Literature, Identity and Choice

Carl Leggo, a professor on faculty at UBC, is a writer and teacher educator.  He writes marvelous autobiographical poetry and speaks his poetry in presentation as if it were a song with cadences, inflection, dynamics and articulation as one might expect of an instrument.  After hearing Carl speak at a recent conference, I asked him to send me a copy of an article in progress on among other things, the Western Canon and how we chose literature to present in our classrooms.

Leggo is partial to the reader response approach, as delineated by Rosenblatt,  and the cultural criticism orientation, as put forward by MarnieO’Neill.  Reading is a dynamic interaction between reader and text.  Not only that but the reader interacts with the text within a particular context in the same way that a writer writes the text from a particular context.  It is this interaction of reader, text, author, text and contexts that provides not a single reading or correct interpretation of a text but multiple readings dependent on the contexts of reader and writer.

Leggo introduced me to the ideas of de Castell who posits that reader response approaches in the classroom can actually serve to silence the very persons whom we are intending to give a opportunity for voice.  De Castell is concerned that literary experiences are active, engaged and private.  For de Castell, literary experiences in the classroom ought to remain grounded in objective discourse and critical analysis to prevent this silencing.  The difficulty I have with de Castell is with ‘objective discourse’.  Whose criteria are used to create ‘objective discourse’.  It is as if de Castell assumes that the instructor and student can leave their ‘selves’ at the door and work independently of their identities.  I don’t believe that this sectionning of self is possible.  People work within contexts and use their identity/identities as filters for their experiences.  I can not leave my ‘self’ at the door and become an objective self.  This is simply choosing one identity over the others.  A scientific objective identity over an emotional subjective identity.  Yin over Yang.

A few years ago, I took a workshop which talked about introducing students to six different hats or perspectives.  Each had a colour and set of characteristics associated with it.  Each hat would allow the students to approach the material in a different way.  Each was valuable.  Perhaps these hats would be useful in looking at literature.  The objective hat would be just one of the possibilities allowing for textual interpretation.  There would be room for other hats.  Maybe even more than six.

Leggo recommends teachers opening up the canon and allowing students to choose materials to read – sometimes from selected titles, perhaps sometimes from their own libraries. Multiple texts, multiple readers and a conversation about those texts and readers and their world.  I am thinking through how this might look in my classroom next year.  I know I want to explore student choice, extended reading and writing times, broadening the response possibilities and opening the conversation.  Stay tuned.


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Filed under children's lit, curriculum, identity, learning, library, literacy

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