Contributed by Marshall Cavendish Education
Literature teacher Ms Sumithra Kalidas expresses her views on how and why the love for Literature (and teaching it) is an enduring one.
Spreading the love of literature is a wonderful thing to do. I have come to realize that I will never be bored teaching Literature, not with the variety that this job offers. Teaching itself is never boring – students are entertaining and they often surprise you! I am convinced that nothing else I might have done would have given me so much pleasure and satisfaction.
Over the years, I have taught students aged 15 to 18, in Singapore and abroad. These days, I teach A-Level Literature in a junior college, although previously I had also taught Literature at the secondary-school level because I wanted to better understand how the foundation is laid.
An Educator’s Role
My observation is that whilst most students enjoy Literature, few go on to pursue it at a higher level because they fear that not doing well in the subject will leave a “blemish” on their transcripts, or that the subject may not be highly valued by future employers. It is indeed a pity, therefore, that there has been a decline in the take-up rate of Literature in Singapore schools.
Here is where the role of the Literature teacher becomes all the more important. Students must begin to realize that there is tremendous value in the pursuit of Literature – it is enriching, it allows for self-correction and it is humbling.
It is the educator’s role to show that Literature carries weight outside the classroom because it shapes the way we think and how we think determines how we act.
Literature is about the human condition and it is difficult to create sensitive thinkers unless you are one yourself. This requires a level of introspection, deliberation and observation. Therefore, teachers cannot be afraid to push the boundaries and get their students to comment, to justify, to be opinionated, to feel strongly, to be sensitive, to defend, to refute.
The reality of my Literature classroom is that I don’t have crates of students. I have a relatively small but sizeable number of students who study Literature because they love to read and they love the English language. This is why my role as a teacher-facilitator becomes all the more important because I am responsible for the literary osmosis that takes place in the classroom.
A Facilitator of Learning
In the Literature classroom, as with any other classroom, teaching does not automatically translate into learning. While there is some emphasis on the learning of certain key quotes, Literature is not and will never be about memorization.
Literature only matters insofar as it connects to other ideas that govern our thoughts and actions. This is the hardest part of being a Literature teacher: Just because I have taught does not immediately mean a student has learned. There is a clear distinction between teaching and learning. In order to truly realize the value of Literature, students need to be able to make these connections on their own. Inspiration cannot be taught as it must come from within.
Therefore, it is my role as a teacher to facilitate students’ understanding of themselves first. It is only when we scratch at our own surfaces that we are able to respond to literary stimuli in a meaningful way. Often, students of Literature grow richer through the fortuitous rite of passage of having been facilitated.
While there is some emphasis on the learning of certain key quotes, Literature is not and will never be about memorization.
– Sumithra Kalida, Meridian Junior College
Literature is the study of people, places, cultures, traditions, ways of living and of worlds of experiences. We learn about tragedies as we do comedies and we explore different genres through poetry, prose and drama.
As an educator, it is my responsibility to teach my students about the texts we are studying through an exploration of themes, plots and complexities. We examine the writer’s style, analyse the array of characters, muse over their motivations, look closely at the various tones, evaluate the rich language of the text and appreciate the significance of the various literary devices employed.
However, in a world that is no longer about “chalk and talk”, I become a facilitator. This is when I move from being a teacher – a disseminator of knowledge – to a facilitator of learning by asking the right questions.
One of the most important questions I ask myself before each lesson is what should my students know and be able to do as a result of this lesson? Through this, I think about how I will help them access what they already know, what they need to know, and how I can re-frame their thinking if needed.
At the end of the day, even if the number of Literature students continues to dwindle, the strong and lasting relationships that a Literature teacher enjoys with these students will remain for years to come. Such is the power of the Literature teacher that years on, students may have forgotten the quotes they memorized but yet, remember the classroom banter and the questions they learned to ask about themselves.
As we consider the absorbing influence of literature and its ability to draw its recipients close, I am reminded how I would rather not be doing anything else in the world than to teach it.
The words of Junot Diaz, creative writing professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and fiction editor of the Boston Review, unveils a ring of truth as we contemplate the power of introspection. It is this very introspection that keeps me happily nestled in the teaching of Literature. I cannot imagine doing anything else. This is who I am. He says that “if these years have taught me anything it is this: you can never run away. Not ever. The only way out is in.”