As a kid, one of my favorite subjects in school was literature, partly because it was easier than algebra and partly because it was all about reading stories! However, I usually got extremely fed up with the questions at the end of each story, questions that I was presumably supposed to answer in my best scholarly manner.
Wasn’t there a more interesting way to study literature?
Literature questions usually fell into several categories. First, there were the “duh” questions. If, hypothetically, the story had been about an itsy bitsy spider who crawled up the water spout, the “duh” question might be, “What did the itsy bitsy spider crawl up?” This sort of question, while posing as a Vastly Erudite Tool of Learning, is really just a crafty way to find out if the student actually read the story. If, for instance, I answered the question by saying that the itsy bitsy spider crawled up the straw of my frappuccino, my mother would instantly suspect something.
Then there were the “why” questions. I didn’t like those either because usually the story did not give you enough data, but expected a Highly Insightful Answer. If you were asked why the itsy bitsy spider crawled up the water spout, you were expected to say something like, “The itsy bitsy spider was the victim of a debilitating psychiatric disorder, and due to its failure to grasp its inner sense of self and discover who it really was, it found an outlet for its internal angst by exploring new paradigms outside of its natural habitat. Therefore, unlike its peers, who were crawling around in people’s bathroom showers and scaring them half to death, this spider sought out lonely secluded spots wherein it could sort out its past without being judged and thus chose the privacy of a water spout.” Unfortunately, there is one small problem with all this. Yes, yes, one tiny infinitesimal problem: we actually don’t KNOW why the itsy bitsy spider crawled up the water spout. Therefore, any reason we assign is pure speculation. And what’s the point of that? However, literature books are crammed full of these sorts of unanswerable speculative questions, which can be very exasperating.
And, of course, there were the “what-if” questions. What if the itsy bitsy spider hadn’t crawled up the water spout? What if the rain hadn’t washed the poor little spider out? What if the sun hadn’t come out and dried up all the rain? These kinds of questions can sound reasonably deep, but at the end of the day, they too are mere speculation. If the goal of literature is simply for students to speculate about how the story might have been different if all the pertinent facts and characters were different, why don’t we just start from scratch and ask them to write their own story?
Lastly, there are the “lessons learned” questions that give the student a chance to moralize. For instance, did the foolish spider learn his lesson about water spouts the first time? The sharp-witted student is quick to pick up on the expected answer: Alas no, as soon as the sun came out, he was right back up that spout. And like the spider, we too tend to forget consequences and make unwise mistakes when things are going right. We can all benefit from studying the hapless example of the errant arachnid. These kinds of questions aren’t too bad, but the answers are typically rather obvious and don’t require a lot of analysis.
So, you ask, since I have now thoroughly lambasted the traditional approach to literature, do I have any better ideas? Ha! Of course!
Remember, the goal of literature is to make a child think about it, analyze it, learn from it, and enjoy it, right? Well, the works I benefited from the most were not the ones where I was spoon-fed the canned types of questions listed above. Instead, they were the ones where I was told to simply write a paper about the book. The paper had only one criteria: state a thesis and support it. In other words, make a point and support that point from the story. Suddenly I had to do ALL of my own thinking. I confess I didn’t like it much at first. It was open-ended! There were no tidy instructions to follow! I could write about anything? I could make any point I wanted? Yikes! Let’s see...should I write about how the spider was indefatigable and persevered despite being rained out the first time? Should I argue that spiders have no business crawling up water spouts and he deserved what he got? Should I write about how we face trials in life, but joy comes in the morning, similar to the way the sun came out and dried up the rain?
However, once I wrapped my mind around this concept, I began to enjoy it. Not only that, I actually began to think about the story and all kinds of questions about the book popped up in my mind. Was part of the story relevant to my life? If so, how? Was there a principle that was clearly displayed in the story that I could write about? Did the author do a good job of getting his point across? How did this story compare to another similar story? Were the characters good role models? What was the story’s worldview? I could work through these questions and then choose one to write about. And guess what? By the time I was finished with the paper, I had gotten far more out of the story than I would have if I’d answered the standard literature book questions.
“Now wait,” you say. “This isn’t practical. I can’t make my kids write a paper about every single literature assignment.” Why not? Not every paper has to be a long one. It could be just a few paragraphs. Even just a few original paragraphs that a student reasons out on his own will usually make him think more than if he simply answers a few boring, speculative questions. Maybe your child isn’t much of a writer. Good, this approach can help him become one! You can now combine literature and writing assignments!
Of course, another good option is to discuss the story aloud together. We did this frequently when I was growing up as well. Bouncing opinions about books, authors, and plots off of each other helped my sister and I to learn to really think about what we were reading. We could critique and share ideas and conclusively prove that spiders have no business being within twenty yards of MY waterspouts, thankyouverymuch!
Bottom line: feel free to be creative. If your children complain about the questions they are supposed to answer with a literature assignment, tune in. See if the questions are inane. If they are, skip them. Have your children write their own thoughts and make their own points. Talk about the stories. Help them learn to think about what they're reading.
And watch out for those spiders in the waterspouts!
Written by Raquelle Sheen