Literature Offers Lessons for the Heart As Well As the Head


When teachers assign student reading, it’s not usually the social-emotional domain that’s the focus of the activity. But if we’re to address the whole child, we have to be aware that books have an impact on students’ hearts as well as their heads.

That’s the focus of an article titled “Literature’s Emotional Lessons,” written by teacher Andrew Simmons. In it he tells the story of a 10th-grade student whose emotional reaction to Piggy’s death scene in Lord of the Flies caused her to flee the room. He writes

In my experience teaching and observing other teachers, students spend a lot of time learning academic skills and rarely even talk about the emotional reactions they may have to what they read—even when stories, as they often do, address dark themes.The Common Core Standardspush students to become clinical crafters of arguments and masters of academic language. While these are essential skills to possess, the fact that my other students appear perfectly comfortable not acknowledging and discussing emotional responses to literature may be as revelatory as this one student’s teary dash from class. Inundated with video games, movies, and memes, teenagers often seem hard to shake up. Characters are fictitious abstractions, and , without actors to bring them to life and makeup and digital tricks to make the drama feel real, students may strictly do the analytical work teachers expect without the interference of a significant emotional response. That’s a bad thing. An emotional response should be part of the curriculum.

Most likely, there’s some concern among teachers about the time such emotional explorations would take, considering there are standards to be met and tests to be passed. But there are standards for the social-emotional domain as well and literature provides a perfect jumping-off point for addressing them.

To discuss how teachers can incorporate and explore the social-emotional issues in literature, I invited Andrew to be a guest onStudentcentricity. And because such explorations should begin well before high school, I also asked elementary principal Jon Harper to join us. Much of the conversation revolved around empathy and citizenship.

Afterward, Jon shared these additional thoughts:

Students today are capable of much more than I think we give them credit for. Oftentimes we have them read literature only to have them regurgitate back to us bits of information that really don’t require them to interact with the text on an emotional level. I am quite certain that when authors of literature write and craft their stories they are not thinking about how a student will take their work and use it to complete a graphic organizer. I think they are thinking about the emotions their words evoke and the way it makes them feel.

Unfortunately, many students today are forced to block out much of what they experience on a daily basis because it is so unbearable. This, in turn causes them to become numb. It is time that we teach kids and allow kids to interact emotionally with the literature that they are reading so that they can have the opportunity to talk about complex issues in a very safe and structured environment. We owe it to our kids to prepare them not only for college and careers, but for Life.

I completely agree. There’s no doubt that we’re living in troubled times. Painful times. If we want and expect things to change for the better, we have no choice but to make such topics as empathy and citizenship a regular part of the curriculum. After all, we’re not preparing students to go forth into the world to take tests; we’re preparing them to be good people who positively contribute to our world.

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