It is very difficult to teach an English course amidst TV, video games, and other inducements to passivity which entice our students away from communication and thought. Equally distressing is the realization that many of “our children” fail to appreciate the basic freedom that literature offers. How liberating it is to be able to choose a plot, a mood, a genre; and readers are able to choose not only what they will consider, but when they will do so and how. Unfortunately many of our students feel that they have few choices in life; I have seen far too many depressed teen-agers of late. “What’s the use?!” haunts teachers in subtle and not so subtle refrains. We are not psychiatrists or social workers, and therefore cannot “treat” our students; we
, however, teachers, and should recognize the psycho-sociological trends of our time and place. When young people simply “give up” or fail to see choices which are available to them, they have ceased to be “students”. The acceptance of responsibility or “free will” is prerequisite to learning. It seems to me that the discovery of “freedom in reading” leads to individualism and growth potential. We must promote reading and the notion that reading fosters individualism, for if
fail or “give up”, (the futures of many individuals and/or) the future of the “student” is in jeopardy.
In an attempt to capture student imagination, I have often taught “high interest” short stories in, I must admit, a rather haphazard manner. Many students reacted positively to these stories at the time, and without a doubt learned of conflict, character, the surprise ending, etc. Yet, particularly after the last school year, I couldn’t help but admit that the stories I had taught were long forgotten; I had taken the expedient road with the use of high interest material, and my students had not learned what is really important to learn about literature after all.
I want my students to realize that literature is exciting in its more “honest” portrayal of life. It is not, at its best, shallow, phony, or tranquilizing. It demands participation. It is truly a “slice of life” which allows the reader some personal rewards. The question incessantly emerges: how do we get our students to participate long enough to “buy” all of the above? If students have forgotten all of the “high interest stuff” by the end of the school year, we, and they, have lost in a big way.
This unit proposes a thematic approach to the short story may provide students with a focal point which will ultimately enable them to see literature as something connected with their own lives. If they see this connection, and, as expected, concede that their own lives are worth thinking about, a major victory will have been won. Of course, the issues to be considered must be of particular interest to my students. I have chosen two broad, though I believe, viable themes—issues of the family, and issues of identity. I believe these themes will be quickly accepted by my students, for they are the very themes they write of when encouraged to contribute original (creative) writings to the school literary magazine. Such writing is student-generated, for the most part. Students are not, in most cases, given guidelines or topics about which to write. Thus one can assume that the issues of “family” and “identity” are important to students, and are issues that they feel comfortable in approaching.
This teacher, too, is comfortable and excited about both themes. And perhaps this is an important realization and admission. I, for one, tend to teach more successfully when I am excited about the material I am covering. Most of us will admit that we choose materials and lesson plans with one word in mind. The word is “boring”.
We soon learn that “boring” has many meanings (“confused”, “lazy”, “scared”, etc.) but we nonetheless try our best to avoid hearing that word; and this is good. Yet, we must guard against using high interest material solely for its own sake. And we should remember that it is very important that we are not bored. It is when we are stimulated and continue to learn with our students that “miracles” happen.
I hope that the themes of the “family” and “identity” will cause students to reflect and want to read more. Hopefully they will experience personal rewards from reading about these themes. Maybe, as a result of this thematic approach, students will remember the stories read, and the experience of thinking about their own lives.
Of course, students need to learn how to read a short story. The elements of the short story: conflict, setting, tone, plot, etc. cannot be ignored. However, given the focus of this unit, I believe that these elements will be best taught within the context of particular stories.
“The Short Story: A Slice of Life” is presented in three parts. The first two provide materials and ideas for “issues of the family” and “issues of identity”. General ideas for introducing each theme are included at the outset of each section along with the titles of the stories to be taught. Teachers are then provided with a brief plot summary of each story, as well as critical material which stress particular elements of the short story. (These are elements which need to be addressed in order to insure student understanding of each story.)
Part Three features specific ideas for lesson plans. This section of the unit is itself composed of three subparts. Students will initially be exposed to each story through a tape-recording. That is, they will be “read to” and will follow along in their texts. This will provide the much needed bridge between passivity and activity. Lesson plans provided at this point will be concerned with a first level (plot) understanding of each story. The second sub-section will provide specific ideas for dealing with the elements of the short story, and students will be required to read each story a second time. With the third sub-section students will be encouraged to generate activity. They will engage in short story writing, for I am a great believer in “imitation in learning”, and feel that one cannot truly understand the complexity and beauty of any art form without some “hands on” experience. More importantly, such an experience will enable students to react to themes personally and honestly. If students are able to do this, the reading experience will not be forgotten. it will be remembered, respected, and possibly revered.