I struggle with conflicting philosophies about my job. I teach English literature (as well as language and composition) as core curriculum in CEGEP, a transitional/professional college that all Quebec students must attend before moving on to university or to many professions. My classes are therefore comprised of students of wildly varying levels of ability and interest when it comes to reading literature.
One element of my job is teaching students how to analyze literary texts. One challenge of my job is that a large number of my students have little experience reading literary texts; a surprising number have never read a novel, for example, that wasn’t assigned to them in school. This creates two important problems:
- A student with little practice in reading literature has much more difficulty developing analytical reading and writing skills.
- A literature class that focuses solely on analysis is unlikely to inspire a student to read more widely, thus perpetuating the problem.
Is it more important for me to teach students literary analysis, even if they’re not ready for it, or to help them discover pleasure in reading that will then lead them to develop basic intuitive skills that will help them analyze? The latter seems like the obvious answer to me, but I still have a duty to prepare them explicitly for their English Exit Exam, which requires them to analyze a text. In wrestling with this problem, I developed the course that I outline below. My original post on this course is the fifth-most-widely-shared post in the history of this blog.
Module 1: Literary Analysis Review
In the first part of the course, we all read The Glass Castle and discuss the genre of the personal narrative. We review elements of narrative (theme, plot, setting, character, imagery/symbolism) and they apply them to the memoir. We then do a short analytical essay in class based on a choice of unseen texts (I like using the “Lives” section of the New York Times magazine as a source for excellent very short personal narrative texts.)
Module 2: Book Talks
Texts: students have a course pack containing copies of the front cover, the back cover or inside flap, and the first chapter of eight book-length memoirs. I ask them to browse this pack and then tell me the three books they’d most like to read. For example, one term, I included the following texts:
- Boy: Tales of a Childhood by Roald Dahl
- A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah
- Stick Figure by Lori Gottlieb
- Just Checking by Emily Colas
- Dharma Punx by Noah Levine
- Lucky by Alice Sebold
- Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy
- Epileptic by David B.
I assign one book to each student, taking their preferences into account whenever possible. Each book is therefore read by a group of 4-5 students. Their major assignment for this module is a “book talk,” in which they must, as a group, present the book to the class and argue that their classmates SHOULD or SHOULD NOT choose this book as their final reading for the course. Each person is responsible for a 5-7 minute presentation on one of the following topics:
- Theme: Identify an important theme in the memoir. Make sure you state your theme clearly and precisely. Then give evidence from the memoir to support your theme, WITHOUT GIVING THE WHOLE STORY AWAY. Why does the theme make/not make the book a worthwhile read?
- Historical, geographical or social/cultural information: Describe the historical, geographical and social/cultural setting of the book (where, when, and in what social context it happens). Make sure you make direct connections between the facts you provide and the events of the book. Why does the setting of the memoir make/not make the book a worthwhile read?
- Another element of the narrative: You may wish to discuss the author’s use of another literary element such as conflict, characterization or imagery, and how it helps us understand and appreciate the story. Why does the author’s use of this element make/not make the book a worthwhile read?
- Personal connection: Choose a scene, character, event or idea in the memoir that you found particularly interesting and discuss why you related to it. Tell us about how this aspect of the book reflected events in your life, and why other people in the class might relate to it too. Make sure you are comfortable discussing this personal connection, and consider whether your audience will be comfortable hearing about it. Why do the personal connections we might make with this story make/not make the book a worthwhile read?
- Other important information you learned: Tell the class about an important topic you learned about from reading this book. Why does learning about this topic make/not make the book a worthwhile read?
- Difficulty: Tell the class about a challenge you had, and that they might have, in reading this book. Is it worthwhile for readers to take on this challenge and read all the way to the end?
- What you loved: Tell the class about something else you loved about this book. Be detailed, but again, don’t give everything away. Why does this aspect of the book make/not make the book a worthwhile read?
At the end of each week, students must write a Book Talk Report about one of the two books presented that week. They explain what they learned about the book from the excerpt in their course pack and from the Book Talk. They must identify at least one important similarity between the book they saw presented and the book they are reading with their group. Will they consider choosing the book they saw presented as their third course reading?
Module 3: Comparison
Text: each student chooses another book from the list above.
Students must write an essay comparing the memoir they presented in their Book Talk to the memoir they have chosen for their third reading. In this module, we also look at examples of personal narrative in film (for example, Persepolis or Stories We Tell) and in radio/TV (This American Life).