(I accepted the offer to post on the 18th!) I have been most focused in recent months on the lenses - the critical approaches - which are the topic of Chapter Four in Dr. Beach's book. I have read some Appleman, some Said, and many, many articles which include ideas about how to engage students in discussing literature (and media ads, and essay.) Energizing does not even begin to describe how it feels to see juniors and seniors in a high school classroom latching on to the following concepts: 1) figure out who you are - how did you come to be a blend of the cultures and philosophies which define YOU or have significantly touched your life, 2) look at literature and media not only as "that's me or that's them" - look at what motivates behavior and belief in others.
Postcolonial analysis is one of the approaches which appeals and fascinates. In studying, for example, Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness) and Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart,) I rejoice at how this analysis tool so effectively helps students understand the overwhelming effect that colonial / imperialist ideas have had on Western education. Where have our ideas about "other" come from? I have found some amazing reactions to students who analyze Joseph Conrad's writing, looking for what he does and doesn't say about the African culture. We study the harsh criticism that his work has been given for the images he filters through Marlow as Marlow travels into the heart of the jungle, hearing, seeing, sensing - but never really coming to know - the culture he is intruding upon.
We discuss the obligations that authors must shoulder, and we ask questions like this: Can Conrad be held accountable for his omissions based on the "hindsight view" we are capable of taking? Even if Conrad's goal was to wanted to examine the dark side of the soul, did he also have an obligation to examine man's inhumanity to man? I have found my students are really able to grapple with those questions, and they willingly accept the critical thinking challenges. When we turn to Achebe's work, the students come critically to the questions about O.(Achebe's flawed and passionate hero in Things Fall Apart,) and their ability to process the critical questions allows them NOT to react with a "these customs are so strange" attitude. Instead, the students seem to "get" the lense. The critically important concept is helping our students "get" what the language of misunderstanding has done to our worldview. I am overwhelmed and awed by it myself, and I read the newspaper and watch television news in a much more careful way myself. This is what I see at the heart of the issue - to equip our students to understand their own identities, recognizing what has formed their own biases and boldly willing to question those beliefs. Sounds so basic; yet, it is the CORE of how we teach young people (and ourselves) to engage in daily life with self and other. I relish this stuff. Everyday it excites me.
I like to think about the issues of gender roles and social class distinction together when studying literature with seniors. Now that I more consistently bring these discussions to the table, I am finding that the students are developing some excellent skills as they bring history, cultural custom, and philosophy to bear when they are analyzing and pulling apart why a character will react and behave in a certain way. I have found that it takes very little for students to convert their thinking from the "I don't get it" mentality to an engaged discussion. And, this is at the heart of getting students to go beyond read-respond. It's not just about YOU; in fact it is really NOT about YOU.
It's about OtHER. It's about figuring out how someone else's cultural, social, and gendered experiences in a particular time and place have formed their identify. How do we learn about "otherness"? Maybe literature is a safer zone; I have to do more with media / ads / essay. I have to do more within the classroom to challenge students to recognize how consistently they are making cultural / social / gender judgments - without even realizing it (and without even verbalizing, processing, and assessing it.)