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Through the Literary Lens: Examining Literary Theory and Teaching Methods in Secondary Education
Dustin Sipes University of Idaho

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INTRODUCTION When training to become an educator in any subject matter, it is of vital importance to take into careful consideration what values, traditions and methods of learning we are passing on to our students. The study of English and literature is no exception; if anything, such studies should be treated with even greater care. English is the language of our culture, and literature especially the canonical literature that students at the secondary level are required to read is one of the greatest purveyors of cultural insight in existence. Literature, when addressed in an effective manner, is a wealth of historical, social, and personal knowledge unequaled by any textbook in its depth and complexity especially since, after the advent of theoretical schools such as feminist theory, queer theory, and minority discourses, literature has become increasingly all-inclusive. Its aesthetic qualities allow us to more easily absorb this knowledge, and its intertextuality can lead a thirsty reader or literary scholar from one wellspring of knowledge to another. Many of todays students, however, are far from thirsty for literature. Indeed, a good number of them will tell you that they could have happily gone their entire life without being forced to chug down Dickens A Tale of Two Cities, Hawthornes The Scarlet Letter, or any of the works of the infamous Shakespeare. Part of this is due to differences in personal interests; an aptitude for English, the language arts, and literature may come naturally to select individuals, as may an aptitude or fondness for reading. But the fact remains that a great majority of students are only passively interested in, are indifferent to, or are turned off even dismayed by such subject matter, and it is largely due to the fact that many educators fail to imbue in their students a love for literature. Some educators may fail to imbue even a fondness for literature, instead adhering to the traditional and the desk-bound, having their students trudge through the great

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works using dried-out methods such as chapter-by-chapter plot summaries, guided analysis of deeper meaning, and the dreaded book report. Often these deficiencies in teaching method are the direct result of a passed-down tradition of learning in which teachers teach whether intentionally or not by the same or very similar methods by which they were taught, much as parents often raise their children very similarly to how they were brought up. Wade & Sheppard, in reference to Shakespeare, found that [S]tudents blame methods of teaching, not the plays themselves: good food is rendered unpalatable by the cooking. What should be interactive, dramatic and widely appealing is made to seem static, literacy and elitist. Furthermore, the process is likely to be repeated by able students who become teachers themselves [1]. If a tradition of enjoyment- or comprehensiondeficient literary education is begun in secondary education, then those methods will continue with students into their post-secondary years. This presents a very real problem, because English and literature classes are an unavoidable part of the college experience. If students enter the postsecondary sphere with no love or appreciation of literature, or indeed an aversion to literature, they are entering it with a handicap that is potentially very harmful to their grades or academic studies in general. Teaching Methods: Where it All Begins A study conducted by Jim Cope analyzed 272 high school seniors thoughts on reading through the use of reading autobiographies, in which the students were given a prompt asking them to: Tell me about your experiences with reading. Try to remember experiences you had before starting school, experiences you had in junior high school, experiences you have

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had in high school, and experiences you have had outside of school. [J]ust write freely, and spill out your memories as they occur to you [2,3]. Avoiding bias by focusing on students who already possessed a disposition for reading, Cope focused on all levels of senior English classes, from advanced to remedial [2]. The reading autobiographies that he received and analyzed serve as staunch evidence that early experiences with English education can and do forever shape how a student views literary studies. These students were all in their final years of high school, many of them likely planning on continuing their education; yet, only a select few of them expressed any love for the literature they read over the course of their schooling, and these were, as Cope states, typically students in upper level classes [2] who presumably possessed a predisposition for English and literary learning. The memories and opinions of virtually every reading autobiography that Cope introduces directly correlate with how the student in question was taught to read and absorb literature throughout their schooling experience, and an overwhelming amount of the experiences that these students related were markedly negative all due to defective teaching methods. The first and foremost of these methods that Cope addresses is the practice of assigned reading. Students fear of or aversion to assigned readings, which Cope dubs Moby-Phobia [2], was the issue most frequently and emphatically expressed throughout the reading autobiographies. One student states that his dislike for reading literature began in junior high, due to being made to read lame books that I couldnt connect with in any way [2,3]. Other students autobiographies state that they were able to enjoy reading only when they were given some amount of freedom to choose what they read. I only enjoy reading a book I have been allowed to choose to read [2,3] said one student, and another closely mirrored this sentiment by saying that reading was made easier for his or her senior year, since we get to choose our own novels [2,3]. One student

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stated their belief that they enjoyed reading in elementary school, as opposed to junior high or high school, because you go[t] to choose what you wanted to read and when you wanted to read it [2,3]. From these testimonies, we can derive that literary education is far more effective when students are given some freedom of choice regarding the literature itself, for this allows them to choose items that they will be more capable of absorbing, understanding, and enjoying. The problem does not end at Moby-Phobia. Presented in Copes reading autobiographies were a number of other teaching methods that reportedly fell short for students. These included introducing works too complex for the grade level in which they were presented, over-analyzing works, assigning book reports, and having students read aloud. Works by Charles Dickens were cited frequently as bringing forth negative experiences, but two of the most specific and striking examples had to do with two of his works Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities being too difficult or complex for the grade level to which they were presented. The students who provided these anecdotes were both in the eighth grade when the works were presented to them, and both cited the experience as the worst they had encountered throughout their schooling: one student mentioned Oliver Twist as being so long and drawn out that Id notice fallen asleep everytime I read the first few pages [2,3], and the other stated that she had no idea what [A Tale of Two Cities] was about and I still dont know [2,3], also conveying her thoughts that it was a big mistake on the teachers part [2,3]. Out of the two students, the latter said that she doubted she would ever attempt to read A Tale of Two Cities again, and the former, after reading Oliver Twist, actually developed an aversion to reading any book not assigned in school [2,3]. This displays another important point: the canon may have its demands, but the teacher of literature must always keep an open mind regarding what is best for their students; but, quite often, English educators will find themselves in a school

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where curriculum is too strict to allow for such accommodation, where certain pieces of the canon are unavoidable. In such cases, the teacher of literature must seek out whatever methods are possible to help their students understand the material if they are not readily capable of doing so, or at least help them escape the experience unscathed. More to be added. Literary Theory: Why It is Important Literary theory, and the various schools of literary criticism that reside therein, are generally perceived as lying solely within the post-secondary realm of academia, and the complexities of such studies are rarely extended towards secondary English education. Yet, where do secondary teachers learn their trade, but at the university? It is inevitable that future secondary educators in the field of English and literature will be introduced to literary theory at some point during their college education. It is also inevitable, then, that they will utilize this knowledge in some form or another when teaching their own students. More to be added. Shakespeare as a Building Block A brief, but nonetheless necessary explanation and suggestion is required here. Throughout the review of relevant literature contained in this introduction, you have undoubtedly seen many studies and articles pertaining to Shakespeare. While Shakespeare in particular is not the primary focus of this study, he is without doubt an important one. The purpose of so much focus upon Shakespeare is that he is one of the greatest and most famed literary giants of all time. As such, his works have been reviewed, attacked and deconstructed by numerous schools of literary theory; they are also simultaneously some of the most-injected and most-dreaded

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works in the school system. These two factors make Shakespeares works an essential element in examining literary theory in secondary English education. More to be added.

STILL REQUIRED:

METHODS Section

RESULTS Section

DISCUSSION Section

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WORKS CITED [1] Wade, B., & Sheppard, J. (1994). How teachers teach Shakespeare. Educational Review, 46(1), 21. [2] Cope, J. (1997). Beyond Voices of Readers: students on schools effects on reading. The English Journal, 86(3), 18-23. [3] Cope, James R. (1990). "The development of readers and nonreaders: reading autobiographies of twelfth-grade high school students." (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest. (9100651).