Fiction vs. Fact

6 Mar

In a post a few weeks ago I argued that the trend of pushing more non-fiction in English/Language Arts classes was flawed; the teaching of literature has real and important benefits, including the teaching of empathy, the ability for students to test out new and scary concepts, and improving people skills, which might really be lost in a majority-non-fiction curriculum.

But now I’ll argue the other side.

Not everyone loves literature. Not everyone loves to study fiction, memoir, and poetry. Not everyone loves to write analytical essays about the metaphorical nature of trains in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or argue whether or not The Catcher in the Rye is a bildungsroman or not. I admit that I do love those things, but I fully understand that I am in the minority there.

Which is why I am just about giddy that I have been assigned to teach the IB’s new Language and Literature course next fall to juniors in their first year of the IB program. The course is two years long, divided into four semesters: two semesters of literature and two of “language.” And by language, the IB does not mean grammar. The two language semesters are split into one semester of language study and one of media. The IB suggests teachers may ask students to consider concepts such as the relationship between language and gender, language and class, and language and power. They might read political speeches or study propaganda — its methods and effects.

I can’t wait. While I do love teaching the IB Literature course this year to a small, dedicated group of motivated readers, I’m already amassing material for the fall, when I will start with the “Language” semester. I’ve been brainstorming some ideas, like:

1. Have them look at an “easy” poem like Lewis Carroll’s “The Jabberwocky” and deconstruct it as an introduction to how to write commentaries (a specific kind of essay on the IB English exam). One of the things they notice straight away is that more than 50% of the poem’s diction is made up. We examine how Carroll still follows the rules of English grammar, but with nonsense words. We look up several of the words in the dictionary, such as “chortle,” which Carroll coined from this very poem, to see how to explore etymology and study how words are introduced into the language. Students then write their own poems, using at least 50% made-up diction.

2. I have ordered a class set of Bill Bryson’s wonderful, funny read Mother Tongue, which explores the history of the English language in a way that’s actually fascinating. There is a whole chapter on swears and how they came to be taboo. We’d read this chapter and discuss how and why words become taboo, how that relates to culture, etc. For example, many of the worst curse words in English are related to the body; in Spanish and Italian they are related to the church; in Cantonese they are related to family. We’d then read an article by an African-American scholar on the “n-word” and whether it’s acceptable for black rappers and performers to use this word or not (and perhaps delve into the debate about whether it’s OK for white rappers and performers to do the same). To follow-up, we’d watch a video with Oprah Winfrey interviewing rapper and business mogul Jay-Z about this very topic, in which Oprah strongly disagrees with Jay-Z’s opinion that it’s OK to use the n-word, opening up the discussion about the power (negative and positive) that language and its history has. We’d discuss, read, and write about the language we are expected or allowed to use in one setting versus another and read Amy Tan’s funny, poignant essay “Mother Tongue” on this very topic. Students could write their own essays about the language they use with friends vs. the one they use with, say, grandparents.

3. This idea came to me when the word “pimp” came up in my grade 9 class; students used it to describe Holden’s roommate in The Catcher in the Rye, Stradlater. I was a little shocked that they were calling him a pimp, and I asked what they meant. “You know,” they all said, boys and girls alike, “a handsome guy. A ladies’ man.” I asked if they knew what a pimp originally meant, and only one or two in each class of twenty did. This bowled me over, and I thought it offered an interesting language lesson in how words gain and lose their meaning and what new meanings imply — in this case about gender and power. Since kids engage so well with learning related to the music they love, I’d ask students to bring in rap, rock, and pop songs’ lyrics in which the word “pimp” appears. We’d examine the lyrics in detail and whether the word has positive or negative connotations. I’d then ask them to read this article and this one by Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times about the realities of teenage prostitution and the role that pimps play in enslaving young women into that world; we’d examine whether the term has positive or negative connotations in these articles. I’d try to find some good documentary footage of brothel raids, especially here in Southeast Asia where we live, since human trafficking and prostitution is a big problem in our part of the world. The purpose is to continue our understanding and discussion about how a word’s history and original meaning can be twisted and sanitized, whether that is a good or bad thing, and what we should do about it — if anything.

4. This is something I’ve long wanted to do but never found the time or venue, since most schools where I’ve worked have a clear curriculum (read: content march) we need to get through. But I’d use the very broad, general IB guidelines on language to justify delving into a study of a spectrum of writing styles and their effectiveness. We’d look at tweets and what qualities of tweets make them successful or retweetable. Who has the most followers vs. who has the best tweets? We’d look at Facebook status updates and try to examine what kind of updates get the most “likes” and why — is it related to writing style, subject matter, or something else? We’d examine what kind of register and style are used to write an effective tweet, vs. an effective blog, vs. an effective college essay, vs. an effective cover letter, vs. and effective email trying to get something you want from someone you don’t know. Any in-depth examination of the different writing samples gets students thinking about register, style, and audience — all things we want them to keep in mind in their writing, but we rarely give them a reason why. I’d ask students to write all of these different kinds of writing formats themselves — perhaps even one of each that they deem “effective” and a justification for why, and one of each that is “ineffective” and why. I love the idea of reading through a series of “effective” and “ineffective” status updates.

These are just my very incipient brainstorms, but — as you can see — I’m really excited to have the freedom and the time to ask students to read a huge variety of text, examining language, content, and purpose in new and highly engaging ways. And the reason I have the time and framework within which to do this is because the IB has decided that not all students need four straight semesters of literature study. And I agree.

But literature lovers, do not fear: I’m also plotting how to mix in poetry, short fiction, and short drama texts into these lessons on language and media as well. I do still think the study of literature is valid and even necessary, and am glad the whole IB Language and Lit course is 50% literature. But I’m thrilled the IB is giving us all the green light to open up the parameters in ELA. We should think much more broadly about the study of English — it shouldn’t be all Shakespeare and Shelley and comma rules. We need some current, engaging, pop-culture-y, technological lenses for ELA as well.

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