The literature classroom: some basics

Cognitive versus Affective...

The IB programmes of study make explicit allusion to the notion of cognitive and affective development - the former being a description of the ways in which students make progress in academic knowledge and understanding of their various subjects, the latter being concerned with the state of mind, the personal attitude/s they develop in relation to the way they learn.

Arguably, the study of literature is very much interested in both; we are seeking to further intellectual grasp of the content of our subject, but so much of the process of acquiring that knowledge depends on the students' own experiences, attitudes and feelings - as well as the sense that what they think matters, and should be brought into focus through discussion.

The environment that you cultivate in your classroom therefore makes a big difference to the ways in which your students approach the subject and learn effectively. What follows are some 10 simple points of advice that might help to generate an appropriate kind of pedagogy for the course.

1. The sense of curiosity: the (late) great physicist Richard Feynman talked about 'the pleasure of finding things out' and the notion of discovery has always seemed to me a vital component in meaningful and successful learning. Inquiry is of necessity central to what we do when we talk about literary works, but you can do a great deal to bring it into the foreground:

  • Show that literature matters as much to you as you hope it does the students. Expressing genuine interest in an idea - particularly one that has emerged spontaneously in the classroom, and which you did not anticipate, can have a very infectious impact.
  • Ask students what they think of a particular proposition or claim at the start of a lesson or unit of work, and then ask again at the end. Have their ideas changed? In what way? Why?

2. Independence of thought: it is no original claim to state that successful students can think for themselves. And in my experience, this can present one of the biggest challenges for students coming from prior curricula in which answers are more often than not handed to them, or students invited to 'learn for the exam' only.

  • Ask students more often about what they think than what they know
  • To make sure all students in the class are actually engaged in the topic, get them to write answers to particular questions down instead of simply putting up their hands. You can then ask individuals to read out what what is on the page. This makes sure that no one student dominates or does the thinking for everyone, and allows everyone some reflection time.
  • Present students with thesis statements that they must find evidence for and argue for themselves. Here, for example, are examples of such statements in relation to the poem 'Deceptions' by Philip Larkin:
  • The poem focuses predominantly on Larkin’s complex, even contradictory feelings towards the woman and the man
  • ‘Larkin’s Deceptions’ is a poem most of all reflective of Victorian society
  • The key to this poem lies within its structure and the way it develops
  • The significance of ‘Deceptions’ emerges from its use of powerful imagery
  • The most shocking thing about the poem, ultimately, is its detached tone
  • As students become used to this kind of practice, they will develop the ability to argue similar lines of interpretation for themselves.
  • Present contrasting points of view and ask students to move to the side of the room in which their view is represented. This can then lead to discussion or even formal debate.
  • Use post-it notes: present different readings or ideas on the board and ask students to place a post it (on which they write supporting evidence) underneath the statement with which they most agree.

3. Ask effective questions: question and answer is the mainstay of educational practice in the classroom and it therefore plays an essential role in the development of positive, productive attitudes towards learning. Furthermore, in a more practical sense, the questions you ask of students in the Part 2 assessment task - the Individual Oral Commentary (and Higher Level discussion) can help a very great deal to maximise the chances your students have of scoring good marks.

  • A mixture of closed and open questions are inevitable, but the more frequently you ask meaningful open questions, the more you will encourage your students to think for themselves and to recognise that there is seldom any such thing as a 'right answer'
  • Instead of responding yourself, ask another student what they think of the answer someone has given. Do they agree? Can they elaborate?
  • Encourage creative thinking: invite students to adopt a stance in response to a question and then ask, if they had to argue the exact opposite, what would/could they say?
  • Invite students to come up with questions: what would they ask of a particular text or issue?

4. Encourage active listening: a lot of time is spent in the literature classroom developing speaking skills, but listening to others and being able to respond actively is just as important.

  • When listening to a presentation e.g. video, student or teacher-led, lecture etc, ask students not to try to write down everything that is said but points they most agree with, ones they disagree with or new ideas that emerge as they listen. In the end, this comes down to the difference between taking and making notes.
  • When holding a discussion in class, ask one student to record the most salient ideas on the classroom computer and then compare what they have done with the points recorded by others at the end
  • Talk about how to make notes e.g. the kinds of shorthand or symbols that are useful, the use of colour etc

5. Allow students to direct learning: the notion of the student-centered classroom is an integral aspect of IB pedagogy. Sometimes, the most electrifying moments in teaching literature can occur when the teacher removes him or herself from discussion and simply listens; in other words, discussion led and sustained by students should feature as much as possible.

6. Talk about thinking: as mentioned in earlier modules to this section, making thinking visible (to quote John Hattie's phrase) can be a highly productive way of developing skills in comprehension, analysis, interpretation and evaluation.

  • Ask students to read a critical essay, summarize its main premises and then re-present the argument in the form of a flow diagram
  • Highlight different kinds of thinking made evident within a particular paragraph and annotate different kinds of statements accordingly
  • Create wall displays, with annotations, that draw class attention to the way thinking works in response to literary texts

7. Talk about reading: an obvious point perhaps, but in my experience, the older students get, the less inclined they are to read works for themselves. More often than not because of limitations in their time, literary works become associated with their course - as something to analyse, not as something to simply enjoy. Read 'Introduction to Poetry' by Billy Collins for more on this.

  • Create a class library: students bring in copies of literary works they have read and would be willing to share with others in the group
  • Talk about your reading; in my experience, one of the most effective ways to encourage students to read is to talk about works you have read yourself - particularly ones that have had a formative effect on you - or simply ones you have read over a school holiday. Bring the work in, hold it up and pass it around as you talk. There are few more pleasurable things that holding a book and being inspired to turn over the the first page...

8. Be creative: it is often said that one of the downsides of the Literature A programme (usually in comparison with experiences students have had in the years before) is that it does not provide much opportunity for students to write themselves.

  • Bring creative writing into your lessons as much as possible. Asking students to write pastiches, continue a piece of writing after being given the first line, turning prose into poetry (and vice versa) and other analogous activities can help enormously to sensitize students to aspects of literary craft.  
  • Make posters, pastiches, podcasts, vodcasts or short films. Whether annotating poems with colour and symbol for wall display, creating collages that comprise images and questions designed to present a 'visual reading' of a particular literary work or creating short films that make use of moving images, sound and/or music to the same end.  Students often have enormously broad and imaginative skills that enable them to show knowledge and understanding in ways other than the purely analytical.
  • Use drama: you can use the language of drama to explore literary texts in ways that do not demand any kind of performance background or ability. Not the least important aspect of this has to do with getting students off their chairs and disrupting classroom routine.

9.   Find/make links with other subjects: one of the wonderful things about literary study is that it can embrace content and skills from a variety of other subjects. History is often most relevant, but so can be studies in psychology, philosophy, language, science and of course the classics. Furthermore, students often find it hard to apply knowledge or skills from one subject to another. Inviting inter-disciplinary consideration is a very useful way to develop ability in this area.

  • Make as much use of other art forms as you can. Painting and Music can provide a tremendous platform for examination of relevant artistic context, but also as a way to examine issues of form and style.
  • Read literary works that invite discussion of other related disciplines. Ian McEwan's novel Enduring Love is a classic example of this.
  • Discuss the way/s experts from various subjects might make different sense of a particular work. Sunlight in the Garden by Louis Macniece might seem very different to a biologist or to a psychologist. 
  • Talk about how you approach something unseen in literature, and then compare with the way you might do so in music or art.

10. Take learning outside the classroom: one of the wonderful things about our subject is the way it casts light on the complexity, variety, joy and sorrow of human experience. The more students are encouraged to participate in its relevance to 'real life' - to see its implications in the world outside the classroom, the better.

  • Organise trips as often as you can - to lectures, the theatre, art exhibitions, talks, places, films, museums
  • Invite speakers into school to tell students about relevant issues
  • Invite other teachers with expertise in particular subjects or experience in relevant issues to come into your class to give their views
  • Set up informal reading or creative writing groups that meet at lunch or after school. Student-led 'literary societies' can be one of the most effective ways to encourage initiative and interest in the subject in ways other than the teacher-centered classroom
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