What I “Do” With Literature

I was asked by a peer recently what I “do” with Hamlet. I was taken aback by the question because I didn’t know how to answer. I thought to myself, what do I do with Hamlet or any other literature for that matter? I know I teach it, I know what I want them to understand from it, and that my students learn from the text, but how do I do it? I read a blog post recently that answers the question much better than I did.

When I read this post, I felt as if Kath Murdoch (@kjinquiry) was describing my class to a “T.” The more I thought about it, I realized that what I “do” is ask questions. It doesn’t matter if the students are in a large or small group, discussing or working independently; I, like my students, am always asking questions. Students are often frustrated with me early in the year because they’re not used to their questions being met with more questions from their teacher.

Sometimes those questions are leading because I want to get them to a specific idea and sometimes I simply play devil’s advocate because I want them to defend their own, unique perspective/analysis. Asking questions changes the teacher/student dynamic away from me being the professor of knowledge and answers, to students digging within to find their own. The beauty is that I can still (when needed) get them to one definite answer if that is what the situation calls for.

For instance, the other day when we were working with Hamlet, I wanted the students to understand the biblical allusion of the serpent manipulating Eve through words, the same way Claudius attacks King Hamlet through the ear which, in turn, is just what the ghost (if you see him as an evil character) does when he manipulates Hamlet with words (through the ear) and thus causing the fall of the kingdom the same way the serpent causes the fall of man. I could have explained it to them outright, but by asking them questions and leading them to the point, they owned the analysis; I didn’t come up with it, they did.

The same is true if I don’t have a specific point to make. I may not even know what to say about a part of a text, but I still ask questions to challenge their opinions and my own for that matter. In this situation, I’m learning right along with them and the atmosphere in the room is even further removed from me being the keeper of knowledge. Students appreciate seeing their teachers think through problems and even struggle with difficult concepts; it makes us human and, therefore, we are learners working along side them, not knowers constantly checking up on their knowledge.

One of the most frequent complaints from my peers about student driven learning is that we know what they don’t and if we don’t teach, they can’t come to it on their own. I think this is a half truth. Yes, we do know more than they do and we have more experience with the knowledge and skills they’re supposed to develop by the time they leave our class, but that doesn’t mean that we have to profess that information to our students. Instead, we can lead them to where they need to be and empower them to feel like they did it on their own. After all, these are teenagers I’m talking about. Teenagers who want to be independent adults. Why not play that independence to our advantage.

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