Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Literary Criticism in the High School Classroom

"There is significant difference between reading for pleasure and the study of literature."

While all English teachers want their students to enjoy - and even love - the literature in class as much as they do, the challenge for the English classroom is actually for students to understand and appreciate the written word.  The English curriculum is grounded in the study of challenging reading material.  Because most English departments are studying classic works of literature, as well as sophisticated and engaging contemporary writing, English teachers must instruct students in the craft of analysis.  Basically, the English teacher is tasked with teaching the complex skill of literary criticism.  Lit crit is not an easy or natural skill, but it represents the highest level of critical thinking, and it is the reason we study literature in English class, rather than just read it.

The problem for many English teachers is that they are not that skilled in literary analysis and criticism. They may not even know what they are to be looking for in the classic works of literature.  It pains me to learn that English teachers often resort to Cliff Notes or Spark Notes in order to figure out what to teach when they are tasked with reading and "teaching" required works of literature.  What do you do with literature, other than just read the story and talk about the characters, plot, and theme?

Fortunately, for teachers in the contemporary English classroom, there are numerous resources for how to introduce and teach literary analysis and even literary criticism.  While it's helpful to have an MA in literature to truly understand and teach lit crit - and far too many English teachers pursued their Master's in education or technology because it was easier and they were primarily seeking pay scale advancement - English teachers can seek out plenty of information on how to teach literary analysis and literary criticism.  For example, one of the newest offerings, from a veteran of the high school English classroom is Doing Literary Criticism by Tim Gillespie, available from Stenhouse Publishing.  Gillespie is able to break down the concept of "lit crit" into manageable pieces, offering readable explanations of various "schools of literary criticism," such as reader response, feminist, post-modern, psychological, and philosophical.  The book also contains suggested practice exercises to accompany his use of narrative to relate his own experience and success with literary criticism in the high school classroom.  This book could be a great - and necessary - resource for many English departments.

Other books I have used and benefited from in exposing students to literary criticism include:

Bloom's Critical Interpretations - Professor Harold Bloom's work is really the standard bearer for literary criticism.  His series of critical essays for numerous works of classic literature are great places to start.

The Twayne Works - The Twayne Masterworks Series has always been my starting point for researching any classic work I teach.  I still remember discovering the Twayne Masterwork for John Knowles quintessential coming-of-age novel A Separate Peace.  It was like I had discovered keys to the kingdom.  This series is indispensable for any English teacher who wants to be serious about literary analysis.

Greenhaven Press: Readings on ...  The Greenhaven Press readings on various aspects of literature have been invaluable reference works for my honors freshman who are doing research papers.

How to Read Literature Like a Professor - If you want to know how you should be reading and understanding classic literature - and what sort of ideas you should be bringing to your students - you should seriously consider checking out this fun and very readable work from professor Thomas Foster.

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