I Don’t Know How To Teach Literature

No, that’s not accurate. I can sling the terms around with the best of them: irony, theme, protagonist, point of view…. More difficult, and what I’ve found myself puzzling about over the course of the past week is the question of how I would “teach” kids to tell the difference between literature and its bastard cousins, fictionpopular fiction, or young adult fiction. 

One is enjoying a popular resurgence but is secretly scorned by the “truly” educated. One relies on lists in the New York Times Book Review section. One is definitely better than all the rest. But how do I teach kids the difference? How do I teach the difference to kids who

silhouette of barbarian

don’t like to read? Who read below grade level? Who maybe don’t know how to read at all? For the last three groups, does it matter? Why?

I think it does matter in some ways. I’ve never forgotten a Black activist professor saying he would want his kids to know the canon because those books are the culture of the elite and he would want his kids to know the language and culture of power. Entire college curricula are formed about the great books of Western civilization. At an NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) conference not long ago, I overheard a leader in the field declare, “English is the last bastion against barbarianism.”

Certainly the beliefs of 19th century British aristocrat and cultural critic Benjamin Arnold traveled the Atlantic to shape the curricular priorities U.S. secondary schools. Literature, according to Benjamin, begets a love of beauty and truth, draws on essential truths, and is central to the life of ideas. It will civilize the “next generation of the lower class” (Willinsky, 1990, p. 358). Benjamin argued that what would assist the nation in finding its “best self” (Willinsky, 1990, p. 358) was a literary canon.

old books

Of course, those best qualified to determine that canon were the educated elite. Consider the emphasis on close reading in the Common Core, a vestige of the New Critical perspective that reading literature must be a systematic process, one which could ultimately determine quality and value in a work of art.

medieval torture devicesSo when I walk into a “failing” school, with reading test scores in the basement and a dropout rate that matches the graduation rate of schools deemed to be pretty good, the ghosts of this past float behind me. Many ELA teachers are at the front of the room, bravely tying works of literature to a chair and flogging them to get at the truth (do you know the poem of Billy Collins?).

I don’t know how to teach kids to tell the difference between literature and everything else. Because isn’t that the point? To get them to read the “right” stuff the “right” way? I read lots of stuff. Sometimes literature. Sometimes crap– murder mysteries FTW! (Ha– even that judgement smacks of the insinuations that there are barbarians at the gate. Surely it is barbarians who perpetuate “crap”. )

But with some books, something different happens in my brain, my heart. After I finish them, it takes me days, sometimes more than a week, to be ready to let go of them, move on to something else. And then, it’s often to something more “popular.” (Murder mysteries! A YA novel!) Something in me is a little different. Am I more humane? (Isn’t the promise of humaneness the argument for teaching literature?) (Hello Matthew Arnold!) I don’t think so. I just love to read.

Do kids need to know how to tell the difference? Why? And if so, how do I teach them to do it?

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10 responses to “I Don’t Know How To Teach Literature”

  1. Denise Krebs says:

    I like how you hooked me at the beginning with your sure stance on the difference between literature and the bastard relations, but then led us to a lack of surety at the end. Like Collins, I don’t want to beat meaning into my students. I only want them to love reading, so I guess I’m one that thinks there is no need to teach the difference, just get them reading. I think they figure out what is good.

    All the best,

    • Karen says:

      I know, I know, but then there are all these ghosts that want us to fight the barbarians. AP, IB, all these emphasize the canon. So then what?

  2. Algot Runeman says:


    While the stuff called literature may be somehow “better” than other things we read, there is no clear line to mark the boundary.

    If anybody, including kids are going to appreciate a “cultured” view of the world, they need to be able to read.
    They need to be able to read a lot.
    They need to be able to compare the writing because they have read books using correct grammar along with those which use poor grammar.
    They cannot recognize one from the other without lots of reading to compare.
    They need to read for vocabulary so they can know when to use one word vs. another.

    If words are the power to define/defend culture, then they need to be able to choose which ones they use.

    Recommend books based on your judgment of if you must, but encourage ALL reading, first and foremost.

    • Karen says:

      I totally agree. Then there’s the matter of belief: what’s better, why, etc. Teachers are expected to teach certain things in certain ways. How do the believers in reading above all ever make it, I wonder….

  3. I feel your pain on this one. I don’t think it’s always my job to find the meaning for the students as it is to make sure they can feel something from they are reading. If they won’t read, all the flogging in the world won’t make a difference. Finding the right book, at the right now, certainly helps, but to sustain it? That’s what you need and I and the reading teachers around the world need to do: get that love of books and reading back. See the good, the bad, and the ugly in books, that will come! 🙂

  4. I so love that Billy Collins poem. I think if we can help create situations where students are engaging their hearts when they read, we have all won. Wonderful post.

  5. Hi, Karen. I’ve thought about this a lot lately. I think it comes down to two different pedagogies. Teaching literature is one thing; developing readers is another. They are both noble enterprises, and there are significant areas of overlap, but they are different.

    The analogy is imperfect, but would we ever hand an untrained kid a saxophone and say, “Let’s hear what you have learned from John Coltrane”? Of course not. In order to get anywhere close to that, first there are fundamentals to master, then nuances to internalize that can only come with a lot of exposure and practice, practice, practice.

    If we want students to understand literature, not to mention appreciate literature, first they must be able to read fairly fluently and enjoy the process and experience of reading. Expecting literary understanding from students who can’t or don’t read is an exercise in hallucination. Teachers can play a role in developing fluency, motivating students to read for enjoyment, and learning to appreciate literature, but each goal requires us to think about reading in different ways.

    • Karen says:

      “An exercise in hallucination”– PERFECT. And perfectly correct. The analogy to (or is it “with”?) Coltrane is also apt.

      I fear the distinction between teaching reading and teaching literary appreciation is not often discussed, among practicing teachers or preservice ones. These days it seems that we have to, need to, put much more emphasis on facilitating a love of reading, but the pressures of testing are strong enough to steer the entire field in a different direction.

      Thank goodness for teachers like you, Darin, Carrie, Algot, and Denise….

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