Opinion
Reading & Literacy Opinion

The Value of Literature in the Classroom: An Internal View

By Jess Burnquist — March 18, 2015 3 min read
"Death of Julius Caesar," by Vincenzo Camuccini, 1798
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My weekend has been devoted to grading vocabulary tests, creative writing assignments, and essays. There are stacks of student work covering my desk—an old kitchen table that fits perfectly in the bay window at the north end of our house. I have a view of neighborhood cats scratching at the jacaranda tree in the front yard, and of neighbors living their lives on roller skates, bikes, skateboards. Sometimes the stacks of papers feel like force fields preventing me from entering the outside world. Inside, grading serves as a way to confront myself as a teacher in private.

My husband laughs over my tendency to talk to my students while I grade. He reports what I’ve said: “Support your opinion.” “You’re brilliant here, but what do you have against paragraphs?” “What the heck were you thinking?” When time permits, I like to check my comments on their papers—will they be able to tell if I was frustrated with my own children that day? Was I too sarcastic? Did I spill any wine on that final stack?

I admit that while I completely understand the importance of grading and of giving feedback on written assignments, it is the aspect of teaching that makes me most uncomfortable. Students can’t answer back—we can’t truly engage about the given topic and I am essentially giving a final word. Ideally, my red or green or purple ink, depending on the day, will be legible and will convey that I know that they are more than this assignment, this misspelled word. Honesty can only be employed so much. I never use words like “gossamer"—but I should, because it’s a really pretty word. How many 16-year-olds are going to understand that sentiment? Not every student loves English.

There is a debate on the kind of work I do as an English teacher that is slowly being articulated into school policies—it rears its head more and more in department meetings and conferences these days. The premise is, “Why do they need to learn this? We’re not making them into English majors.” Such a notion is a bright blue paint ball aimed and fired onto curriculum such as Shakespeare, or Swift, Plath, Thoreau—you name it. I feel much more equipped to answer this challenge with my students—they are still dreamers, even if slightly jaded. I can say, “Literature might instruct you how to handle heartbreak.” “This reading doesn’t shy away from the ugly parts of humanity.” “This passage has a lot of sex in it.” “This essay gave South Park a future on your television”—and they will perk up and give selected texts a chance.

What happens in policymakers’ lives that makes them challenge the relevance of the human experience in literature? I assume that the adults questioning the merit of spending time immersed in literature, which is in their view “dated” or “meaningless,” were somehow deeply failed on their academic journeys. I know it’s not my job to connect the dots for my students, but I’m a believer in giving them the framework to make the discovery that Shakespeare cared about what they care about.

Innovation and Imagination

Maybe it’s the “information age.” The pace of our lives fools us into being plugged into the trivial things. Still, aren’t some of my Facebook friends as fictitious as the characters I care most about in various stories? My entire 4th grade year was spent seeking out a friend who looked and behaved like Judy Blume’s Sheila the Great. Or, perhaps I’m just silly and overthinking it. Perhaps we don’t have time to model how to savor and dwell on classic or contemporary literature because, come on, it’s not all going to be on the test. The greatest amount of funding is rewarded to math and science-based pursuits because our country isn’t performing as well as others in these areas. Leaders assert the need for innovation. Am I naïve in my belief that innovation requires imagination? Viewing literature as a means to effectively follow instructions on an IKEA box deprives our county’s children of the joy of reading for joy.

Literature and the arts in general create pathways to discovering personal vision—to imagine a world that values one’s creativity. Imagination informs innovation. In any case, it’s Saturday. The world cycles outside my window while I review comments on papers to be sure the right messages bleed through.

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