Sunday, June 21, 2020

Literature ‘STILL’ Has the Power to Teach, Enrich and Transform


I presented a paper at the 8th International Conference on the Book at the University of St Gallen, in St Gallen Switzerland in November 2010. It was a memorable conference and not just for the venue. Ten years on, I feel like the message I presented then needs to be communicated again, for I fear that we are all losing sight of the truth that my title suggests.


I’ve also been motivated to return to this key truth by the recent death of a wonderful colleague Margaret Meek. I learnt so much from Margaret (as did many others) about story and its power to influence, enrich and even change lives. I intend to share some of my thoughts shared at that conference in three or four posts on ‘story’. One of Margaret’s great messages was to remind us with wonderful examples from literature, of the way lives are changed by story. Many of her ideas can be found in a tiny book called ‘How texts teach what readers learn’.


Lesson 1 - Literature Teaches


In the first post, I will consider how literature can teach, for stories teach us many things, and these can be intangible and unexpected. At one level, stories teach us about language and words; to understand their meanings and to use them. They can also teach things which are abstract and on the ‘edges’ of understanding. Let me share a simple personal anecdote that illustrates some of what I am arguing. I think it’s an anecdote that answers one of the questions that Margaret Meek (1988) thoughtfully poses in her book. Her question is “how do children learn to distinguish the hero from the villain?” I was given the answer to this question one day, while reading with Jacob my eldest grandson, who was just 19 months old at the time. He was to partially learn this lesson during a shared reading of the simple predictable picture book by Brenda Parkes titled ‘Who’s in the Shed?


The story is situated on a farm. A truck arrives in the night and is held in a large crate. The story begins:


Down at the farm

One Saturday night,

The animals woke

With a terrible fright.


There was howling

And growling

And roaring

And clawing

as something was led

from a truck

to the shed.


“Who’s in the shed?”

everyone said.

“Who’s in the shed?”


Page by page different farm animals take turns to peer through a hole in their shed trying to work out what had been put in the shed? The climax of the story comes when the pig finally looks just as a giant circus bear roars “HOW DARE YOU STARE!"

When I tried to read this to Jacob (aged just 19 months) the repeated readings had an unusual impact. In the first two readings I wasn’t able to sustain his interest long enough to reach the end of the story. But by the third reading a few days later, I reached the climax of the story, and growled in a loud voice as the terrifying bear was revealed in full with large teeth and claws. Jacob jumped slightly and said “again”, meaning of course he wanted it read again.


On the next reading when the final page was reached and I roared the words of the bear, he jumped and ran to the door of my study, peering back at the book. He didn’t want to hear it again that day.


On subsequent visits for a few weeks he would enter my study where my books were kept, and move tentatively towards the book left on a coffee table. He would open several pages then retreat to a safe distance just outside the door of my study and make a growling noise.


Jacob learned many things from the reading of this simple book. Of course, learning is cumulative, so he didn’t completely learn these things in the one reading. However, the reading of this book was what my colleague Jerome Harste calls a ‘critical incident’. And as part of this critical incident he experienced, and to some extent learnt, some new things from the encounter. So what were they?


    * Not all bears are cute and cuddly like his Pooh Bear that he carried everywhere

    * Books have the power to shift the emotions

    * Authors often reveal the most important bit or secret at the end

    * In the normal events of life things can happen that will scare us

    * Authors structure and layer their meanings to tell their story

    * Words and pictures have a relationship in books


In this simple example, we see illustrated the partial answer to Margaret Meek’s question in her title. 'How do readers learn from texts'1 , in fact how does a text read or heard, have the power to teach? Books and stories offer children experiences that are transformative in many ways. In this case, it provided Jacob with an opportunity to explore the at times troubling territory of fantasy and reality, truth and fiction. He might never have such a scary real life encounter, but through this book he was taught a little more about his world aged 19 months.


In the world of literature, as he grew up he would encounter new fears but also wonderful lessons concerning justice, love, life, death, human diversity, hope and despair.


In my next post, Lesson 2 is on how ‘Literature enriches’


Reference: I wrote a book some years ago titled ‘Otherworlds: The endless possibilities of literature’ (1990). The title pointed to one of the key concerns of the book, literature opens up worlds not always available to be experienced firsthand by children.

Other posts I've written on Children's literature HERE

1. Margaret Meek develops this thesis at length in her small monograph How texts teach what readers learn. South Woodchester (UK): The Thimble Press, 1988.