The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Because Literature is Life

on October 14, 2015

Today’s post was written by high school teacher Lea Mathieu who teaches language arts classes at Ione Community School in Eastern Oregon.  I was so impressed by her presentation at the recent Oregon Council of Teachers of English conference in Portland that I invited her to write about her teaching.  Now that I’ve read this piece I’d like to hear a lot more from Lea.  How about you?

There’s a homemade sign in my classroom that reads “Because Literature is Life, That’s Why!” It started as a sort of joke in response to whiny students asking, “Why do we have to read this?” But recently, I’ve come to realize that the phrase sums up my entire teaching philosophy and purpose.

Maria Montessori claimed that education was the best weapon for peace, and I couldn’t agree more. I define peace not as the mere absence of conflict, but as the absence of fear and the presence of justice and even – dare I hope? – love.

The greatest fear is inevitably of the “Other” and the “Unknown”.  And that is what literature – and history, if it’s done right – addresses. Meaningful education invites students to experience what others have experienced, to understand the motivations and consequences of choices they have never had to make (yet), to get inside someone else’s head and culture, to imagine a world of their own making beyond what they’ve been given. To feel with, and as, an “Other” is the definition of empathy.

I moved around a lot as a kid (12 schools in 12 years), and I now like to think of myself as a world citizen. Most of the students in my small rural school, on the other hand, are limited in their experience; what they know of the “Other” is largely second-hand, and often their information is, let’s say, unreliable. Literature – which I broadly define as anything we read – is their key, gate, and world all in one.

To introduce my students to people they’ve never met, I teach civil rights through primary sources and the works of Lorraine Hansberry and Maya Angelou. When it comes time to do independent projects, my blue-eyed blondes line up for Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.

My students admire the Hmong people, though they don’t know a single one, and can make impassioned pleas for multicultural understanding in medicine because of Ann Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.

My new psychology in teaching literature is very popular because students thought we’d just read about “crazy” people; they’re now starting to realize that “They” aren’t really so different from “Us.”

I’m introducing argumentative writing with posts on my own Facebook page about the refugee crisis in Europe. I’m also sharing a slew of online articles my students can use in articulating their own conclusions from research they’ve read.  I only hope that when they’re old enough to vote they keep up the process they now use: research the issue, evaluate sources, engage in discussions, be clear in their writing about the kind of world they want to live in and the kind of people they want to be.

There’s no “Smarter Balanced” test for this stuff, which is enough proof for me that nationalized testing is a stupid waste of time and money. The standard for empathy will be the world our students create later in the 21st century. Will it be one of fear or of true peace; of ignorance or understanding? Their lives may well depend on what they’ve learned through literature.


One response to “Because Literature is Life

  1. Jan Eck says:

    My favorite kind of teacher.


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