The distinction between historian and poet is not in the one writing prose and the other verse… It consists really in this: that the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history…Aristotle
The Purpose of an Education in Literature
Almost all school teach at least some literature to elementary students. Yet we see that children—and adults—are reading less and less. Why don’t students learn to gain pleasure and value from great books, plays, and poems?
The answer lies in understanding the purpose of learning literature. Most programs don't have a clear conception of the purpose for reading literature, and default to technical or standardized-test-based learning outcomes: learning about symbolism or narrative point of view, or learning the bare rudiments of reading comprehension.
On our view, the goal of all education is to foster in a student the ability to live a full life. A guided journey through great literature affords our students the opportunity to develop some of the deepest foundations of such a life: the capacity for empathy and moral reasoning, deep inspiration, and profound self-understanding. There is little more important for a child—or an adult—than knowing how to be affected by and reflect upon great literature.
In math, we scaffold student learning with carefully designed, concrete learning materials. By interacting with particulars that a child can both literally and cognitively grasp, they come to more easily understand abstract quantitative relationships. With the checkerboard, younger elementary students can see the decimal system at work as they master multiplication. With the binomial cube, they learn to visualize the mechanics of the algebra of binomial expansion.
Literature is the equivalent of math materials for the subject of human beings. A great work of literature offers a concrete experience—colorful characters, charged dilemmas, wrenching decisions, and dramatic consequences—that scaffolds a child's ability to understand themselves and others. In seeing Anne Sullivan struggle to teach Helen Keller language in Gibson's The Miracle Worker, they understand patience, empathy, persistence, how connectedness to others and the world foster dignity and self-governance, and much more.
Literature, approached correctly—taught as a series of enthralling mysteries about human beings—is a learning material that allows them to build their own character and practice moral reasoning. In our elementary programs, students learn to understand how to draw an abstract theme out of the choices and events of a story—and how to relate it to their own lives and development.
The two key outcomes of our literature program are:
The ability to carefully and independently understand a work of literature. Students master the mechanics of reading complex works: such as identifying and learning unfamiliar words, analyzing literary elements, and meta-cognitive skills such as learning to problem-solve one's own reading challenges. They learn how to do all of the above based on evidence from the text, ensuring that they are really reasoning about and learning from the details of the literary work, even difficult ones such as the poetry of Tennyson.
The ability to draw meaning and lessons from a work of literature. In addition to mastering the full stack of reading comprehension skills, our program teaches students to systematically relate the lessons of literature to their own life experience. Students identify the relevance of the characters and events they comprehend, and learn to actively process and evaluate, e.g. the heroism of Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird, or the injustice of prejudice in Babe.
Our Literature Pedagogy
To achieve these outcomes, our elementary programs helps students learn from a specific selection of great literature. Our program uses works of literature that are:
Rich and full-length, including novels, plays, and poetry (no excerpts, summaries, or child versions), chosen to offer accessibility to and also challenge for elementary students;
Thematically profound, both to children and timelessly so, touching on topics such as courage, honesty, and independence;
Exciting, value-driven, and inspiring (even when tragic), and that include strong characters who make choices and act accordingly.
The approach is discussion-based, with students reading chapters independently and coming together for a teacher-guided discussion. The main topics for discussion are related to the outcomes above:
Answering critical, specifically selected questions about the plot, theme, setting, and characterization, such as the motivation of a particular character—and what evidence in the work we can use to answer these questions;
Drawing out personal connections with the novel, such as what resonates with them and why, parallels they see to their lives, and their own evaluations of the characters and events.
Alongside discussion, there are frequent opportunities for writing. Assignments range from short responses that are closely coupled with and foster discussion, to longer works that go through multiple drafts and represent a more enduring and synoptic understanding of the work.
Literature in Our Classrooms
Students cover the equivalent of approximately six novel-length works of literature per year. Each work is covered for four to five weeks.
The units begin with some motivation context about the work to be read, move on to the discussion-based approach outlined above, and conclude with post-reading discussions and culminating activities (integrated into our writing program) that solidify understanding and extend learning.
A sample of Lower Elementary works:
The Bears on Hemlock Mountain, Alice Dalgliesh
The Sword in the Tree, Clyde Robert Bulla
Sarah, Plain and Tall, Patricia MacLachlan
The Courage of Sarah Noble, Alice Dalgliesh
The Cricket in Times Square, George Selden
Trumpet of the Swan, E. B. White
Indian in the Cupboard, Lynne Reid Banks
A sample of Upper Elementary works:
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis
The Golden Goblet, Eloise Jarvis McGraw
Call it Courage, Armstrong Sperry
The Prince and the Pauper, Mark Twain
The Giver, Lois Lowry
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson
Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare
Beowulf: A New Telling, Robert Nye