The number of students studying Literature has been declining since the 1990s. Literature educators in Singapore are working hard to turn things around, and to show their students that more than ever, we need literature in our modern life.
“When I look back, I am so impressed again with the life-giving power of literature. If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young.”
– Maya Angelou, American author and poet
How do the youth of today think of literature? Are they convinced of the “life-giving” power of literature, or are they perhaps asking, “Of what relevance is Shakespeare to my daily life?”
In 1992, 16,970 students took Full Literature an O-Level subject in school. Now, the figure is near 3,000. Many reasons have been offered to explain the decline in the numbers.
In 2013, Senior Minister of State for Education and Law Ms Indranee Rajah explained in Parliament that students now have more subjects to choose from than in the past. Also, many think that it is difficult to score well for Literature.
Another reason, suggests Dr Loh Chin Ee, an Assistant Professor at NIE, is that students may not see the relevance of Literature in pragmatically oriented Singapore.
“It’s better to, say, be doing Science or Math where there’re more practical returns. Literature is not seen as a necessity,” she says.
But is that really the case? Has Literature nothing left to teach our students, digital natives who are living in a globalized and hyperconnected world?
Not true, says Chin Ee and the other Literature educators we spoke to for this issue.
By exploring the depth and breadth of the human experience through works of literature, teachers can help students understand themselves and others better in a multicultural and interconnected world.
Jerome Bruner talks about two kinds of thinking. The first is of the “scientific” kind that deals with logic, facts and evidence. It is also the kind our technology-driven society places a premium on.
“The other way of thinking is through narratives, through stories. We understand the world we live in through the stories we hear every day, whether from other people, in the news or in the books we read,” says Chin Ee.
This narrative approach to thinking is natural to us as human beings, which is why we often find stories more engaging than hard facts. Through stories, Literature encourages us to better understand and examine the world we live in.
Literature is important, but the way it’s taught, that’s also very, very important.
– Loh Chin Ee, English Language and Literature Academic Group
Thinking Critically about Stories
But as a subject, Literature is not just about the story. What’s even more important is how we think about these stories.
“We could go into the classroom and introduce these stories, and just say, ‘Oh aren’t these stories great?’” says Chin Ee. But to her, good Literature teaching entails more – much more. It’s getting students to expand their thinking.
Good stories “pull” the readers in so that they become emotionally involved. But students must then take a step back and critically reflect on what they had read.
Teachers need to ask them questions. What are the possible messages of this story? What are the conflicting messages? Where do you stand on this, and why? Is it because of your own history and background?
Chin Ee gives an example from the short story Mid-autumn by Singapore writer Tan Hwee Hwee, about a mother who put her daughter through medical studies. The daughter eventually became a doctor and decided to leave her mother to become a missionary in Zambia.
Most readers would empathize with the mother and her loss because the story was written from her perspective. But this is where the teacher should come in to remind students to also think from the daughter’s perspective, as somebody who wants to be independent and help others in need.
We understand the world we live in through the stories we hear every day, whether from other people, in the news, or in the books we read.
– Chin Ee on thinking through narratives and stories
The teacher can go even further to get the students to think about how their own individual experiences may predispose them to “read” the story in a particular way.
When students read such stories of conflicts and dilemmas and are asked to explain their stance, they get a chance to work out for themselves what their core values and principles are.
They will also begin to understand others who are different from themselves and learn to empathize while being critical at the same time.
The challenge for Literature educators today is to constantly think of ways to connect the subject to real-life issues for their students, or risk being seen as teaching a subject of outdated tales.
One thing that they can do is to be more adventurous about the texts they choose for their class. It is sometimes tempting to stick to the “safe” choices that we’re familiar with.
“We think students should be exposed to certain texts, say, something by Shakespeare or To Kill a Mockingbird, which was first published in 1960,” says Chin Ee.
“They’re good books. But I think that at particular times of students’ lives, and given particular students’ profiles, I might prefer to choose a text that engages them and which is also sufficiently rich so that they can delve deeply into it.”
To become more adventurous in choosing texts, teachers would have to read widely, be it canonical works, young adults’ novels or popular fiction. Chin Ee says, “My big emphasis would be on reading. We don’t read enough when we’re teaching. We’re often too tired to read!”
Teachers can in turn encourage their students to read outside of the assigned works. Book clustering, or suggesting books, both fiction and non-fiction, and movies that are related to the Literature text, is one way to encourage students to get students interested in reading.
“Literature is not about reading that one text closely in the classroom. It’s about reading many texts and being able to analyse books, movies, novels, TV shows and even ads,” explains Chin Ee.
Some teachers are also using technology, social media and pedagogical approaches such as Socratic questioning to change how Literature is being taught in schools.
For example, teachers in Crescent Girls’ School encouraged their students to use interactive digital media tools such as online forums and blogs for Literature and other subjects. (Read more about strategies that Literature teachers are using in the book Teaching Literature in Singapore Secondary Schools.)
As Chin Ee puts it, “Literature is important, but the way it’s taught, that’s also very, very important.” And the work that teachers do today will ensure that Literature will continue to inspire our students of today and tomorrow to find their place in the world.
Loh, C. E., Yeo, D., & Liew, W. M. (Eds.). (2013). Teaching Literature in Singapore secondary schools. Singapore: Pearson.