WMU News

Teachers urged to connect literature to lives of students

May 1, 2001

KALAMAZOO -- If you think gang warfare is a concept created by recent generations, then read "Romeo and Juliet." And just as there are homeless teens wandering the streets of Seattle now, "Oliver Twist" was doing the same in 19th century London.

That's why when it comes to teaching English literature, Dr. Allen Carey-Webb believes that topics like homelessness, youth violence and race not only belong in the classroom, but classics like "Oliver Twist" or "Huckleberry Finn" can't be taught without them.

"For too long, high school and college teachers have taught literature without providing an understanding of the history and culture these books were written in," he explains. "When you bring these topics in and explore the context surrounding the author's work, then you make literature more relevant to the student."

Integrating social issues, history and culture into the teaching of literature is what Carey-Webb, an associate professor of English at Western Michigan University, espouses in his new book "Literature and Lives: A Response-Based, Cultural Studies Approach to Teaching English."

In the book, which is geared toward present and future teachers, Carey-Webb draws from his own two decades of classroom experience to outline methods of teaching literature that use a cultural studies approach.

"I try to show how teachers can move away from isolated, abstract concepts of literature and into the history and culture that influenced the writings," he says. "When you bring in the cultural context, it makes the literature more powerful to the reader. It also paints a clearer picture of the author's intentions and motivations."

In one chapter of the book, Carey-Webb describes a class he taught that examined homelessness as a theme in a variety of literary works. In addition to reading the Charles Dickens classic "Oliver Twist," about an orphan who lived on the streets of London, the class read several works about homelessness and poverty, including Alan Paton's "Cry, the Beloved Country," Jonathan Kozol's "Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America," and George Orwell's "Down and Out in Paris and London." They also viewed "Streetwise," a documentary film about homeless teens in Seattle.

"Through 'Oliver Twist' the students were able to view homelessness in a historical perspective," explains Carey-Webb. "While they were still studying classic authors like Dickens, Crane and Orwell, the students were thinking about them in historical, social and political contexts, and developing connections that put classic authors and works in dialogue with popular culture and common experience.

"In addition, reading and discussing the portrayal of homelessness in literary works gave students the critical tools they needed for their own analysis of real-world people and institutions."

A student who participated in the class echoed Carey-Webb's observation, stating that "most other [English] classes just talked about characters and ironyThis class made me think about the world, how little/lot we've changed our attitudes, our thoughts and what we've learned from our past history."

It is those critical thinking skills that Carey-Webb says are crucial to having students embrace and absorb the literature rather than just read it.

"I want to take literature off that pedestal so that students can knock it around and really examine it," he says. "I want them to question it and see that it as more than just pretty words."

Other chapters in the book address Carey-Webb's experiences teaching literature through the perspectives of gender, youth violence, multiculturalism, race and media. He also discusses the issue of censorship in the classroom.

Carey-Webb also offers ways for teachers to weave literary scholarship and theories like new criticism, postcolonialism and post-Marxism into the teaching of literature. He says that too often, literary theory is discounted as obscure, dry and esoteric with little relevance to middle school, high school or undergraduate English teaching.

"I tried to provide a sort of teacher's guide to literary scholarship and theory," he says. "In my teaching journey, I have found that literary scholarship and theory can make the connections between literature and our students' lives stronger, better and, as the kids say now, 'fresher' than ever."

"Literature and Lives: A Response-Based, Cultural Studies Approach to Teaching English," published by the National Council of Teachers of English, is Carey-Webb's third book. He is also the author of "Making Subject(s): Literature and the Emergence of National Identity" and the co-editor of "Teaching and Testimony: Rigoberta Menchu in the North American Classroom."

Carey-Webb, who earned a doctoral degree from University of Oregon, also holds degrees from Lewis and Clark College and Swathmore College. His teaching and research areas include English education and postcolonial and American minority literature. He maintains a Web site for English teachers at <vms.cc.wmich.edu/~careywebb>.

Media contact: Marie Lee, 616 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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