The Importance of Teaching Past the Plot
By Ryan Chapman, English Teacher from San Diego, California
Each year, students enter my classroom expecting to go through the motions — read a story or poem, answer some questions (which most likely can be found online), maybe hold a short discussion, and write a response to a given prompt.
They have become adept at checking the proverbial boxes and telling me what they think I want to hear. And, honestly, I don’t blame them. Why would the students do anything else?
They’ve figured out the formula for success in a system too often focused on the surface level. They’ve cracked the code of a system that has failed to connect meaning and purpose. Granted, some students don’t mind this repetitive cycle, as it provides a form of comfort through routine. But, more often than not, I’ve found students desire more from their academic experience…even if they haven’t realized it, yet.
How Do We Help Students Draw Their Own Meaning from Texts?
One of my roles, as their English teacher, is to help students understand that literature is a collaboration between the reader, the text, and the author in order to create meaning. They have an important part to play within my class, and it’s not to regurgitate information or basic plot points. Their job is to recognize that literature is not simply a story. They must come to acknowledge that the plot and characters are tools, serving as a bridge to a deeper level of conceptual and personal understanding.
Over the years, my classroom became more student-led, allowing for exploration and discussion to fill the space where most often my voice used to be heard.
When I first started teaching over fifteen years ago, I shared the depth or complexity I wanted my students to see in a piece of literature, helping them to understand my interpretation. And, of course, my quizzes and essay prompts would mirror those same focal points. Students became very good at parroting the depth of understanding that I wanted to hear. I would be happy with their responses, convinced that together we were making great literary strides. I do believe that those students, early in my career, came away with an appreciation of literature and a deeper understanding of certain literary pieces, but I fear that I stunted their growth and love of literature by not offering them the space to explore the text for themselves.
A Step in a New Direction
Thankfully, I continue to grow as an educator, and my current students are benefitting from my own shift in pedagogical understanding:
- Now, instead of students filling out a worksheet or taking notes, we collaborate and discuss literature together.
- We brainstorm on whiteboards and create mind maps with Post-It notes.
- We understand that true analysis begins with questioning.
- We welcome both confusion and clarity.
Essentially, we allow the English classroom to be a place full of thought, connection, and exploration.
My role within the classroom has shifted from lecturing at the front of class, to standing alongside my students as we discover the multiple layers of our own humanity through literary texts.
My New Approach in Action
Last semester, I decided to take this idea a step further as I prepared my AP English Literature final exam. Typically, in the past, I assigned a full-length AP exam, allowing the students an opportunity to practice and show their ability regarding the skills which we had worked so hard to develop throughout the first five months of the school year. While the exam practice was beneficial, I often felt as if I was missing an opportunity. An opportunity to refocus on what really matters.
By assigning the practice exam, while good intentioned, I placed more emphasis on one test (the end result) than on the true value of a literature class. I did not provide the freedom for students to reflect on literature’s role in the examination of their own humanity. So, this last semester I used the following prompt as their final exam:
By using examples from literature, compose an essay regarding the concept of “Humanity.” In order to find your focal point, I encourage you to explore the many layers of what makes us human and how we come to understand our own humanity. Remember, as Salman Rushdie once said, literature allows us to explore the highest and lowest places in human society and in the human spirit.
I allowed them a week of class time to complete the task, making sure to support and guide when they had questions or needed clarification. At first, students were hesitant and stared at blank screens, not knowing where to begin. Many wanted the prompt to be more specific, for me to give them options or to narrow the parameters. But, by the end, once they had struggled through the uncertainty and found their voice, I was amazed at their depth of thought and understanding.
The topics ranged from the consideration of what lies beneath our apparent humanistic virtue to humanity’s inability to find contentment. As I was reading and grading their essays, I knew that I had made the right decision to adjust my assessment. One student even left me a message at the end of his essay, saying that he enjoyed writing the essay and that “[he] never would have thought [he] would be writing an essay in English class that would be replicating what [he] ACTUALLY believes and thinks about a certain topic.”
Hopefully, as I reflect and grow as an educator, I will find more ways to allow students the opportunity to move past the plot and truly explore the intricacies of literature.
Ryan Chapman is an English teacher at Santa Fe Christian Schools in California. His passion is for students to understand the complexity and beauty of literature. Ryan’s educational articles can be found on websites such as Edutopia, NCTE, APLitHelp, and McGraw-Hill.
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