How to Take the Joy from Literature

Sometimes as teachers, our attempts to help students find deeper meanings in literature may have unintended consequences.

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Snowy Woods

This afternoon I’m weeding through some of my books and came across one by a favorite children’s author, Jean Little — Hey World, Here I Am! On page 28 I came across a poem, “After English Class.” It’s written in the first person in the voice of Kate Bloomfield, who describes how she used to like the Frost poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” She liked the sound of the words and their rhythm, and the imagery. She could see the snow and hear the jingling bells. I think that’s what Robert Frost would have wanted.

The next lines explain how the teacher ruined the poem for her:

But today, the teacher told us what everything stood for.
The woods, the horse, the miles to go, the sleep—
They all have ‘hidden meanings.’
It’s grown so complicated now that,
Next time I drive by,
I don’t think I’ll bother to stop.

Sometimes as teachers, our attempts to help students find deeper meanings in literature may have unintended consequences. Just as a student of biology may prefer a living whole frog to the dead one they have just dissected, the students who read a poem may just want to enjoy it and respond to it with  their own imaginations. Does the dissection the teacher provides keep students from gleaning meanings they might have discovered on their own?

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