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Teaching English Literature to Teenagers

When teaching English Literature to teenagers, a common practice in schools from the time when I was at school myself (and probably for many years before that) is to ‘do’ a novel by having the students in the class take turns to read sections aloud to the whole class. As a teacher, I never found this workable. In fact, quite the opposite: it is usually quite destructive to what you are trying to accomplish.

But the fact that it is so commonly done throws up the question of what exactly are we trying to accomplish when teaching English Literature to teenagers? If the aim is simply to ‘get through the text’ so that the rest of the scheme of work can be similarly ‘done’ in a particular time period, then hand out the texts and have the students read away - you are going to get just that: a body of work will be ‘done’. Will students understand what they are doing? Not particularly. Will they be engaged with the subject? Unlikely. Will they be enthused about literature and want to go out and read more from a particular author in their own time? Almost certainly not. But your teacher’s box will have been ticked and you can put the rest down to the quality of the raw material sat in front of you and make early retirement plans as you sink further and further down into apathy as a teacher.

Any sense of meaning in the text will have been completely crushed by the uncomprehending misreadings, mispronunciations, misspoken sentences and general mishaps along the way.

If, on the other hand, you would actually like to convey something of meaning and significance to the young people sitting before you, then a more workable approach starts with a recognition that all the meaning and significance you could ever want rests in the text in your hands - the one you’re supposed to be ‘delivering’ to the students - and in the minds of your young audience, latent and as yet undisturbed. Literature, almost by definition, is all about meaning: writers insert meaning into a text using words, images, structures, tricks and other techniques which you’ll teach about, most probably, quite apart from the text itself. But the nature of fiction is such that it doesn’t end there - arguably, it doesn’t really ‘end’ anywhere. Each and every individual reader brings with him or her a universe of meaning too, and links this up to the novel as they read.

Thinking of it as a computer network hooking up to another computer network might help to visualise what is occurring when a reader reads fiction: an already established, but probably fluid and largely hidden sea of ideas and associations in the reader’s world is ‘plugged into’ a packet of ideas and associations provided by the writer. Part of what happens next is most definitely intended by the writer - we ’get’ the planned symbolism, the echoing images, the effects of certain words, the way the story has been crafted to surprise us or extend our sense of suspense, or make us laugh. That’s all a given. But part of what happens - perhaps the larger part - is beyond the writer, who has, after all, never met the reader except through the words on the page. In the reader’s mind, words, images, structural changes, may trigger associations far beyond the imagination of the writer, creating effects and drawing out subtleties that were never intended and could not possibly have been conceived by him or her. Thus we have whole libraries, whole academic industries, devoted to what a particular text or writer ‘meant’ or the effect that he or she ‘intended’ to create. The truth is that, provided that an interpretation of a text is anchored firmly in the text and doesn’t go off on some delusory tangent, almost any elucidation of a work of literature is valid. Shakespeare may not have planned it, but if a reader or audience member can see it in the text, and provide evidence from the text that it is there, then it is there. The dictatorship of the author was never very strong; the power of the reader is absolute.

So back to the class of teenagers and, say, Silas Marner. How are you going to present this text in such a way that at least a significant proportion of the class are going to engage with it, understand it, perhaps even like it? How are you going to open the door for them to what literature can do for them and to them?

Partly by keeping that image in mind, the image of a door. Teachers are doorkeepers or gatekeepers: their job is initially to point out that there is a door and then to encourage people to go through it. Extending the network analogy above, you as a teacher become the primary connecting cable between the reader’s mind and the work. Your job first of all, as E. M. Forster said, is ‘Only connect’; then, as the connection grows stronger, as the flow between universes becomes established, as readers experience and share both what the writer has created for them and journey beyond the writer’s horizons into unexplored regions, your job is to disappear. You have to have no ego; you have to vanish. The reader should be able to directly hook up to the work, and when that point is approached, any input from you is counter-productive. Like a technician who inadvertently has his hand on the live wire when the switch is thrown, you will get a jolt if you are still in the way.

In practice, what’s the best way to get to that point?

Read the text to them yourself. That might seem counter-intuitive after what I just said about getting out of the way, but initially your job, as described, is to attract attention to the doorway itself. Your task is to corral attention and hold it; you have to read the text with the correct emphasis on the words, you have to ‘perform’, doing all the accents if possible, pausing to explain the tricky bits, bridging the wandering concentration of your audience from paragraph to paragraph, sentence to sentence, sometimes word to word. With an ordinary English novel like Silas Marner or To Kill a Mockingbird, this part of the process can take a chapter or two - but soon you will sense it: they start to connect, they start to reach for the next bit without having to be pushed and pulled, the door starts to open for them. Even the most resistive student can fall under this spell if you’re performing well enough.

Then, at some magical point, they cease to hear you - they hear only the text. Having grasped enough of the writer’s world to feel confident and stable, they relax and just listen. Some will start to imagine more thoroughly than others, but in effect you have woken up their individual universes to the point where they are lending their own energy to the text. It gets easier for you at that point, on a number of levels: not only will it require less stamina to get through a chapter of the text, but you will glimpse the widening eyes and dawning appreciation of your students for literature itself. Your sense of job satisfaction begins to rise; your plans for early retirement begin to recede.

It might sound like hard work, and it is work. But it is the work that needs doing, and it brings rewards.


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