Lessons in literature

B Ajitha

Navigating the world of literature
In nearly a decade of teaching at the Senior School, the exhilaration of teaching English literature has remained unparalleled. The English Core Course, offered at the Senior Secondary stage for schools affiliated with the CBSE, stands out not only for its emphasis on functional language skills but also for its profound impact on students’ understanding of the world, thanks to its diverse and engaging literature syllabus. Consider this sampling: Poetic gems from the Romantic era to contemporary times on themes as varied as the need for quiet contemplation to the appreciation of beauty, dealing with loss, urban-rural divide characterized by economic disparity, subjugation of women in matrimony… all themes that not just resonate with present realities but also offer a critique on contemporary society through universal themes. The values and philosophical moorings in stories that exemplify the power of human connection, kindness and generosity to personal narratives about overcoming fear, leadership lessons from the freedom struggle, to commentaries on the stark realities of child labour and illegal immigration, to social issues like cultural assimilation and caste-based discrimination, to dealing with real/imaginary/self-imposed limitations, the literature syllabus for class 12 is an eclectic mix of literary texts from world literature. This curriculum prioritizes the development of practical language skills and equips students with the tools to engage critically with the world around them. It also cultivates empathy, social awareness, and a deeper understanding of the intricacies of our society.

Setting clear learning objectives: a foundation for meaningful engagement
Before teaching literature, the teacher must have well-thought-out objectives and a plan to realize those objectives of studying literature at the school level. The starting point for this exercise could be articulating the learning objectives and sharing them with the students. The next step would be to establish the relevance of the learning objectives in the lives of the students. Let me illustrate this with an example.

When teaching the poem, A Thing of Beauty by John Keats from the class 12 English textbook, the following learning objectives can be shared with the students:

  1. Determine the central idea/s of the poem and analyze its development throughout the poem, including how they interact and build on one another; provide an objective summary of the poem.
  2. Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support the analysis of what the poem says with inferences drawn from the text.
  3. Initiate and participate effectively in collaborative discussions in groups, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  4. Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives; synthesize comments, claims, and evidence.
  5. Refer to evidence from the text to stimulate a thoughtful, well-reasoned exchange of ideas.
  6. Articulate in writing an analysis of the central idea and evaluate its treatment as well as the effectiveness of the use of poetic devices in furthering the poet’s objectives.

Relevance of learning objectives
Now, to establish the relevance of the learning objectives outlined above, the teacher could begin this way:

Poets and philosophers have long thought about/ruminated on the big questions of life:
• What is the purpose of human life?
• What is the cause of human misery?
• What is the panacea to alleviate suffering?
• How do we deal with the pressures and cares of life?

The given poem which is an excerpt from a longer piece of work is a representative piece of the romantic period in English Literature. The clarion call of the movement was “back to nature”.

Nature appears as a predominant theme in the poems written by Romantic poets. Nature was presented as a “nurse”, “teacher”, “muse”, etc., to give man a reprieve from the care and pressures of life and heal his ailing spirit and battered soul!

The universal theme exemplified in the poem is very relevant to the present times. It shows the way to attain happiness and remain immune to negativity.

Interactive teaching strategies: bringing literature to life
Next, the teacher can carry out a brief activity –
Ask students to close their eyes for two minutes and recollect/relive any instance or experience that filled them with a sense of awe and wonder. They could think of a time/instance when they experienced unbridled joy.

Through a series of questions, get the students to see how happiness is a mental state that can be attained by dwelling on experiences that once made us happy and thus become a source of continuous bliss.

After this “warm-up” of the mind, the teacher can lead a class discussion to elicit varied interpretations in line with the idea that poetry can have as many interpretations as there are readers, and that there is no ‘one’ interpretation of a poem. The purpose of studying poetry is for students to be able to make personal connections with the particular poem. Realizing this objective makes the exercise fruitful.

Application of hexagonal thinking framework: a collaborative learning experience
Next, Students can be given opportunities to explore the themes encountered in the poem in detail and establish connections between them. It would also be a good exercise to explore the interconnectedness of themes with another text – On the Face of It, for instance – through the hexagonal thinking framework.

The hexagonal thinking framework
Students take a set of hexagons (that the teacher keeps ready) with varied terms, concepts, themes, real-world connections, etc., that relate to the current unit of study, and then link them together into an interconnected web. In small groups, they must decide which hexagons link best to which others.

This can be done with paper hexagons or with hexagons online. Once done, the students can explain and argue for the order they have placed their hexagons in. They can write about key connections and finally present their choices to the class.

Sample the following:
Directions for the digital version* of the activity shared with the students:

Take the set of hexagon themes that relate to the story On the Face of It and the poem A Thing of Beauty, and link them into an interconnected web. Use your critical thinking skills to decide which hexagon links best with which others.

1 Create your web of ideas

In hexagonal thinking, you connect terms and ideas through the sides of each hexagon. A hexagon has six sides, therefore each term or concept can potentially connect with up to six others. Use your critical thinking to decide where the terms you have been given best fit in the web of hexagons provided. Your goal is to drag each term to the position where it best fits within the overall web. Make the most important connections your priority. You may not use every hexagon. Leave gaps where you are not able to make connections.

• 2 Explain your connections

Once you’ve decided where each concept should go, you should be ready to explain its placement. In the slide following your web, choose five significant connections and explain each one.

A finished Product:

The hexagonal thinking framework could be used either as an in-class activity providing an opportunity for collaborative learning among students in small groups or assigned as an extended learning activity to be done individually at home. Either way, the activity is designed for extrapolation beyond the text and helps identify the central ideas, elaborate on their significance, and make thematic connections between texts.

The activity could be followed by a written assignment that includes thoughtfully framed questions on both literary analysis and critical appreciation.

The power of connections
A literature class ought to be interactive and not limited to dialogues with the teacher alone. The interaction among students is vital to not just deepen the understanding of the text but more importantly to exchange ideas and thereby sensitize them towards respecting different viewpoints by being open-minded and agreeing to disagree with civility.

Empowering students through collaborative learning
We are social beings, eager to forge connections through common interests. A teacher of literature should leverage the natural propensity of the human mind to build connections – either with the text under study or with peers who form their immediate social milieu. Meaningful activities that promote collaborative learning should be carefully chosen and integrated at the most opportune moment in the teaching plan. This could be in the form of the innocuous ‘Think-Pair-Share’ or collaborative learning strategies like reciprocal reading, Jigsaw, or any other form of group work.

Transformative potential of teaching literature
Learning literature holds the promise of a transformative experience for students-broadening their horizons by fostering critical thinking, moulding their understanding of the world, and acting as a vehicle to carry and transport varied perspectives and world views. From lucid articulation of learning objectives to carefully designing the teaching plan, which includes structured and at times unstructured activities to promote collaborative learning, higher order thinking skills like analysis, evaluation, and creation; creating opportunities for creative and meaningful extended learning tasks after school, beyond the classroom, which caters to their varied interests and preferred way of demonstrating their understanding and engagement with the text, the teacher plays a crucial role in bringing alive the beauty of literature and unlocking its transformative power for impressionable minds.

Literature as a gateway to the world
When done with the right intent, teaching literature fosters a lifelong appreciation for the written word and prepares students with the right attitude and mindset to steer through the world. As educators, we need to rely on intuitive teaching methods that are time-tested for their efficacy and at the same time continue to innovate and incorporate creative ways to facilitate a deep engagement with literary texts all the while being mindful of the profound impact it can have on shaping the minds and hearts of the students we teach.

In the words of John Keats, ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever.’ Let us strive to make literature a source of joy and timeless wisdom that are windows to the world.

*https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/hexagonal-thinking/

The author teaches English at senior and senior secondary levels at Delhi Public School, Coimbatore. She can be reached at ajithabashkar@gmail.com.

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