Great literature: it teaches for us

Tharbyteachinggreatbooks1Image: @jasonramasami

“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”

― F. Scott Fitzgerald

A clear episode within the blur of my training year remains with me. It made me feel uncomfortable and made me question whether teaching would really be the right career for me. At a training event on behaviour management our frizzy-haired educational consultant posed a question:

“What do you say when someone asks you, ‘What do you teach’?”

Awkward silence.

(In my head I rehearsed my response in case he chose me. The answer seemed blindingly obvious: I teach English. What else could it be?)

“The answer is always the same,” he explained after a grandiose pause. “Children.”

I squirmed in my seat. You see, to be brutally honest, I chose a career in English teaching not out of any great love of children, but out of a love of literature. This was not the decision of a misanthropist or child-hater; I just believed – and still do – that reading and studying books would be the most interesting way I could spend my time and that talking about books all day was an unmissable opportunity.

The notion that teaching should inspire engagement in students is controversial – and rightly so. Not everything that needs to be learnt is intrinsically engaging; and, let’s face it, many of the best methods for learning, such as sustained effort and repeated practice, are not the most seductive. Engagement, of course, should never be for its own sake – we are educators, not circus entertainers or happiness therapists. Nevertheless, as well as wanting my students to learn, I want my students to be engaged by, and engaged in, literature.

And that remains my raison d’être to this day.

Over the years, my philosophy has become simple. The pedagogical methods I adopt, the activities I plan, my personality, the lives and interests of my students, the weather, the time of day – and any other factors that might be considered of importance – play a subservient role. The throbbing heart of the lesson, the black hole drawing us ineluctably inwards, is the book itself.

How could books not engage? Literature is about everything: philosophy, history, science, relationships, the mysterious tensions at the heart of being. Books swamp us with interesting facts – ‘What’s a ‘clod’, Sir?’ – yet they also examine eternal truths – ‘So what, therefore, have we learnt about the dangers of untrammelled ambition?

Literature reflects life back at us, and through it we see ourselves anew. Sometimes I pinch myself at just how lucky we are: even now, flogged as we are by endless data sheets and accountability measures, trembling as we are under the watchful glare of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate, the space to enjoy and explore books remains sacrosanct. It is something to be truly thankful for.

So, how do we make literature engaging? I rarely bother with pre-reading tasks. Instead, I quickly introduce the context and the key themes/ideas to look out for and then we dive in. At first it can be slow and awkward.  The opening pages of a new text tend to be expository –  a new book brings forth a stiff, arthritic awakening. But the joints always loosen over time.

I’ve found that the best way of engaging a student is to ensure that they understand the book. At first, at the factual, obvious level – the who?, what?, where?, why? and when? If this is overlooked, then the rest can easily fall apart. Then, gradually, the understanding becomes more nuanced – characters can be delineated, motives explored, contextual interpretations introduced, fine details closely inspected … Engagement and interest seem to me to be a result of this slowly deepening understanding. The ripple, eventually, becomes a wave.

Tougher texts – Shakespeare and some poetry – require more explication through pre-reading tasks. It can be advisable to teach some key vocabulary in advance, share clues and hints, or employ a related stimulus to give the students something to grip on to, something to set the ball rolling.

So what about relevance, that other thorny issue? Should we pick books that are relevant to our students’ lives, that replicate in text the worlds they inhabit? I say no, let’s not worry too much about that. If the text – modern or traditional – has enough depth its relevance will lie in its universality.

To those who suggest that engagement and relevance are not necessary, I think you might be underselling your subject. In my experience, if you make the book the centre of the classroom, and help your students to understand, the other two will soon follow suit.

The beautiful complexity of the world lies within the best texts. We must trust great literature to do much of the teaching and engaging for us. We are merely the gatekeepers.


These days, incidentally, I think both our answers during that behaviour session a decade ago were wrong. ‘Teaching English to children’ is now my answer.