Saturday, August 15, 2015

Literature in Time, Space and Place.

Reading is a dynamic and personal experience. Humans do it for a number of reasons - for leisure, for interest, for learning, to pass the time. Whatever the reason, at any time it is different for each of us.

Using texts to study literary techniques, characterisation, plot development, and making connections is something that has been going on in schools for I don't know how long - it may have started after World War II when publishing became much, much cheaper and books became more readily available for the masses.

My memories of novel study in school are grim - two books I was forced to read were "2001 a Space Odyssey" and "Pride and Prejudice" among many others which I don't remember. I remember these titles because I simply hated them. I could not get through the first chapter. I did not connect, I felt they were boring, irrelevant and totally uninteresting. Yet I was being tested on their content. How did I manage in a time before the internet and Cliff notes? I listened carefully in class, took copious notes, was able to remember a few key passages and quotes and their context and I passed. I still hate those books, and any thing else by those authors.

I do know why English teachers make us study many different styles of texts - to give us exposure, to help us discover something we may not have been aware of etc, however,  I do think the books that are chosen for novel study are not because of the students interest or need, but due to the comfort level of the teacher. The teacher does not need to reread the book or rethink lessons because they know it inside and out, having taught it for many, many years (and probably even studied it themselves in school or university). The students are taken on a ride of teacher familiarity which they may not have any connections of interest.

One bug bear of mine is when the majority of the texts being studied in an International School are American, especially when the school is not in America or follows an American curriculum. This also applies to any other texts from a culture that the students are not very familiar with. A student who has grown up in Hong Kong, Thailand, or Germany etc will not be familiar with the cultural nuances that "Catcher in the Rye" or "Of Mice and men"  are riddled with. What is the point of teaching a novel when you need to spend most of the time explaining what specific phrases, the historical context and general cultural stereotypes are? If the objective is to learn more about American History - then sure, but if it is to learn about literary technique, characterisation and themes, then surely the teacher is placing high barriers to learning by the selection of book. One language and literature teacher who was new to teaching outside of the US said to me "I did not expect to need to explain so much of the nuances of American Society as much as I did". 

A good teacher is considerate of the learner and their needs and ensure that learning can occur. In 2006 Barbara Braxton wrote the article "One Size does not fit all" for the Teacher Librarian Journal (Teacher Librarian;Feb2006, Vol. 33 Issue 3, p50. Available through Ebsco). In it she offers a few questions a teacher needs to ask before selecting a book for study.

  • Why are we asking the students to read this book?
  • What do we expect the students to know, understand, and do because of this lesson or unit?
  • What are the lifelong learning skills that is contributes to?
  • What specific concepts, knowledge, attitudes, values, and skills do we want the students to develop, practise, consolidate, understand, and achieve by the end of this lesson or unit so they can continue to learn?
  • How will these concepts, knowledge, attitudes, values, and skills contribute to their understanding of the world?

I will add two more questions ..

  • What barriers will need to be overcome if reading this text outside of the cultural context in which it is written?
  • Are there other texts which will allow for the same learning that are relevant in time space and place for the students being taught?
To follow on from posts about being Culturally Intelligent and having a Growth Mindset, one of the ways to do this is to be aware of and be familiar with the literature of the region you are teaching in and use these texts. Yes it will mean having to do more work, and actually having to read new literature, but is that really a bad thing apart from the time it takes? Another consideration is the context - is the protagonist living in the region or have they migrated? Has the work been translated and / or an authentic voice, or is the author from outside the culture writing about a culture different to their own? Is the work about atrocities that went on in that country, or about normal life? We need to be aware of perpetuating the single story of a culture.

Does the school library collection include authentic titles from the region the school is in? Are they plentiful or are they token? Are they promoted? How are they promoted? What are the barriers to an international collection? 

We also need to get away from using the words 'Ethnic, Multicultural and Foreign' to classify books or stories - International and Global are perfectly fine and inclusive if you have to use anything. They should be just what they are - stories or novels.

Using texts in the school setting that are relevant in time, place and space for the students we work with is imperative to help them learn. Student centred learning is about putting the needs of the learner first - not what is convenient for the teacher. As the world population becomes more spread out there is no justification not to include authentic international texts in your classroom or in the library, whether you are in an international setting or not. It just may be the one book that connects a learner to learning.

There have been a few article written about using international novels into the classroom (from an non international school point of view)

To find international texts there are many resources - 
Goodreads lists - 

Blogs and websites
USBBY Outstanding International Books (OIB) List

Nadine Bailey shared this resource :
I'd like to promote the Australian group: Asia-education foundation- they have a wealth of information- this is the email I had from them today : Join schools across Australia to celebrate National Book Week from Saturday 22nd August. You can follow the action on twitter at ‪#‎bookweek‬ and celebrate in the
classroom with the following Asia related resources for all age groups and interests.
- A curation of Asia-related literary texts from F-10
- Curated digital resource lists
of stories and poetry from F-10
Book Week aligned learning sequences:
- Years 7-8: Stories that change lives
- Year 7: Exploring haiku
- Year 7: Indonesian poetry and translation
- Year 8: Contemporary short stories
- Years 9-10: Understanding China through literature

Do you have a go to resource for your international texts?

Another related big question which will be the topic of the next post - Why is one text for all students the norm or even a requirement?


alavina said...

Good morning from Zagreb,

Thank you for this post, Diane! It makes so many connections within the design of Language and literature/English learning that are useful and very practical. Would you mind if I share it with the English team?

Best wishes, Aloha

alavina said...

Many thanks for this post, Diane! It has so many connections within the design of English/Lang and Lit courses that are useful, practical and relevant to students. Would you mind if I share it with the English team?

Best wishes, Aloha

Dianne McKenzie said...

Dear Aloha,
I am glad you found the post a worthwhile read, and absolutely please share it if it will make a difference to the learners you work with.