Introducing Teens to Literature

School subjects generally distinguish first languages and second languages by only including the study of literature in the former. Which makes sense, reading in a foreign language is confusing enough without delving into another culture’s use of literary devices.

But literature is so. much. fun. If you like reading that is. And if you don’t like reading then you’re not doing it right. She says completely non-judgmentally *ahem* SFizzle.

So all my students are supposed to be taking ESL (nowadays more frequently and appropriately labelled EAL – English as an Additional Language), and so at no point have I considered introducing the analysis of texts in the way that I studied English at school. And then I realised that’s stupid. Because my kids all speak perfectly good English and the only way it gets better is by reading amazing writing.

I thought we’d start simple but then I found this gem of descriptive writing by a super famous author who has several books on my to-read list I just um haven’t gotten to any of them yet.

“Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some *dark dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn’t something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step. There’s no sun there, no moon, no direction, no sense of time. Just fine white sand swirling up into the sky like *crushed bones. That’s the kind of sandstorm you need to imagine…”

“And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”

― Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

I had no idea how they would respond to this. We’ve never talked about figurative language before, nothing about similes and metaphors or any kind of literary device, but in a lot of ways those are all just fancy words that get you marks in an essay. You don’t actually need to know them to understand good writing.

The trick to reading is not really about seeing the words, but about hearing them. Reading in a way that you actually feel like you’re listening to it play in your head. There was an easy way for me get that across to my class.

After they read it and clarified unfamiliar vocab, they closed their eyes while I read it to them. To be honest, the feedback from that was pretty amusing.

“I saw it like a movie!” “Teacher I could feel the sand on me!” “That was scary, the sandstorm was chasing me!”

They immediately projected meaning onto the text. That it was about not listening to the negative things people say about you, about pushing through tough times, working hard towards success, surrounding yourself by supportive people, believing in yourself and self-confidence…So many of them consciously drew from a specific personal experience and were convinced the author was drawing from something comparable.

My favourite part of the lesson – when I asked them where in the text the author said any of the things that everyone seemed to agree on. They were adorably confused, looking back at it kind of baffled. I asked again how the author made us all think of these things but without ever actually saying any of it. Some literal and figurative head-scratching followed. No one really had an answer until one student sighed and said…

“Magic, Teacher.”

 

An effective metaphor for Literature don’t you think?

 

*Some words of the text edited to simpler language for my lesson, also removed the paragraph in between.

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