Using Literature to teach Writing, Part 1

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

I’ve been reading When Writing Teachers Teach Literature (Eds Art Young and Toby Fulwiler, 1995) and have gained some great ideas in the process, one of which I actually do in my World Literature course (and realizing that made me feel smart and excited 🙂  )

  • A way to start a class that is writing intensive but also uses literature (as a required reading, part of a lesson plan, etc) is to ask students to write on the following questions: 1. What is literature? and 2. Why do you think we are reading in a writing class? (you can revise the second question in a way to fit your class). These questions are great openers to get students to think about writing and its role with reading.
  • This second example is something I do in my World Literature course. To explain a little better, I give students the option of writing one of their larger papers as a “creative paper” where they re-write a story or poem they read as the opposite genre. For example, if they write a creative paper on Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis they would retell that story in the form of a poem. (Prose poem would be acceptable, but most students are not students of English or literature and so the question never comes up, but a prose poem would indeed be acceptable.) So a way you could do this in a writing-intensive class would be to have students “revise or reconstruct” something they read by reproducing it in a new genre. You could also have them play with style or voice in their retelling. (For instance, how would the story change if told by another character? would it change at all?) This would get them thinking about genre, style, voice, audience, and purpose.
  • Another important thing to realize, and this idea applies to all concepts of teaching literature in a writing class, is to realize all texts are malleable and explorable. This translates to the idea that even literature from dead men or women is not static, but can be recreated and reinterpreted based on experiences. With this in mind, a good exercise to try might be to have students rewrite a piece of literature (poem or short story) for the present day. Have students think about how the issues have been solved, changed, or even made greater by technology and the natural progression of society. You could have students rewrite the work as a way to address the author’s concerns or ideas. You could even have them practice professional letter writing by having them write a letter to that author discussing how times have changed and why.
  • Finally, (and this one is an obvious answer) is that you can have students explore issues they read about in the literature through writing. For example, with the poem “Leda and the Swan” by W.B. Yeats, they could write a piece about rape on campus for the university newspaper. This would combine literature with a more “professional” style of writing and would also get students engaged in conversation with a larger community, in this case the campus community.

All in all, I find these ways to use literature in a writing classroom as pretty exciting stuff. One thing to remember (if you do read this book yourself) is that this book is geared towards writing teachers who end up teaching literature, so sometimes you encounter ways of teaching that you have to slightly alter to make it fit your classroom. Even so, this book is a great resource for teachers in English.

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