The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

The Power of Literature in Our Lives

Today’s post is about the power of literary fiction. I was moved to write about my own attachment to great novels, stories, poems, and plays by reading an article titled “ Literary Fiction Here to Stay in Curriculum” posted by Education Dive in October.

I must also tell you that I’m taking a break from writing starting today and ending on November 30th. Very soon I will be attending the annual NCTE convention and then visiting my family in Philadelphia for Thanksgiving. I expect to have recovered from all those lazy, happy days by the 1st of December, and I hope you will be ready and happy to hear from me again at that time.

When I saw the title of the article, “Literary Fiction Here to Stay in Curriculum” I was eager to read it. Mainly, it was about a recent study that showed “reading literature enhances the human capacity to understand the beliefs and feelings of other people.” Since I agree completely with that judgment, I went to the research site, but could not open it because I was not a member of the organization. The best information I can provide is that the study consisted of giving groups of young people factual material or pieces from high quality fiction. The results showed that those who read fiction expressed greater empathy for real people than those who read non-fiction. Here is a key quote from the article: “In the experiments we ran, we saw the immediate effects of the readings even after just 15 minutes or so. We also have some data showing how much exposure people have had to fiction, and we demonstrate that it is only exposure to literary fiction, specifically, that has better effects on theory of mind, not popular fiction.”

The article also mentioned a recent survey that reinforced the study’s results. Finally, it offered quotes from several psychologists who agreed about the power of fiction to build empathy. Here’s one from David E. Kirkland, an English professor at New York University:There’s a greater goal in education. When we flush literature down the toilet, we also flush opportunities to enhance our humanity, to prepare people to participate in a multicultural global democracy in ways that might heighten our level of human participation in the larger project of humanity. School is beyond career and college training. We are preparing people to interact in a multicultural democracy.”

Kirkland also said, “Round characters are characters that are complex, obscure, and difficult to interpret. If the characters are like this, the reader is forced into this process of mentalizing…[and] we are making the case that this kind of writing characterizes literary fiction more than other genres.”

Although I did not find enough substantive information in the article about the research study or the survey to consider recommending it to others, it’s conclusions were so close to what I believed that I could not resist writing about my own experience with quality literature and how it has helped me to understand the people I have worked for, taught, managed, lived with, or known only at a distance.

Reflecting on my experience as a reader, l remember well my first adult book, the novel “Little Women”, a gift from my mother when I was about ten years old. Up until that time I had read only fairy tales, children’s books and traditional textbooks. “Little Women” covered the lives of four sisters from childhood to adulthood. As they matured, each one had to work to overcome the harshness of family poverty and their own weaknesses. By the time they reached adulthood they had made personal adjustments that enabled them to be strong and secure in their relationships and everyday lives.

Because the characters and situations in “Little Women” were so interesting to me, I swept through it in several days, but soon afterword I read it again, more slowly. I also started to hunt for young adult fiction in our school library. When I asked our librarian to help me find books about young women in new adventures, she did her best to please me. After a while, however, she also led me to books that explored the lives and feelings of boys and men. She never explained her reasons for the shift, and since I also enjoyed those books, I never asked.

Later, as a college student majoring in English, so much reading was assigned that I had no time to choose my own books. Yet, I loved most of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry and also the works of Chekov, even though most of his characters were not very likeable. On the other hand, I did not like reading “The Scarlet Letter” or “Moby Dick”. Both left me cold; I think because I could not see any deep feelings for others in the characters.

A few years later, graduate study in English, again, offered little time for me to choose my own reading. Yet most of the required literature pleased me and became a part of my life.  Even now I can recite the introduction to Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” and think about the sad story of “Troilus and Criseyde”.

Over my adult years, as a wife, mother and teacher, my affection for certain kinds of fiction did not change. One of my favorites,“Madam Bovary” I have read three times over the years and felt her desperation, even though she was selfish and dishonest, and the sadness of her husband, even though he was weak and foolish. When I taught high school English, I assigned that book to my 12th grade class and  also had them read “The Mayor of Casterbridge”.

Many years later, when I joined a book club, I was unhappy with many of the books selected. We read too much non-fiction, especially biographies, that did not make their characters come alive.  I was often bored as I read, and I have forgotten most of the titles and content. The only piece of non-fiction I remember enjoying during that time, and which I have read again, was “Under the Banner of Heaven”. I think that is because in addition to describing the course of the Mormon religion, it dealt with the feelings of real people, both good and bad.

Over the past 16 years, retired and writing books and articles about education, I have read mostly non-fiction. The most valuable book I found was”Mc Donogh 15, Becoming  a School”. It was written by an elementary school principal, whose understanding and treatment of students and teachers and what it takes to make a good school, were more compelling and persuasive than anything else I’ve ever read about education.

At the same time, I also remember the wonderful fiction I’ve read in the past, and I go back to the books still on my book shelves.  I learned more about human feelings and behavior from such books as “All Quiet on the Western Front”, “A Death in the Family”,“To Kill a Mockingbird”, “In Cold blood”, “The Poisonwood Bible”, “The White Hotel”, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, “The Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam”, “Lord Jim”, “The Painted Veil” and other great pieces of fiction than I ever learned at school or in my early experiences in the real world.


A Bad Day for Me and Everyone Else

On yesterday’s night, almost all of the members, crowded into the seats of the large auditorium waiting to make an important decision about who would be our new leaders, which is an important position in our community. We were all excited to select the people who were most capable to manage our needs and interests in our future.  So shortly  after the event opened, several of them stood in front of us to explain their interests and abilities. I hoped to hear information about the new jobs and what people would do to be elected, but unfortunately the speaking machine was completely ineffective, and we could hear nothing about what the important people said. In addition, some of us listeners did not know the names or the abilities of those people. The listeners in the crowd were not able to hear the problems of  speakers when it happened, but afterwards I began to cry tears out loud and told everyone near me that I did not know the names of the speakers, nor their abilities or interests. But what was worse, I think, was that no one else listening received any information about the plans for the future or what any of the speakers had said. I knew then, that I could not honestly vote for anyone. Without any purpose, I began to cry because of the meaningless results of our evening, and a few people near me saw me and understood what I was feeling.  I believe that many other people felt the same way as me, but most people did not show it. The main leader of the events was told that we would all be able to vote the day after they gave their speeches. Since that was our only choice, I will vote for one person I know and trust because I don’t know any of the others. Nevertheless, I am outraged and will continue to be that way because we were all denied the information we needed to know. The nameless ones who stood before us were not able to give us information about their abilities, interests, or personalities. If that is the right way to present the best people for a job, just tell us to choose by fancy clothing and good looks or else just give us papers with names we may know or not.  Obviously we weren’t given the chance to think.

Joanne Yatvin


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A New Kind of Preschool

A while ago I read a NY times article about outdoor preschools. Although I think such schools are going a bit overboard with their insistence on having almost all activities outdoors, I appreciate their understanding of the need young children have to explore the world around them and to experiment using their own imagination and skills. Today I will describe significant parts of the article and expand it with my own ideas of what a preschool should do.

 In the Times article the activities of several preschools in different parts of the country were described. Although each school was unique, all of them held almost all their teaching and learning in the natural world outdoors, and all of them gave children great freedom to select their activities and materials and use them as they pleased. Nevertheless, the school I admired most was the Drumlin Farm Community Preschool in Massachusetts because it had a basic structure with children feeding farm animals and growing vegetables as well as exploring the wildlife habitat. All the other schools seemed to operate solely on what existed naturally in the environment or what was happening with the weather.

Although most of the schools also had some indoor facilities, they did not use them except when the weather was bad. In fact, no indoor activities were described in the article. One school, Fiddleheads Forest School in the state of Washington takes children outside rain or shine; they all have water proof outfits to wear when needed.

As for their activities, Fiddlehead children spend most of their time “carting around rocks in wheelbarrows, playing at being (sword-less) pirates, examining trees split by lightning, digging in wood-chip piles to make child-size ‘nests’, finding an unknown seed and dubbing it a ‘Nothing Berry,’ and running up and down hills.”

At any of the outdoor schools a teacher might decide to take a group of children to a particular place for learning something special, such as identifying flowers.  None of the schools seemed to have a set curriculum. It was up to the teachers to decide what would be best for students at any particular time or place.

As might be expected, all the schools identified were private ones, situated in neighborhoods where parents were well educated, and for the most part, prosperous.

The comments of some critics also appeared in the article, but they weren’t very critical. The critics, who were university professors, felt that outdoor  preschools were a reaction to the testing and early teaching of academic skills currently imposed on children in schools, and that they would fade away when education policy becomes more reasonable.

I, too, found little to criticize. I wholeheartedly approve of outdoor experiences for young children and the opportunities to explore their needs and interests in their own way. But, at the same time I think that important indoor activities were being ignored—or, at least, not mentioned in the article.  Young children also need music, art, poetry, role playing and, most of all, experience with books. I don’t mean they should be taught reading in preschool, but that they need access to many picture books and to be read to regularly.

Also, as I hinted above in describing the Drumlin Farm Community Preschool, having some structure is important for young children.  In all homes there is a structure of when, where, and how to do such things as brushing your teeth and going to bed that gives children a sense of structure in time, place, activities, and  behavior. A preschool should expand children’s structure by teaching them how to behave in various places and situations and how to treat other children and adults.  Long before they are held to any math or reading standards, a good school teaches children the fundamentals of living in a structured world.

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Bringing Project-Based Learning into All Classrooms

Last month I read an article about a California elementary school that changed its basic structure to emphasize project-based learning. Because I was absorbed with other topics at the time, I saved the major parts of the article, but did not record its source. Today, when I decided at last to analyze the article and write about it, I could not find it using the search engines on my computer. The best I was able to do was use the content I had saved to explain some of the changes at that school, give examples from my own experiences with projec-based learning, and make suggestions for new types of high schools.

Five years ago, under the leadership of a new principal, Katherine Smith Elementary School in San José, CA dedicated itself to becoming a hub for 21st century learning. The school, in a high poverty area, with a large percentage of English language learners, was determined to change its traditional structure and teaching methods to project-based learning, involving both teachers and students in collaborative work and focusing on the skills needed for successful careers and active citizenship.

The new principal, Aaron Brengard, and the many experienced teachers who transferred to the school knew their job would not be easy, but they dedicated themselves to working together and teaching students to do the same.

By traditional measures the school has not become more successful. Standardized test scores are still very low and behavior problems still emerge from time to time. On the other hand, student and parent surveys show high satisfaction with the projects and teaching methods. Also, in frequent presentations of projects, students exhibit much improved speaking and critical thinking skills.

In a recent economics project for third graders, for example, students designed new products and studied marketing skills. When they had finished their work the results were presented to a group of adults acting as possible buyers in a “Shark Tank” presentation. Afterward, there was a fair for parents to examine the products closely and talk to students about their manufacturing costs and the design processes.

As I read this article I admired the efforts the school was making, but also wondered if the principal and teachers had a strong enough grasp of what project-based learning means. Although the students were working on interesting projects, it did not look like those projects were related to the academic skills and knowledge that were the main focus of their class curriculum. I had hoped that project-based learning meant that students’ projects grew out of the things they were studying in math, English, etc. and the knowledge and skills they were learning.

Over my long career as a teacher and a principal, and later as an observer in other elementary schools, I became familiar with some programs that emphasized project- based learning as I understand it. Below I will briefly describe some of the projects that I participated in or observed.

While studying a particular topic or practicing an academic skill, students were also

creating their own math problems similar to the ones being taught

writing about historical events as if they were participants in them

turning a fairy tale they had read into a puppet performance for classmates or parents

creating birthday cards for classmates, the teachers or the principal

producing a set of original products to sell in the school store, pricing them to justify the time and effort needed, and then creating advertisments for their products to be placed in the school hallways

making a video with classmates to demonstrate safe playground behaviors

working with classmates to create a new set of classroom rules when they felt that the ones the teacher had established earlier no longer worked well

interviewing grandparents or older neighbors about what school was like when they were young, in order to write articles for a book they were making about the schools of the past

choosing appropriate stories to read aloud to children in lower grade classrooms and figuring out which pictures to show and words to explain while reading

creating a table game for traveling west on the Oregon Trail

Performing a classroom job, such as putting books back on classroom book shelves correctly, for one week and then training another student to do the job for the following week

Learning how to read a map by drawing an imaginary island and indicating mountains, rivers, cities, major highways and other physical features

drawing the outline of a covered wagon to scale on the classroom floor to see how many people and how much baggage could fit into it

“adopting a road” near the school and cleaning up the roadsides as a group three or four times a year

writing a set of directions for a robot to do a particular task, and then testing the order and precision of those directions by having another student act them out

I didn’t describe any projects for high school students because I can’t remember any from my time as a high school teacher. Actually, I think that project-based learning is  impossible for a high school to provide in fifty minute classes held in multiple classrooms.  The only way I can see for high school projects to be carried out right now is at times and places outside of school; and the problem with such arrangements is that they would separate projects from the learning experiences that stimulate and inform them.

Perhaps the only solution is to restructure high schools in a variety of ways, providing  not only training in specified areas, but also laboratory-type classes that would be equipped with different sorts of  equipment and materials and last for at least two hours at a time. Although making such changes would be difficult and expensive, they might provide   better education experiences for the large number of students who want and need project based learning to keep them in school, help them graduate on time, and prepare them for the realities of living and working in the real world.


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