It’s easy to say to our students that literature should be meaningful. It’s easy to ask students … what does that line mean? Interpreting and analyzing literature is only the first step in the meaning-making process. Ultimately, we want students to not only know what’s happening in the internal and unconscious world of the characters, but we also want them to extend their understandings of human motivation and behavior to their lives and the world they currently live in. We want them to write introductions and conclusions that contextualize the literature: why it exists, what we can learn from it, what we can do with it. After reading an essay, any essay, the reader should carry a newfound wisdom with them wherever they go.
It’s important to be specific about meaning-making in our conversations, so here’s a few ways to help them comprehend the relevance of literature:
Teenagers relate to the idea that their lives can be a performance. When we play a sport, worship, sing, play an instrument, meet someone for the first time, talk in class, order food, or go to the doctor, we unconsciously adhere to the social codes and etiquette that the situation demands. When we follow the rules of society, we do it to fit in, to make others feel comfortable, to be courteous. They want to live up to the expectations of their coaches, teachers, leaders, family, even ancestors. But then they have to find who they are, what they stand for, and how they can think independently of all the voices around them. Many characters struggle with who they are supposed to be, and who they are, like Hamlet.
2. Status and reputation
A child worries about reputation, just as an adult worries about status. The things we say and do follow us around forever, especially now with social media. People derive self-worth from how they look and appear to others; they compare themselves to other people and can sometimes care too much about what they think. Some characters in fiction get so wrapped up in their quest for self-advancement that they forget to use their conscience, like Pip in Great Expectations or Emma in Emma.
This might be the most attractive of topics for high schoolers. They’re starting to have strong feelings, or at least what they think are strong feelings, and get super interested in discussing why relationships last or fall apart. Everyone appreciates a good love story, where two characters overcome obstacles and limitations like family or society. Great literature doesn’t just scratch the surface of love, it examines the depths, mystery, and intensity of love, like Sethe and Paul D in Beloved or Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse.
A teenager may not have developed close friendships or feelings for another person yet, but they all understand the complicated nature of family. Almost every character became who they are because of their parents or guardians. Every parent tries to balance discipline and expectation with love and affection. Some expect their children to follow in their footsteps or have trouble expressing their love. Gogol in The Namesake, like most of us, slowly and surely comes to appreciate his parents and the importance of keeping them close over the course of his life.
Identity – who we are – can be a complicated philosophical question. What we’re doing here – our purpose – can be difficult to nail down at any age. We need to consider all of our experiences – the people we meet, the places we go, the books we read, everything, when we consider our individual selves, and our ability to think independently, so we can separate ourselves from the onslaught of things that try to define us and change us. With every passing year, our students spend more and more time in front of a screen listening to someone else’s version of reality. The narrator of Invisible Man battles those forces that descend upon him and, he wins.
6. Free will
Upon graduation, children face many options, a world of possibilities. It can be exciting but also frightening. Sometimes we find our path in life with little effort, like a meal served to us at a fine restaurant. But for many people, finding the right friends, partner, school, or job can be an unpredictable, heartbreaking, and confusing experience. Prior experience and our unconscious minds dictate most decisions to us without our knowing it. We now know that both nature and nurture shape who we become. Science has only confirmed what the Greeks told us about man being a plaything of the gods. So when a character like Macbeth struggles to make his own choices, our students can relate.
7. Race and culture
I remember fielding one of the most challenging questions after reading a graphic scene in Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass, An American Slave. My student asked me in distress, “How did this happen?” Talking about race will not only help students understand who they are and where they come from, but it will put us on the path to reconciliation and redemption. If we hope to create a more civil and just society, we need to read texts and have conversations that make sense of race relations in our country, past, present, and future. We need to fill in the blank gaps in our curricula that have existed for too long. Conversations about race and culture can be uplifting as much as they can be distressing. Linking the man-made spaces on the map of our world and the history of human conflict to individual human behavior can feel impossible or absurd, but it is a necessary and important part of our national and global commitment to continual improvement. Prosperity for all cultures is not impossible or even hard to achieve if we could just include all voices in the conversation. Our students want to be part of the solution, not the problem, so that should make things extra easy for us. Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man immerses himself in Ireland’s culture and religion and then by the end of the story, emerges as a free and independent spirit.
Another confusing part of the adult world is gender. Connecting biology, identity, roles, and constructs developed generation after generation can be a fun and intellectually stimulating process for students who want to know how they can break down and deconstruct a concept that has been used as a tool to trap and define millions of people. In the end, students want to know how to be free, and how they can overcome limitations and counter the negative forces that restrict their ability to be independent. They want to love without believing they need to fit into some predetermined role imagined by our ancestors. No one wants to feel like they’re walking around in someone else’s clothes. Jane Eyre has a moment of revelation where she connects her individual experiences to the experiences of millions of women, and only then can she truly be herself.
9. Adventure and experience
Children first begin to love literature when they see images and colors that make no sense. They defy the reality that they have barely come to understand. They believe in the Tooth Fairy because there’s no good reason why magic can’t exist. We think their imagination is funny because it’s absurd. Perhaps we want them to believe that anything they want to be true can be true. Some of the most influential texts have transformed everything we know about reality into a dream. The childhood creatures and objects that come to life get us to reimagine where we live and inspire us to be creative in our own lives and careers. Teenagers want to read stories that involve magic, but that also contain unpredictable and wild adventures that in the end, lead us to some newfound wisdom or enlightenment. Our students want to feel lost, they want to long for something that seems unattainable. They want to think deeply about the dangers of recklessness and risk. Many characters in Dubliners face one of two choices: the safe or the unconventional.
10. Visual art and music
I’ve found that comparing the techniques in literature to techniques in music and painting can inspire students that might not be the most enthusiastic readers, but love music and images. All language hopes to lift us up and drop us down either visually or thematically. It wants to create an expectation and then twist it around so that we can dismantle the familiar concepts we have known to grow and love. Sonnets work that way, and every paragraph starts with one idea and ends with another. The ebb and flow of prepositional phrases and punctuation, the wonder of metaphors and surprising similes, the rise and fall of stressed and unstressed syllables, all bring us to the same mysterious and ambiguous spaces inside a song or images. When we talk about the abstract, symbolism, metaphors, allusion, atmosphere, mood, fragmentation, consciousness, rhythm and rhyme, or spontaneity, we could be in conversation about a painting, a song, or a story. You can’t read The Great Gatsby or “Sonny’s Blues” without listening to Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker, or read To the Lighthouse without looking at (and thinking about) Picasso.
11. Communication and expression
Last but not least, students want to know how to get out what they feel. It is not easy to make sense of our fragmented and random thoughts and create a logical explanation on paper or in the words that we speak out loud. Many stories deal with characters that can’t communicate openly and freely about what they want to do. They often battle with internal conflict over what they should do and what they want to do; they bounce back and forth between their fears and their desires, their insecurities and ego; they are afraid to say the wrong thing or go in the other direction and accidentally misrepresent their motivations or intensions. Literature functions a model for clear and concise writing and it also can be an explosive fountain of words that break all the rules and conventions. Students can be writers in both of these contradictory worlds of language – the organized, deliberate argument backed up with evidence, and a wild, limitless story with all the messiness of thought, or as Wordsworth put it in “Preface to Lyrical Ballads”: “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling”.
Whatever way we encourage our students to make meaning with concepts and ideas, they will always love hearing stories from our lives. On a daily basis, I will talk about the news, history, movies, songs, and museums, and also tell stories from my life.
I ran into a graduate once around town and she told me how one of the best things that ever happened to her in school was when I talked about being in Philly when the Phillies won the World Series in 2008. I rambled on telling them stories about Broad Street for the whole period. It’s remarkable that those are the moments that stick with kids – not the exciting poster activity or performing a play out loud, but real-life stories. It is truly wonderful when two stories collide, the stories of literature and the stories of our lives.
English language arts teacher
Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers