April 9, 2018
An extended MPA Now interview with founding faculty member, Anne Devout Atchison.
Why is teaching character through literature so effective?
Because good literature touches our souls. Yes, reading makes us better, but it also makes us human. Take fiction, for example. Good novels give us examples of what we should and shouldn’t choose, what we should and shouldn’t want, and who we should and shouldn’t be. We’re in a safe space to test our own morality, wonder about our own grit, and practice our own choice-making as stories unfold and we discover what characters are truly made of. In a novel, no one is actually betrayed, no one is literally defeated. It’s just make-believe, right? Let’s face it, most of our life is ordinary. But when we read fiction, we have the opportunity to practice discernment and discrimination and exercise our decision-making muscles, so we are ready when our ordinary life gets disrupted by the extraordinary. And in those moments and in those circumstances, it’s like we’ve already been there. We’re not as surprised and we’re not as afraid because we’re not rookies at these emotions anymore. Now it’s our turn to see what we’re made of.
Since good fiction presents us with opportunities to show how characters defeat those worst-case scenarios, maybe, just maybe, there is hope for us as we boldly approach our own life challenges. Just like sports practices condense and isolate game skills to prepare us to face the expected and unexpected, so does a good story. When we meet obstacles, we’ve been there: we’ve pre-visited, we’ve practiced, and we’re better equipped when adversity is thrown into our game. Because we’ve been there before with the characters in the story, now it’s the story’s turn to be there for us. Certainly, the best authors put us in positions to judge—and we embrace the opportunity. But let’s be honest. What makes all good literature—novels and short stories and drama and poetry—so deliciously dangerous is the courage it takes to grapple with three questions: What do we really believe? What are we made of? and Who are we?
What is your favorite piece of literature to teach that has strong character undertones? How do you teach it? What grade level do you teach that to and why does it resonate so well with students at that age?
It’s impossible for me to choose my favorite piece of literature to teach since they are interwoven. In my seventh and eighth grade English classes, literature in the form of inspirational poetry, provocative short stories, and formative novels work together to teach character. If I consider only eighth-grade novels, for example, from “Maus” (Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel), students learn not just to look but to see. From “To Kill a Mockingbird,” they experience what it’s like to walk in another’s shoes by practicing imagination and empathy. And from “The Odyssey,” they discover ways to face and defeat their own monsters.
Author Neil Gaiman once wrote, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” And nowhere do eighth graders have to consider how they can battle their own monsters than when they read “The Odyssey.” Yes, wrestling with the challenging reading is a monster in itself, but our hero Odysseus is also far from your ideal protagonist. Though he knows what he wants—to return home to his beloved wife and son following his battle in Troy—not only do terrible things happen to him, but he also gets in his own way. Eighth graders can relate to this. It’s fourth quarter, and the transition from Middle School to Upper School is their call to adventure, the next step in their hero’s journey. They’ve had enough life experience to understand that while some challenges are of their own volition, others are out of their control, and at some point, they, too, may have to face the unimaginable. So, when following his journey to the Underworld Odysseus becomes despondent, eighth graders can empathize. This forces the question in their own lives: How can we pick ourselves up when we face the profound and painful passages of life? Together they respond, share, and imagine ways to climb out of deep pits of despair, and they discover things about each other they didn’t know before, uncover possibilities, and realize they don’t have to climb alone. Yes, there are tears sometimes, and yes, they rejoice in each other’s victories, but year after year, eighth graders come to a similar conclusion: We can and should be there for one another. Dragons can be beaten.
What do you want our community to know about your approach to teaching character through literature?
Tacked up in the front of my room is: “The goal of seventh and eighth English class is to pay attention and take care to use your words well with confidence, competence, and relentless compassion.”
There is an overwhelming amount of literature that forwards my classroom goal and promotes character, so how do I choose what to teach? Honestly, it’s an agonizing process. Character can (and should) be taught by tackling difficult issues through compelling and sometimes controversial literature. I need to choose literature with appropriate exposure that confronts injustices without sacrificing hope. It is strength of character that protects innocence, builds resilience, and clarifies beliefs, purpose, and identity. When your children/my students reach beyond their capacities and respond beyond anything I imagine, I know who the real teachers are. I am a better person when I learn from my students. Thank you for sharing your amazing children with me.
Though there are different purposes and reasons behind each piece of literature I select, here are my criteria:
- Good literature reveals truth in ways that non-fiction cannot. Author Flannery O’Connor writes: “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way.”
- Good literature affirms the beauty of life. Paying attention to the beauty of the emotions, the beauty of the conundrum, the beauty of the struggle, and how gorgeously beautiful other human beings can be, even as characters: this is not how we survive; this is how we thrive.
- Good literature displays and honors the beauty of words. A rich combination of words, the unexpected metaphor, a compelling scene, the convincing argument: no other art form can access the beauty of the written word like literature.
- Good literature stokes and strengthens the imagination. It’s the timeless MPA adage: “We don’t teach students what to think. We teach them how.” No to preaching what to think; yes for providing opportunities to wonder. Asking the questions is at least as important as finding the answers. How can we live out the golden rule? Just imagine.
- Good literature provokes the status quo by nudging students out of their comfort zones and into the scrutiny of new ideas and possibilities. What does it take to dream big and do right?
- Good literature develops and elevates empathy.
We are storied beings; our stories define us. Reading gives us practice at getting to know others’ stories. Here’s an old Maureen Conway/Anne Atchison quote: “It’s only when we feel that we care. It’s only when we care that we act. It’s only when we act that we change the world.” By being responsive and responsible to others, we are human. If we want to understand, impact, and love those who matter most to us, we need to know their stories.