Learning Literature, Learning Life – An Argument for Fiction
It’s spring, which means it’s time for high stakes testing in high schools across the nation. This week, schools in Illinois are preparing their students to take a test that will show whether or not the school has met Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP. This one test is used to answer a host of questions: are these students college and career ready? Do these students know how to read, write, do math, and understand science? Is this school a good school?
As a high school English teacher, I have experienced the pressure that high stakes testing can bring. Students, parents, schools, and communities alike worry about the scores these two days of testing produce.
The government pays special attention to these tests, too, and it has come to policy makers’ attention that students in our nation are graduating high school unprepared for college and careers, and policy makers are working around the clock to develop new, national standards for school curriculums. These national standards focus not only on preparation for high stakes testing, but on a core curriculum that applies to what students might encounter in college or in their future career. For English classes, then, this means a move toward reading more nonfiction and technical writing.
I became an English teacher because I fell in love with literature at a very young age, and I wanted to share that love of literature with students. This doesn’t mean that I hope all of them go on to college and become majors in English literature; I know that won’t happen. However, I want them to see literature as a way to broaden their minds and their understanding of the world. It can give them a perspective on a problem that they may not have encountered in their young lives. It can open up new worlds and new ways of thinking and understanding.
When they read about a character that is similar to themselves, they can learn ways to cope with the world; when they read about a character that is similar to someone they know, they can see the world from his or her perspective and learn how to practice empathy. Nonfiction and technical writing cannot provide this for students. It is too real to transport them to a new way of thinking. Similarly, standardized testing cannot test whether or not students’ minds have been opened by literature.
Students in my classes are currently on a quest through literature. They started this semester with a question about something that has been bothering them for a long time, or something that happened to them that made them see the unfairness of the world. Their questions are heartbreaking and honest, from asking why their father left their family, to why a friend changed so drastically upon entering high school. As we read new texts, students have to take what they have learned and apply it to their quest in the form of a paper. With each installment of their quests, the answers they find in the literature they read are vivid explanations of the world around them, and they find these answers whether or not the texts directly relate to their questions.
Of course, standardized testing is important. It is a measure of how students stack up against their peers and how ready they are for college and careers. As a teacher, I want my students to be college and career ready by the time they graduate high school. However, I am also using literature to prepare them for life in a broader sense. To take literature out of the curriculum and replace it with test prep and technical writing is a dangerous move. With a lack of access to literature, students will lack access to the human experience, and their lives will be poorer for it.
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