Friday, April 30, 2010

Literature Discussions

Community development PCVs find lots of different opportunities for serving their communities. During winter, Natalia Dohadailo invited me to lead a literature discussion seminar with her English students at the University. These are upper level intermediate students of English, though some are more fluent than others. Four are faithful members of the English Club at the Library. The discussions turned out to be more challenging than I had anticipated.

Our first selection was Jack London's short story "To Build a Fire," about man's futile struggle to survive the extreme cold of Northern Canada alone and on foot with only a wary wolf dog as his companion. The story was published in the Century Magazine in 1908 and was a great hit then and still is. London is best known for his great adventure novels: The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Sea Wolf.

We discussed the main themes of the story, writing style, plot and characters, the general tone and tenor, the mood and atmosphere. It's chilling story, to say the least. But for the students, grasping the language and its import was difficult, and a play on words, "a chilling story," went over the heads of most.

Our next session focused on Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour," and a chapter from Mark Twain's Roughing It, "Lost in a Snowstorm.”

Twain's story of getting lost in a blinding blizzard in the Nevada desert is similar to London's man versus nature tale. But what different styles of writing, different moods, different endings! Twain is a master of American vernacular language with a sense of humor that underscores the conflicts and dilemmas of human nature. A finely honed sense of the absurd adds depth and interest to his plots and characters.

But I learned that he is a difficult read for foreign language students. His way of expressing ideas and insights, the melodrama, the satire, the irony, even the words, his vocabulary, are hard to grasp. I sympathize, because trying to read Gogol or other Ukrainian and Russian novels is almost impossible for students learning Russian. It takes a long time to read a paragraph, let alone to interpret and analyze it.

I found it helped to read together. That's what we did with Kate Chopin's short story, which anticipates her 1899 novel The Awakening. In "The Story of an Hour" Chopin explores the theme of a woman's self-assertion and desire for freedom. Chopin's ideas were considered "radical" at the time, although I suspect many American women then, fighting for education and the vote, found her work fascinating. Chopin's conflicts, unlike London's and Twain's, are internal, not external, not about man versus nature, but about the struggles within one's self. The overarching theme, however, what is HUMAN nature, is similar.

Again the students struggled with these concepts, but we pressed on and there was some insight, some understanding, some thoughts developing.

And what about the ending, I asked. This was also difficult. Adjectives didn't come easily. When I asked if the ending is unexpected, ironic, and sad, they agreed it was, yes, and we discussed each of these ideas in turn. Still, I think the students found Chopin's subject incomprehensible. They were uncomfortable with the story. I said it was fine to be uncomfortable and unsure. That was another hard concept to fathom.

We struggled on without any conclusions or tidy summing up. There were more questions than answers, more doubt than certainty. The difficulties and subtleties of language added another dimension to the troubling mix.
I didn't try to "fix" it. It was the way it was. No resolution. Just the brewing of a tangle of ideas and thoughts that we were left to deal with on our own.

The literature discussions were a challenge, and I thought long and hard about them. I decided to try a new approach at our next session. The session focused on Thomas Wolfe's “The Far and the Near,” a short story about a train engineer's vision and high expectations and the grave disappointment of reality.

I told the students we would first go around the table and say what we felt about this story, just a sentence or two. Then we would read together paragraph by paragraph (there were 15) and discuss each in turn. We would each read a paragraph aloud.

This worked much better. Each student commented on the story. This story is about a train engineer’s hopes....about disappointment....about unrealistic visions. Why, one student asked, did the engineer think the women to whom he had waved cheerfully for 20 years would be glad to see him when he decided to visit them after his retirement? “I didn't like this story,” one student confessed, with some hesitation. All good thoughts, good questions! It's okay not to like the story, I reassured them. This gave us the opportunity to talk about why some readers might like it, and some readers might not.

We talked briefly about the modern writers of the 20th century, whose stories did not always have happy endings. For Wolfe, looking at something from afar was not like seeing it up close. "The near” is usually a huge disappointment.

I tried to bring this concept home. I related my own experience of going past lovely villages on my train rides to and from Kiev, how pretty they looked, how pure and clean, how busy the people, tending gardens, selling produce, chatting together. In summer there were fields of sunflowers; in winter bare trees covered in white and ice. Such pleasant scenes!

"But what would I see if I went up close?" I paused. The students smiled and nodded. Would I see ugliness rather than beauty, mean-spirited relations rather than happy chats, litter and environmental wastes rather than flowers and white fences?

This struck a chord and students responded enthusiastically. They could tell about their own experiences. They understood. The discussion was more concrete, less abstract. A breakthrough!

Then we took turns reading, and I saw that the students read very well. A few times I slowed them down, asked them to focus word for word, deliberately, even dramatically. I modeled, they responded, and in the process discovered that they could get more meaning from the words when they slowed down. Sometimes we re-read a sentence. We studied words. Focused on vocabulary and meaning.

I felt better and I could see the students did too. They felt more comfortable, participated more, were less hesitant to express their views. We ended on the same page! And the students expressed interest in the next seminar. Later Natalia said this was a good sign, wanting to participate rather than having to participate!

We learn as we go. Teachers especially so. It's so much easier adjusting your approach than fighting against the wind, insisting on your own ideas about how and what you want students to know. They will get it if you teach from where they are, and move them forward in increments, one step at a time. When it works it's the best feeling in the world.

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