Caribbean Writers on Teaching Literature
- Published: February 2020
Spanning three generations of teacher-writers, Caribbean Writers on Teaching Literature speaks to the emergence of a distinct body of teaching styles, approaches, methods and philosophy for teaching literature. Each generation enriched by the others has extended the field of literature teaching.
With its collection of eighteen interviews and its insightful theoretical discussions on creative ways of teaching literature, Caribbean Writers on Teaching Literature is an innovative and significant text on the pedagogy of literature. Grounded in the practice of teacher-writers in lecture rooms and classrooms this text has much to offer every teacher of literature. All the interviewees are teachers and writers. They bring to the field of teaching literature the perspective of the literary insider as well as the teacher. Passionate about literature, these teacher-writers highlight literature’s value and necessity for enriching the quality of life in our societies.
The text embodies the experience of teaching literature. Each interviewee recalls what it is like to create interesting and meaningful experiences with literary texts within the larger context and understanding of the purpose of literature. Reflecting on memorable as well as challenging experiences in teaching, these teacher-writers uncover unique pathways for engaging students in the study of literature.
Foreword: Marcia Stewart
Introduction: Lorna Down and Thelma Baker
SECTION 1. THE WIDENING STUDENT-CENTRED VISION: THE FIRST GENERATION OF CARIBBEAN TEACHERS
SECTION 2. PEOPLE, PLACE AND CULTURE: THE SECOND GENERATION OF CARIBBEAN TEACHERS
SECTION 3. MILLENNIALS, THE GLOBAL AND NEW TECHNOLOGY: THE THIRD GENERATION OF CARIBBEAN TEACHERS
Kelly Baker Josephs
LORNA DOWN AND THELMA BAKER
The sheer pleasure of reading a good book is unforgettable. To pass on this love for books, of magical and mystical experience with a literature text, is the often unspoken and undocumented vision of the teacher of literature. Yet creating that magic in the classroom has often been simply fortuitous. Reflecting on successful and unsuccessful lessons of literature – those we have taught, those we have participated in and those we have observed – we yearned to distil such times into a text that we could share.
That search initiated the journey to Caribbean Writers on Teaching Literature. We increased our informal conversations on teaching literature, and we began our research in the field with observing student teachers and talking with experienced teachers of literature. We listened. Some of these stories were humorous and wise. Others simply reflected a need to know more about the craft of teaching literature and ways teachers pass on their love of literature. We also began to journal our own experiences. We researched books on teaching literature and found many helpful ones – from those detailing activities to those discussing approaches in a more formal way. In fact, we found such books on teaching methods for literature few in comparison to the tomes on literature criticism and theory. These few books also included those with specific material on selected texts or writers – here the emphasis was on theme, style, structure, language. What eluded us were books on how a teacher could foster the somewhat mystical connection between books and readers.
We wanted a “living text”, one which would emerge from the field itself, from teachers who were engaged in the teaching of literature. Gradually what developed was the idea of teachers talking with each other, sharing their literature experiences, in a text. So we invited experienced teachers and writers to share with us their stories about teaching literature. There are eighteen interviews (not all those we asked to be interviewed accepted, and some we wanted but could not ask, because we wanted a regional reach and not one island dominating). Our teacher interviewees are drawn from around the English-speaking Caribbean and among the Caribbean dias- pora. All of them are published writers (of literary or non-literary texts, or both). We feel that working from both sides – reading as well as writing – these interviewees bring to the discussion a certain richness. Some of the interviewees had taught us; we had collaborated with others on various projects. Together they, like us, belong to an academic circle of literature teachers who love reading, listening to and writing literature.
Initially we planned to invite each teacher to use the transcribed interview as a basis for their narrative on teaching literature. This changed mainly as a result of four factors. One was the response to this idea by one of our interviewees, Kelly Baker Josephs, who asked, “Why not keep the interview format?” Second was the unsolicited response of the person transcribing the interviews, Sonia Roberts. An English major, she would comment on how interesting the interviews were and how she found hearing what some of her past teachers felt fascinating and, in some cases, entertaining. Third was the publication of Hyacinth Evans’s text of interviews of six educators, loudly signalling that a book of interviews could work. One interviewer also spoke to how the oral tradition of the Caribbean and social media generally have created a public that desires “orality” even in written narratives.
In addition to these, we “discovered” Judy Kravis’s text Teaching Literature; it was a validation of our project, a book on teaching literature. It showed the possibilities for a book on this subject that allowed a great deal of space on literature-teaching methodologies, with little or no interrup- tions with exposition and discussion on literary theories and books. The field and lecture halls were already filled with those. Instead, we wanted teachers to hear from master teachers, colleagues and friends on how and why to teach literature, and to join in the conversation. It was a conversation that we had already been engaging in for many years over coffee. Moreover, we had been encouraging our pre-and in-service teachers to practise being reflective practitioners.
We say that Kravis’s text was an ironic validation; it affirmed for us the need and place for narratives about the teaching of literature, the pedagogy of literature. The format of “narratives” she had used mirrored, somewhat, the format that we have chosen – interviews, conversations. It was good to see that another literature teacher and enthusiast had also recognized the value of hearing directly the voices of those with expertise. Yet despite the similarities, we felt that our book would also produce a new experience, a sharpening of sensations, new delights and new insights into teaching literature. Caribbean literary pieces – poetry, prose and drama – are acknowledged widely and have contributed much to world literature. Similarly, our works of criticism, of theory have extended the field in significant ways. Yet what has been missing is the voice of the practitioner, the teacher of litera- ture. There are a number of books on teaching literature, but the Caribbean perspective on teaching approaches and methods has been to a great extent limited. This book aims to fill that gap, to present the voices of Caribbean teachers and lecturers as they speak to their art.
These interviews are the primary text. They are organized in three sec- tions: three movements, three generations of Caribbean teachers and writ- ers talking literature. Our introductory comments, instead of a theoretical discussion, serve like the lighting in a play, to illuminate and highlight spe- cific aspects. The book then becomes a site for readers to listen to the voices of fellow teachers of literature in an unmediated way or with little academic commentary; here, then, we re-create the rich conversations which we have had on teaching literature and which have honed our own teaching.
Using a set of basic questions in regard to methodology, style, philosophy, teacher-readiness and preparation, and vision, we explore what makes for effective teaching of literature. An array of voices offers us diverse per- spectives, together proclaiming that teaching literature is an art. Teaching literature, then, is more than possessing a list of activities, using a set of strategies. By a stroke of good fortune, we have been allowed to participate in the creation of this art through these shared experiences as well as our own.
Edward Baugh in his interview speaks of wanting his students to come to literature the “true way”. Baugh is not making any narrow, prescriptive, Cleanth Brooks et al., New Criticism kind of declaration. “True way” is used in a nuanced and open sense – one which suggests space for the learner to complete the meaning, to make sense of the texts being studied. Using Baugh’s comment metonymically, we invite the readers to read this text in the “true way”, recognizing that they bring to it their own perspectives, knowledge, expertise and experience, and that by adding these to the conversations, they will engage in completing the narratives in these interviews. We might even speak of such a reading as constructivist. These interviews provide for what Sumara (2002) calls “literary anthropology”; here the willing reader can find truth and insights and gather ideas which have emerged from the lived experiences of teachers in classrooms and lecture rooms. Like a Mervyn Morris poem, these interviews are tightly condensed bearers of multiple truths. They reflect at core Kravis’s declaration of a love of literature: “[we] have some long love of words, even dependency on words read, written”, she declared (Kravis 1995, 1) in the introduction to her intriguing book of narratives on teaching literature.
In recent times, the field of literature pedagogy has seen the publication of a number of important books, such as Beach and Myers (2001), Beach et al. (2006); Bowell and Heap (2001); Bryan and Styles (2014); Collie and Slater (1990); Kravis (1994); Milner and Milner (2008); Showalter (2003), and Sumara (2002). They all respond to the need for a variety of teaching approaches and methodologies that will engage students in the reading and appreciation of literature, that will help students develop a love for literature. These books raise issues such as the place of literary theory and critical material in teaching literature; they reflect on the displacement of the primary texts by literary theories and its impact on students’ reading of fiction, poetry and drama. Judy Kravis (1995, 5), in fact, suggests that the various “isms” – formalism, structuralism, and deconstruction (which she sardonically notes “doesn’t need an ism”) – refl ct “the dilemma of the critic in the tower, the theorist in orbit”, one for whom literary theory has been set “on the kitchen table next to the salt”. The consequence she implies is that of students being so encumbered by the secondary texts of criticism and theories that they lose sight of the primary texts. She also suggests that when our libraries are filled with secondary texts, and primary texts are absent, we send a message about the importance and value of the latter texts.
The issue is this: How can we teach literature so that students are encouraged to read and appreciate fiction and poetry? Grace Paley (1995), too, broached this question, asking if the right types of questions for literature texts were being raised. She reflected on the narrowly focused questions that were asked about the stories she had written and suggested that the questions needed to evoke students’ “personal” response to the text. They should be as sufficiently broad as “Do you like this story?” and “What do you think it’s about?” Otherwise, the teaching of literature can become a tedious exercise. All of this despite Rosenblatt (1996) and her work on reader response.
How to engage students has thus led to an emphasis on literature providing meaning, helping us to interpret the world, create our identities and locate ourselves in the world. Sumara (2002) speaks to the success that he has had with his creation of a teaching approach which he terms “literary anthropology”. Here learners explore literature through creating a “commonplace” of literature texts, other materials (for example, newspaper articles), and artefacts, as well as their [the learners’] comments. The text is literally “embossed” with the learners’ comments and their artefacts. Read and re-read, it acquires layers of comments over time and becomes a com- monplace book for the learner, who in rereading these comes to understand more clearly themselves and their world. Sumara asserts that literature texts can be sites for developing insights and creating identities. Develop- ing insights emerges from the hard work of interpreting one’s relations with people as well as one’s relations with objects, which people have made. Such “objects” include narratives that describe and explain experiences. Sumara’s approach is based on reader-response theories and on the idea that texts do not simply reflect experience but constitute in and of them- selves an experience. This interesting interpretive practice of teaching literature is one we, the editors, have also tried with varying levels of success. What is clear is that as students engage with such a practice, they become more conscious of why reading matters and, equally important, how to read analytically and creatively.
Another approach to teaching literature that highlights its value as a tool for meaning making is an inquiry-based teaching technique. Beach and Myers (2001) propose that students are encouraged to reflect on their participation in their world through examining representation of social worlds in literature texts. Here the conventional practice of using literature to teach language is flipped, as learners’ critiquing of their world becomes the entry point for the study and appreciation of literature.
The approaches so far illustrate an underlying key education principle – that of student-centredness, or participatory learning. It’s a theory of learning that Beach et al. (2006), in Teaching Literature to Adolescents, tell us is derived from the progressive movement in education in the 1920s that challenged the teacher-centred model. They, however, limit its meaning, interpreting it as a theory that leaves the responsibility for learning up to the student. In effect, it is student-focused learning that aims to encourage students’ participation, to encourage students’ discovering knowledge and constructing meaning. In that situation, teachers act as facilitators, as they treat the learner like an active maker of meaning and one who possesses knowledge (that they may sometimes be ignorant of having).
The student-centred approach is even more emphasized today, as nations around the world attempt to meet the United Nations General Assembly’s 2015 Sustainable Development Goals for the year 2030. Education is rec- ognized as an important driver in this movement. The relatively recent development of Education for Sustainable Development (the United Nations devoted a decade to it, 2005–2015, and has since continued its development in the Global Action Programme) emphasizes a student-centred pedagogy as well. It is based on the principle that learners learn through doing, that the active participation of the learner is necessary for effective learning. Moreso, the learner is treated as being actively involved in the making of a society (Down 2011). The teacher of literature needs also to attend to this principle in order to create effective literature lessons.
It is important to note as well that the text often determines the approach. Editors Bryan and Styles explore this idea in their recent publication Teaching Caribbean Poetry. The writers discuss this in relation to experiential triggers and connectives which aim to link the poem with the experience of reader. They also explore communicative and language awareness strategies, informed by reader-response theories. (See Bryan, Down, Hudson and Spenser, in Bryan and Styles 2014, 107–15.)
In the teaching and learning situation, however, the learner is only one element. Equally important is the teacher. Conventionally, education at the tertiary level has taken place mainly through lectures. Sometimes these have been balanced by small-group tutorials, which allow for greater student participation. The lecture mode encourages a teacher-centredness. Showalter’s (2003) text on teaching literature addresses this issue by focusing on the teacher. Incorporating different teachers’ voices in her text, she discusses their feelings in that role, the role of the “sage on the stage”, and uncovers their unease and sometimes “triumph” there. She speaks to the deliberate strategies of involving students in that mode. Most notable is her identification of seven teacher anxieties – a useful guide for teachers’ self- reflection and transformation.
Clearly, ongoing research is needed in “best practices” in the teaching of literature. The changing landscape and contexts of learners, teachers and books demand this. The new generation of Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram – the techie generation, whose preference is for instant, sound- bite morsels of text – calls for new approaches. In this situation, many of us who teach literature, who are “tech migrants”, are all in some ways like Morris’s “crippled schoolmaster”. Yet there is an art to teaching literature that transcends periods. The study of varying literature pedagogies will enable us to refine and enhance our practice of teaching literature in order to develop lovers of literature.
Caribbean Writers on Teaching Literature offers a platform for a rich dia- logue on how to teach literature to diverse student populations, to different generations. Each interviewee opens up an aspect of teaching literature. All of them are writers and literary critics, and a number are celebrated poets. They are involved in the production of literature as well as its teaching. Edward Baugh, Mark McWatt, Mervyn Morris, Velma Pollard and David Williams are poets who teach and write about literature. Complementing the poets are Thelma Baker, Victor Chang, Carolyn Cooper, Lorna Down, Norval Edwards, Brian Heap, Kelly Baker Josephs, Sharon Phillips, Sandra Robinson, Aisha Spencer, Samuel Soyer, Maureen Warner-Lewis and Ann- Marie Williams, who have written articles or texts on literature and also teach. Passionate about literature, they highlight its value and necessity for enriching the quality of life in our societies. Our interviewees have been drawn largely from the tertiary level, though all of them have also had ex- perience teaching at the secondary level.
This collection of interviews embodies the experience of teaching litera- ture. The collection re-enacts the creation of the literary experience in the lecture room and in the classroom, as each interviewee recalls what it is like to prepare for the literature lecture, to create interesting and meaningful experiences with literary texts and figures, and all within the larger context and understanding of the purpose and value of literature regionally and globally. These individuals also reflect on memorable as well as challenging experiences in teaching, as they strive to engage their students.
What has clearly emerged from this collection of voices, each distinctive, is a pedagogy of connectivity. Each generation of teachers has contributed uniquely to this teaching approach. Thus the collection is organized into three sections – three generations of teachers forging a new idiom for an approach that emphasizes connections between the text, the context and the students, so that a community of readers may evolve. It is a community sensitive to place, and to self and others. Caribbean Writers on Teaching Literature is intended to preserve a rich cultural heritage of a pedagogy of literature that is ultimately about students connecting to self, others and their world. Each of the three sections features an introduction discussing this pedagogical approach.
We invite readers to enter this unique circle of storytellers, to listen to the different voices, to bring their own story to the circle, and then see how together we can rekindle in our students a deep love of literature. Let us allow the best of this art form to inspire us.