The Many Aspects of Learning to Teach Literature

“What is commonly called literary history is actually a record of choices.”
– Louise Bernikow

Literary history is truly a record of choices. As we have learned throughout the coursework is that what constitutes a “classic” or an award winning book is truly subjective in nature, and what really constitutes them both comes down to just a matter of choice. Taking “classics” as an example, people choose the title list of their “classics” based on personal preference, thoughts, or opinions; although in doing so they do, for the most part, refer to unspoken list criteria in choosing their books that fall into this category. Examples of this criteria are too numerous to list in entirety, but may include the age of the book, the sustainability of the book, and the fact that book has been handed down for generations. Awards, on the other hand, are given in various different manners, not only through people’s choice, so to speak. Specific criteria are given at the time of submission that authors must meet to qualify for the awards, but again the criteria is subject to human choice.

I think also, in speaking to the given quote, we can say our understanding of something helps to further increase our choice of it. The instance of the awards segment is a great example of this. Prior to class, when asked what awards there are for children’s literature, I could have said the Caldecott and the Newbery, and nothing further. Now my horizons have been widened, so to speak, and I know of several others, and realize that there are a slew of them still out there for my discovery. Knowing about these new awards, however, has given me a wider choice of a discussion starting point to choose from should the topic arise. I have also learned of the ways in which these awards, for example the Coretta Scott King Award are given out, and what the criteria are for doing so. It, again, offers me more choice in deciphering my likes and dislikes, my selections for reading, and my future literary discussion.

What I am really taking from this course that I undoubtedly be able to use in my future teaching is the knowledge that also relates to the “record of choices” is that literature enhances and affects people in ways we may have never thought. It is a great outlet for emotions (such as it was for me in Bridge to Terabithia) a way to relate to characters outside of the realm of our surroundings (as we did with The Secret Garden) a way to learn of past cultures and happenings (as with Little Women) and a way to generate thoughtful discussion (as with all segments of our class). Literature discussions are fantastic because no two people interpret a book in the same way and hearing the thoughts of others on what they felt the story was saying adds to our intellectual thinking structure, opening new doors of thought for us and giving us alternative opinions and viewpoints on what the author’s intent for a story may have been. Getting in touch with these different types of books offers us choice in our own realm of reading and in the options we give to our students in the reading we will assign. The record of choice has defined a new literary history for us to be able to choose from when we decide how to go about further passing it along.

Another aspect of this course that I am glad to be taking with me is the quench it gave me for researching authors of books that we enjoy, and maybe even books that we do not. Once we see who is behind the writing, so to speak, and hear their views on why the story was written, it may give us a better understanding of the material that was read. This was definitely the case for me in researching and reading the research materials of other class members on the authors of some of the award-winning books that we were introduced to. Books that may not have held an appeal to me were suddenly viewed as ones I wanted to pick up and read so I could relate better the intention of the author to what I believed the context to be. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak is one such book that comes to mind. It was not a book I ever intended to read but after reading about the author and how he related the characters to his own family it was one I absolutely had to pick up and read, and I was not disappointed. Knowledge of what goes into a piece of literature does wonders for piquing our curiosity in wanting to read it. Studying the authors is a superb way to offer that knowledge and offers us again, more choices from literary history to offer our students.

Comparison and contrast is another lesson that I have learned well in this class. Reading Little Women and then viewing the two movies made from it was a great experience in teaching and understanding that contexts may change with time. In the earlier adaptation of the book we saw a time setting that better fit my concept of how the book was to be perceived, but in the second viewing we saw very clearly how the book might be viewed in today’s world. The characters remained similar in perception, but certainly not the same. This was to appeal to today’s viewer, I believe, and while I cannot say I like the version being so tampered with as it seemed to be to me in the latter version of the movie, it was interesting to see how concepts have changed in light of viewing them both. The history of literary discussion truly is at work in defining choices we make when we experience what others have interpreted and felt from the history of the comparisons.

Along the same lines, the double viewing of Little Women was fantastic in that it spurred a great deal of responses from literary reviewers and urged them on to discuss the role the book played in the timeframe it was written, and the role that it plays now. Some of the articles we read just amazed me, such as Brophy’s article discussing the characters in the scholarship section of this course. Brophy’s interpretation of the March girls was completely different than my own, save Jo, and I disagreed with much of what was written in it. It was very insightful, however, to see how vastly different two points of view can be in light of one story. The differences allow us to broaden our choices in how we might interpret the writing on our own.

Another aspect of the course that I found interesting and intend to incorporate into my own teaching is breaking a piece of literature down and defining it by audience. We read how male viewers might react to Little Women, we read how the book was viewed back at its inception and we read how it is sometimes viewed today. We also read what the publishers thought of the text prior to its publication and how wrong they were once the book was put into print. I thought these were unique ways of incorporating a more thorough teaching of a literature piece and was impressed with the extra added bit of knowledge that reading these insights gave me. Choices can be made from the history of different viewpoints that allow students (and ourselves) to think outside of the box when we see how others are viewing or have viewed a piece of work. That is something I would definitely like to pass on to my own students in the future.

Another lesson well taught was that a subject should be expounded upon to give a better knowledge of its base or foundation. We learned many words that were proper for a literary discussion, such as plot, theme, characters, setting, etc. These are words that should be familiar to us, but in discussing literature they are words that must be revered to and thought of in reading a literary piece because they keep us on our toes in relating them and the parts they played in a piece of literature.

Along the same vein, the study of the illustrators was easily one of my favorite sections of this class. Many times I read the book and pay no attention to the illustrations, or rather that was my way of thinking in the past. I could literally go through a book, reading every word and not remember one picture from within (other than the ones conjured up in my mind’s eye). We studied various award-winning illustrators and learned terminology such as dappled, sketched, or water colored, that we may not have known prior to the class. Again, the study of something/someone outside of what we might normally research got the better of my interest. I loved seeing the illustrators work after learning what types of different illustrations there are and the different mediums used in creating them. And the choices, once again, from literary history have been passed down, allowing me to not only appreciate the work but also to develop an appreciation for a newfound personal favorite, Pinckney. Had these choices not been given to me, I would still probably be reading a book without scarcely noticing an art that deserves to be noticed.

Literary history is truly defined by the record of choices made from past to present. What we learn and how we decipher it all comes from the starting point of choice. Those records of past preferences and suggestions open doors for our own literary pathways and leave us with the baton to pass to those we will be teaching and introducing to that history. This class has taken us through the many arenas and avenues that one might take to find those choices, and I for one am happy for the experience of the journey.

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