Admittedly, the curriculum for the British literature course I teach follows an incredibly scripted framework: a chronological, historical approach to the traditional literary works that serve as the building blocks of the traditional literary canon. The problem? I’m not working with the “traditional” students that my predecessors had in mind when crafting this curriculum. And the department is not ready to update it yet. Consequently, the struggle is “more-than-real” as my colleagues and I try to overcome the roadblocks that exist in our relentless pursuit of the profession’s elusive Holy Grail: student engagement.
From its origins in the Anglo-Saxon period, works from historic gems such as The Exeter Book lack appeal to the average student who struggles to connect to literature in meaningful ways. The lamentations of the poem speakers, often mourning their cold, difficult existence at sea and the daunting conditions that threaten survival, often fall on deaf ears. Put off by the external trappings of Anglo-Saxon life, many students close themselves off to engagement and stop short of exploring some of the broader concepts that transcend time or space, such as the impact that exile has on the human condition.
Back in 2015, I came across a story on my USA Today app that caught my attention with the following headline: “More than a decade after release, they all come back.” The multi-chapter story, written by Kevin Johnson, follows the plight of Silvestre Sergovia and the impact that solitary confinement has on him and other prisoners. Since 2015, political attitudes toward this practice has shifted greatly, especially when the Obama administration took a firm stance against its use with juveniles. Awareness has served as a catalyst for positive change. This was obviously an issue that mattered, but how could I integrate this into my instruction in a meaningful and relevant way?
It is at this juncture of pedagogical dilemma and innovative thinking that I could apply the theory and work that Fisch and Chenelle laid out in Connecting Across Disciplines: Collaborating with Informational Text (2016). During a session led by the pair at the NJCTE Fall 2018 conference, they challenged attendees to rethink their approach to the canon and revitalize it for contemporary audiences by linking them to relevant informational texts. The key to this lies in the use of non-fiction, an element that advocates of practical learning as well as the Common Core hold in highest regard (and rightly so!).
After studying “The Seafarer,” “The Wanderer,” and “The Wife’s Lament” from our textbook, I assigned the Johnson article to students along with several straightforward reading comprehension questions. The article lent itself well to this because 1.) it was long enough to challenge their stamina and 2.) was complex enough that they had to do more than just skim. This is increasingly an issue with my students; very few, if any, fully read a text when they can take a shortcut. I attribute this in part to the efficiency of search engines to “cache” information in articles for them or using Ctrl + F (Windows) or ⌘ Command + F (Mac). (Of course, the impact of technology, media, and screen stimuli on attention spans play a role, but that’s a blog post for another day.)
But how could I lead students to make the thematic connection between the two? I posed the following to students for a more extended written reflection:
In the conclusion to the piece, Kevin Johnson writes, “Segovia, meanwhile, believes he has the strength to defeat the demons of isolation and make it to the other side, where he intends to remain this time.”Explain how “the demons of isolation” affect both Segovia and the speakers of the Anglo-Saxon exile poetry. Use textual evidence from the article and the poems to back up your claims.
I needed the comprehension questions to get my students to this point. The class discussion that followed revealed the dilemma that many students felt regarding crime, punishment, the criminal justice system, and the conditions inside US prisons. Several acknowledged that it was not as clear-cut as they once thought it was.
One student response offered a personal anecdote: his uncle spent several years in prison, and his personality had changed profoundly as a result. “He isn’t the same person.” Regrettably, the change was not in the vein of “He realized his issues, worked on them, and came out better.” Instead, his uncle was incredibly distant, struggled to connect to family, and didn’t function very well in his community. As the rest of the class listened to this, I could observe a greater sense of empathy in their responses to this raw (and rare) moment of exposure. Here was their friend, who trusted the group enough to share this intimate story about a person he cared about, who was impacted by this issue, who was impacted by exile, the same feeling explored by the Anglo-Saxon poets many years before.
Lessons such as these are the ones that leave a lasting impact on students when they leave our classrooms.
Based on the success I experienced with Chenelle and Fisch’s approach, I was inspired to integrate another literary work, Les Miserables, to expand upon this theme and social issue. Although the work was French, I felt confident that no one would argue with exposing students to another established canonical work. For the sake of time and student engagement, I used the 1998 film, directed by Billie August, and, on the whole, my classes found the story riveting, emotional, and captivating (just as readers and audiences have for years). But again: how could I integrate informational text and content to engage students and connect them to relevant social issues?
One of the pivotal questions explored in Hugo’s story is whether or not “reform is a discredited fantasy” as Javert claims in the film. Here again, my news media consumption worked to my advantage when a 2017 news article about Shaka Senghor came to mind. Sengor (whose 2017 memoir Writing My Wrongs: Live and Redemption in an American Prison I have since read and recommend) explores prison life and the parole system in a way that parallels Valjean’s experience in Les Miserables. I created comprehension questions for students to answer in response to the news article as well as Sengor’s 2014 TED Talk titled, “Why your worst deeds don’t define you.” The integration of both informational text and video media was especially effective for instruction.
Just as before, the goal was to have students make connections between multiple works. I include a few examples below:
- One similarity between Victor Hugo’s character Jean Valjean and Shaka Senghor is that both experienced a “transformative” moment. Discuss what it was for each of them and what impact it had on them.
- While Valjean was able to redeem himself for his past misdeeds, Fantine was not. Hugo uses this to highlight another social issue: the treatment of women at this time. In what ways was she “held hostage to her past”?
- According to Senghor, in the article, how do laws regarding parole make it challenging for released prisoners to start over? How was this true for Valjean in Les Miserables?
I will continue on this journey to create a more engaging curriculum that connects those in my classroom to contemporary issues while getting exposure to the classics. This, perhaps, is the most practical approach I’ve encountered so far and thank Susan and Audrey for sharing their findings and ideas with others in our profession.