of the time of a work of literature with their world today. This helps them to make personal connections. When students can connect with personal experiences it draws them in.

My classroom comes alive during conversations in which we look at the world now vs. then. I recall teaching the Scarlet Letter. Students were outraged by the unfair treatment of women. They also came to the conclusion that even though official laws have changed, there are still double standards today for the sexual desires and behaviors of men and women. When discussing the role of women and men in the novel How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, my students were able to compare their own family expectations and traditions and compare those to the experiences of the Garcia sisters. They also had deep discussions about staying true to your culture as well as how the way in which people came to the United States influenced cultural awareness, pride, and expression of both.

There is no new literature. It is all influenced by human experience, which while it may evolve over time it is inevitably linked to basic human needs, experiences and emotions. This is the message that I challenge my students to prove wrong time and time again. They have not proven me wrong but their desire to explore humanity and to make connections keeps them deeply engaged.

Projects are frequent in my classroom. I know that students understand the literature when they can write and argue passionately about it. You cannot make valid arguments and speak and write articulately about that which you do not understand. I give general comprehension tests to gauge that my students are reading and generally understand what they are reading but the projects challenge them and require them to go beyond the surface to the depths of literature and human experience.

When reading Dante’s Inferno part of the literature project required students to take a test based on their own life choices. Their project also included a paper in which they had to create their own ‘Hell’ using Dante’s Hell as a model. Their hell had to have a guide just like Dante and it had to include levels. Having my students complete this project let me know that they not only understood Inferno but they were also taking a good look at themselves and their life decisions. They were completely engaged during the entire experience. Instead of whining about taking a quiz or answering comprehension questions, they came in grabbed their laptops, took out their novels and literature journals, and got to work. The classroom discussions about Inferno and this project were some of the most passionate that I have witnessed in a high school literature classroom.

My point here is that urban learners can and will read any literature that any other student can and will read. The key is that you must draw students in and make connections. Once you start this process for students they will take over and push themselves deeper and deeper into the discussion and analysis of literature and human experience.


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