Thursday, July 31, 2014

Are You Part of the Secret Society?

"Why do we have to read this?" 

I get asked this question several times a year, and each time, I have to convince my students that a certain work of literature is good for them. These young adults live in such a fast-paced world, one in which they just simply double-click to get an answer. They write in text-speak and worry too much about their final grade on a test and not whether they actually learned the material. I’m afraid that many students today have become flat-liners, those surface thinkers who don’t want to put forth effort to think about why something is the way it is.

In two weeks, I’ll begin my last year of teaching, and once more I'll attempt to coerce my students into believing that the study of literature is like a secret society, one to which only the educated, deep-thinkers belong.

What’s so great about studying literature?

Cultural Value – Through lit, we can study the history of our culture to see why we are the way we are today.
Expanding Horizons – Take a trip without ever leaving your room!
Building Vocabulary – I know a book is well written when I have to use a dictionary!
Teaching Critical Thinking – YES! Literature hits on those higher-order thinking skills we educators are pushed to use.
Improving Writing Skills – This should be apparent: you have great writing models if you use good authors as your style guide.

In today's popular culture, various forms of media refer to different works of literature. Knowing and understanding these references mean that  you "get it." You are part of that well-learned, secret society I mentioned earlier.

One way I entice my students to read a certain work is telling them that when they hear it mentioned on Jeopardy, they will know the answer. Each year, I have at least one student share with the class that on Jeopardy the day before, the answer was something we studied. These observant students feel proud to be part of the club.

I observed another reference to literature in popular culture last week during my binge watching of Once Upon a Time. In season 1,episode 12, the evil queen Regina goes to the Storybrooke insane asylum. When she walks down the hall, I noticed a large American Indian mopping the floor. I started laughing out loud. If you are a fan of the Ken Kesey novel  One Flew Over the Cuckooo’s Nest, you know what I mean. You are part of that secret group.

The writers of The Simpsons frequently use literature to enliven the plot. One episode is called “A Streetcar Named Marge” which is from A Streetcar Named Desire. One Halloween episode uses the famous Edgar Allan Poe poem “The Raven” to scare Homer. In this clip from The Simpsons Tree House of Horror, someone charted every allusion to literature, movies and history.

Studying literature is important because if you can understand why characters act a certain way, maybe you can understand why people act a certain way. Analyzing situations in literature can help you analyze situations in life. Reading about how a decision was handled in a book can help you make a better decision if you are faced with that same choice. 

Most importantly, studying literature not only makes you smarter but also keeps you from being a flat-liner.