Why Should Students Read Literature?
By Jill Jenkins
In education today, focus is teaching students to acquire a list of skills so they can successfully complete an end of the year test. Is that really all it takes be an educated person? In today’s Language Arts classes instead of reading entire pieces of literature, the students read excerpts from novels, excerpts from speeches, excerpts from articles and answer specific questions that require the child to review the piece and select specific information. It is called closed reading. I call it closing minds. The truth is you can teach that list of reading and writing skills and still use entire pieces of literature. Not only will student have a sense of accomplishment, but teachers will be giving your students the skills they need and so much more.
Remember back to your youth, the lessons that you learned from great pieces of literature were more encompassing and life important than an end of the year test. I still remember reading James Hurst’s, “The Scarlet Ibis,” a beautiful short story about a brother’s guilt over his younger brother’s, Doodle’s, death. Although the story is packed with vivid descriptions and imagery, its message is one that a child can carry with him for life. First, the story helps the reader develop empathy for the struggles of the disabled brother. Second, the major theme is whether pride is a positive force or a negative force:
”I did not know then that pride is a wonderful, terrible thing, a seed that bears two vines, life and death. “
This lends itself to discussions about whether pride is a good quality to have or a bad one. The teacher can have the student select specific examples of how the narrator’s pride in Doodle helped Doodle and how it eventually led to his death. This is a subject that they can relate to since many parents push their children out of pride. The students should be able to personalize the story and develop a greater understanding of their own life. Third, the conclusion of the story of the narrator collapsing across Doodle to protect his “fallen scarlet ibis from the heresy of the rain,” always makes the class cry. I remember crying when I read it as a junior high student and every year I have taught it (almost 40 years) I have the same emotional response. Literature allows us to feel. Feeling and showing that emotion helps student become more emotionally mature. There is research that people who are emotionally mature are more likely to succeed in life. Literature emotionally engages students like no “closed reading” assignment can. With a little effort there are so many of the reading, writing and speaking skills that can be taught with this story.
Reading entire pieces of literature can help students deal with problems in their personal life. A quality education should prepare people for more than a career. To be perfectly honest, most of the careers that exist today didn’t exist when I was in middle school. This means we are preparing students in our class today for a world that we cannot even imagine. We do know that they students will live in a world with other people and we know that there are some fundamental lessons on how to deal with betrayal that they might learn from reading The Once and Future King by T. H. White. The book explores what it means to act civilized even when one is betrayed by the people loved most. I know this book was my anchor during my divorce. I drew strength from the words of Langston Hughes, “I, Too, Sing America.” Literature can help us overcome our darkest days.
Students learn ethics from literature. For example, To Kill A Mocking Bird by Harper Lee teaches students that one must always do the right thing even if it costs your family dearly. Atticus Finch, a southern lawyer, who represents a poor black man accused of raping a poor white woman suffers ridicule and harassment, but with dignity he carries on honorably. He is not only a great role model for his children, Jem and Scout, but for the reader as well. The Help by Kathryn Stockett is a more contemporary novel that discusses discrimination in our society and the main character overcome the problems with honor and dignity. Teaching students how our society has changed because of the noble, honorable actions of its citizens is an important lesson. I love to share with my students that Charles Dickens changed the laws on child labor with his book, Oliver Twist. Writing is powerful tool and so is literature.
Giving students a sense of history is another important role of teaching literature. Books like Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier can teach students how the Civil War affected real people. History classes can seem like a dusty text-book full of unfamiliar places and dates to a middle school student. Novels can help students understand that the events were real and they had both positive and negative effects on the people who lived through them. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque is another book to teach about World War I or The Red Badge of Courage by Stephan Crane is another depiction of the Civil War. Poems like Wilfred Owen’s poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est” creates a vivid image of a soldier’s death from mustard gas during World War I. Students might be horrified, but war is never pretty and it can help them understand the sacrifice soldiers have made throughout our history.
Literature can give students insight into other cultures and other human suffering. For example if you want students to understand some of the current struggles in Afganistan, Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Kite Runner can help students understand its political, culture and historical and social problems. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver can help student understand how the geography, politics and culture affects lives in the Congo. Literature can open new worlds and people to students that textbook excerpts cannot.
Teaching literature can give students not only a connection to that past, but show students that we are not all that different. Which teenager students has not fallen desperately in love, which teenage student has not disregarded their parents’ wants and advice to behave dangerously, which teenager doesn’t’ have a friend who is always joking and one who is always fighting? They all need to read William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. How can we call students culturally literate without a little Shakespeare in their lives? Since the new Common Core requires that ninth and tenth grade students understand the literary device “allusion”, teaching a broad-base of different literary genres and examples seems important. Without a being culturally literate that literary device is rather useless. Students would have no base of literary knowledge.
Literature weaves a rich tapestry in our lives. It sparks our imagination by showing us people and places both familiar to us and unfamiliar. It teaches us that all of human kind is connected in our hopes, our joys, our sorrows, our needs and our troubles. It teaches us where we have been and where we might be going. It teaches us what it means to be human and values that we should uphold. Literature allows us to feel, and to have empathy for others and maybe even for ourselves. Literature gives us the lessons to hold us together during difficult trials in our lives and tools to handle those problems. An education should be more than a list of reading skills; an education should teach us how to behave as human being in a complex society.