An English class can seem like an endless litany of literary devices and structured essays. English teachers love the way art reflects real life in all its confusion, pain and difficulty. Some argue that the emotional side of literature should be explicitly taught as part of the curriculum.
English teacher Andrew Simmons describes it as the “opportunity to connect“ with teenagers through literary emotion and says teachers should not shy away from it.
He says that it balloons into a broader discussion about the purpose of an English education. English teachers want to churn out thinkers who wield power through language. They want them to love books, but also to survive. They want them to read a lease in 10 years and know what they’re getting into. They also want to turn out good citizens who practice in the streets and at the office what they identify as moral and good in class, people who do not cheat, manipulate, abuse, and unfairly judge others. English teachers, it seems, are in a unique position to impose some degree of emotional and moral rigor on the curriculum.
This program of emotional and moral rigor is informal, if not imaginary, and entirely unstandardized. He says that Many teachers prefer to have control over what and how they teach, but if they recognize that literature helps people understand one another and can improve individual and collective health, it’s a bit telling to see this prerogative unmentioned in the standards providing guidance to teachers.
English teachers don’t teach these important stories because they want to batter students with the darkness in human nature. Or because they want to remind them of history’s hideous chapters or emphasize the absurdity of existence. Academic goals aside, teachers want to help students cope with real life even when portions of that reality are unpleasant and disturbing.
In the right hands, the important stories, grim plots and all, do that. Researchers who have studied emotion and cognition extensively, Patrick Hogan of the University of Connecticut and Keith Oatley of the University of Toronto, further suggest that literature can play a vital role in helping people understand the lives and minds of others, and that individuals and communities can benefit from that ability along with literacy and analytical prowess.
“It’s easy to see the trends of death, war, destruction, and oppression in our current society,” said Ray Ramirez a teacher from graduate school who teaches high school English. He adds that “There’s a certain level of honesty reflected in art which deals with the psychological, social, and emotional fallout of such violence.”
Books should never be viewed strictly as opportunities for students to learn skills, but in school, they often serve this purpose. In some classrooms, teachers may present books in a bubble, isolated from the contemporary context and students’ frenzied interior worlds.the Common Core-friendly approach encourages teachers to create units of study in which students read nonfiction along with fiction.
If educators want students to come away from their study of literature with more than just academic skills and content knowledge, maybe policy makers should rethink their approach to testing. Emotional health might be hard to measure on a large scale by traditional testing methods, but it’s far from squishy, and certainly no less tangible than the technical skills education-policy framers seek to standardize. After all, one only has to live on a violent, beleaguered planet and watch the news to know we are troubled. And one may only have to read fiction to understand that solutions can spring as readily from love and empathy as logic.
Adapted from KQED News
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