Literature Is Life—Making the Connection for Students

No matter where I have taught, Literature courses have been the coveted class to teach for an English professor.  Yet, most students do not see the value in a Literature course or why it is a necessary course to take. Additionally, most of the literature that is introduced to them does not reflect their urban interests or community, nor does it speak to the career they seek after completing college. I have discovered several ways to get a diverse population of students to enjoy the fruits of literature, while also increasing vocabulary and strengthening reading skills.

The challenge at Baltimore City Community College (BCCC) is making literature interesting to a diverse population of students.  An urban, community college with an open admission policy, BCCC serves the residents of the city, the state of Maryland, and many students from African, Asian, European and South American countries. They are all in the classroom looking for an opportunity for a better future. For example, in a recent Literature course an African student openly discussed America as being the “land that flowed with milk and honey.” And, as educators, we know that a better education is a part of realizing that “promised land.” So with all that to manage in a classroom, I’ve discovered one way to engage students and get them involved in the reading process.  Educators Tiffany E. Culver and Linda W. Morse  state in their report “11 Strategies for Getting Students to Read What’s Assigned” that we should make it clear that reading “requires effort,”  and using the text in the classroom can be an effective strategy for getting the students involved in the process. In another article in the same report, Jennifer L. Romack states that being “learning-centered takes more work, for students and instructors.” We cannot afford to shrug away the extra work that might be necessary to get the students involved; it is our responsibility to change the landscape of education and engage students.

It is my desire to continually engage students and help them develop character that is conducive for college completion—literature aids in that endeavor. Thus, here is what I do with literature. I take a short story, i.e. “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and assign each student one to two pages that he or she is responsible for reading aloud to the class. The student is responsible for all of the vocabulary and the pronunciation of the words within the assigned text. They are required to stand; however, they do not have to stand conspicuously in front of the class, but are allowed to simply stand at their seats.

First, prior to their scheduled reading day, I introduce the author as a real person.  The “Author’s Class” is to discuss the author as a “real person” with problems, issues, and challenges of his or her own. I write one question on the board: “Can you relate to the author in any way?” Whether verbally or on a sheet of paper, they are asked to write down the ways they are similar to the author. For example, a Caucasian male student stated that although he had “white privilege,” he felt the same oppression that James Baldwin did.  He clearly understood that racially he and Baldwin had very different life experiences, yet he saw the similarities and universality of pain and suffering. He also saw that issues with fathers were akin to all men. The student didn’t state the cause(s) of his oppression, but empathized with the author of another race just the same and had a desire to learn more about Baldwin on his own. We discussed the life of Charlotte Perkins Gilman in preparation for reading “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and most students either openly or in an email stated how they dealt with depression. This is also an opportunity for me to let the students know that counseling services are available on campus. The Author’s Class allows students to see the universality in literature, regardless of the race or gender of the author. This helps diminish the racial or gender divide among the students in the classroom as well as with the author and allows for a more enriching learning experience for all students. During our discussions, race and gender became less of a current cultural stain; they became concepts instead of social atrocities prevalent outside the classroom, especially with recent Baltimore Riots looming as the backdrop.

The day of the actual reading, the students are called based on their page numbers and read with this disclaimer: any student, including the reader, is allowed to say, “Stop.” The “stop” button, if you will, means that the student has something he or she wants to say about the text being read. They are told that reading the text is a scavenger hunt.  We use Mortimer Adler’s, “How to Mark a Book,” as our guide for marking up the text. If students are preserving their textbook for resale, they must write their notes with corresponding page numbers in a notebook for future reference. Some examples of what they are looking for are the following: the author’s tone, themes, symbols, feelings, or anything that stirs in them for any reason they are willing to bring to the forefront for discussion. I am the time keeper, and the amount of time given to any “stop” discussion is monitored and based on available time. Of course, I too can say, “Stop,” and bring to their attention the craft of writing, the devices of fiction and/or any vocabulary they may have overlooked. I am usually the first one to say, “Stop”; I set the example of this excavation process and soon after they follow suit with their own conjectures. After class is over, students are excited about the exchange and excited about literature.

The most evidential benefit of doing it this way, and I am sure everyone will love this, the students write stronger essays. They come up with thesis statements that are more relevant to the text. They are excited about writing their ideas about the text. They get to hear what others think and how closely related others’ thoughts are to their own. For example, in a class about “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, a male student said that the reason one of the ladies picked up the biggest stone was so that Tessie could die more quickly. His thesis ended up being about the ethics of stoning in such a community. They are utilizing critical thinking skills and stretching their abilities to communicate those thoughts. They are excited about literature.  Although this requires some extra coordination on my part and some initial goading about reading aloud, the results have been well worth the effort. Students are appreciating that literature can mirror their own lives and can help them get to the life they desire.