Conference presentation: Bringing Language Teaching into Literature Classrooms

Bringing Language Teaching into Literature Classrooms, Dr. Marielle Risse

English Scholars Beyond Borders International Conference, Dec. 4, 2021

Outline of ‘Bringing Language Teaching into Literature Classrooms’

1 – Introduction

2 – Choosing texts

3 – Teaching strategies

4 – Short lessons

5 – Assignments

6 – Examples: “July” by John Clare and Philoketes by Sophocles

Introduction

The title of this conference is crossing borders and that is a good metaphor for discussing literature and language teaching because it’s easy for a language teacher to cross the border between disciplines and become a literature teacher. Language teachers read books, poems and dramas and understand the concepts of genre, narrator, metaphor, connotations, etc.

But for a literature teacher to cross the border in the opposite direction and become language teacher is much more difficult. I can tell you from first-hand experience that a literature teacher in a language classroom is a miserable and lost creature.

I studied German and French at university so I am well acquainted with the grammar of those two languages, but in English – explaining the difference between when to use the present simple and present continuous? Rules for doubling consonants when making a present participle? Forming nouns off of verbs by adding ‘y’? Conditional clauses? When I have to teach a grammar class and explain ‘count’ vs. ‘non-count’ nouns or the present perfect or when to use ‘for instance’ instead of ‘for example’ – painful!

But I need to do some language teaching in all my literature class. When I walked into my first Middle Eastern literature classroom at the American University of Sharjah more than 20 years ago, I had students from 15 countries with varying levels of English. I had to blend some language information into my discussion of texts so I made a series of changes in my teaching.

In this presentation I want to explain how I teach literature differently with English major students than with literature majors, concentrating on four main areas: choosing texts, teaching strategies, short lessons and assignments.

Choosing texts

I have several publications on how to choose appropriate texts for literature classes and my main point is that it is vital to pick a text that students can connect to in some way as they are already fighting language and sometimes cultural difficulties and differences.

Dickens has written many classics, but his diction is difficult and the recurrent theme of a child cast out from the family, in novels such as Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and David Copperfield, create hurdles for understanding and appreciation.  

Whereas, my students have really enjoyed Beowulf’s and Sir Gawain’s lessons about protecting one’s leader and staying loyal to one’s family.

For Shakespeare, I choose the accessible plays such as Much Ado about Nothing, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet, and Henry V with selections from King Lear and Macbeth. Not Julius Caesar or Merchant of Venice.

As 99% of my students are female, for other dramas, I often pick ones with interesting heroines caught between conflicting duties such as:

  • Alcestis, Euripides
  • Deanira, Sophocles
  • Antigone, Sophocles
  • The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde
  • Lady Windemere’s Fan, Oscar Wilde
  • Arms and the Man, Shaw
  • Quality Street, J.M. Barrie
  • Our Town, Thornton Wilder
  • Princess Sunshine, Tawfiq Al Hakim

In terms of fiction, I use Jane Austen, Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence and Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier to spark class discussion.

Teaching strategies – using scaffolding to create a strong foundation

reading aloud – every class, every student reads to improve pronunciation and enunciation

  • poem – one line
  • fiction – one sentence
  • drama – one character’s words

comparing narrative structures

For example, I give students the first page of an autobiography from an Omani writer and from an English writer and ask them to work in groups to figure out what is similar and what is different. English writers usually have exact dates, list full names of family members, give specific place names etc., while local writers give more general impressions. This leads to a discussion of how cultures tell stories and give opinions differently

comparisons with Arabic

  • using the evocative O = ya
  • starting sentences with verb, often used in Arabic but in English = command or question

Short lessons

word attack/ word meanings

  • homonyms – prey / pray – bear / bare
  • teach prefix/ suffix/ root – Latin and Greek – like: auto-bio-graphy

explicit grammar

e’en – ‘Tis – apostrophe for missing letter

explicit teaching of archaic speech

  • thou, thee, thy, thine
  • ye, yon, yonder, yore
  • -th ending for verbs like thinketh

explicit metaphor teaching

  • color metaphors – I’m blue, he’s yellow, I’m green
  • animals – monkey, positive and negative
  • objects – the moon (positive in Arab cultures, negative in North America/ Europe)

Assignments

recitation

helps with pronunciation, enunciation and emotion

acting

helps students use the language in a natural way

with so many essays on the internet, make assignments which check for understanding and are personal

  • compare character to someone you know
  • have a conversation with a character
  • explain the drama or novel with a friend, your mom, your husband and write a short paper explaining what you agree and disagree on – my mom thought…

supporting opinions with proof/ evidence to help get ready for IELTS and standardized English exams

‘Some people’ or ‘everyone’ vs. I think Alcestis made the right choice because I think…

Two examples

1 -teaching grammar, vocabulary and literary terminology through poetry

“July” by John Clare

Loud is the Summer’s busy song,

The smallest breeze can find a tongue,

While insects of each tiny size

Grow teasing with their melodies,

Till noon burns with its blistering breath

Around, and day lies still as death

The cricket on its bank is dumb;

The very flies forget to hum;

And, save the wagon rocking round,

The landscape sleeps without a sound.

The breeze is stopped, the lazy bough

Hath not a leaf that danceth now;

  • topic students can relate to – hot weather, sleeping in the middle of the day
  • metaphors and simile – Summer’s busy song, day lies still as death
  • alliterations – sleeps without a sound
  • expand vocabulary – breeze, tiny, melodies
  • double meanings – bank and dumb 
  • grammar – hath, danceth

2 – picking an interesting text so that students want to read and discuss

Philoketes by Sophocles        

This drama is based on one of the stories from the siege of Troy. On the way to Troy, the soldier Philoketes is hurt and his wound does not heal, so he is left on a desert island by Odysseus. After ten years of fighting against Troy, Odysseus is told that the Greeks will never win Troy without Philoketes and his magic bow so Odysseus goes back to the island,

Odysseus tries to play a trick, he stays hidden and tells a young soldier, Neoptolemus, to find Philoketes, become friends with him, and then convince Philoketes to allow Neoptolemus to hold the bow – then Neoptolemus will run to the boat with the bow and they will sail away, leaving Philoketes stranded.

The play works well because:

1) a lot of suspense – Will Odysseus’ trick work? it seems to, but at the last minute, Neoptolemus tells Philoketes the truth

2) themes of forgiveness and trust – Should Philoketes forgive Odysseus for leaving him on the island for 10 years? Should he trust that Odysseus will bring him back to his country?

3) connection to Omani society – The dilemma is solved when Hercules appears and tells Philoketes to get on the boat, that he will be safe. This highlights the importance of mediators, a very important part of Omani cultures; when two people are at an impasse, they should look for someone older/ wiser to both give advice and guarantee correct behavior.

(photo by S. B.)

Related publications

Risse, M. “Teaching Paired Middle Eastern and Western Literary Texts,” in Advancing English Language Education. Wafa Zoghbor and Thomaï Alexiou, eds.. Dubai: Zayed University Press, 2020. 221-223.

Risse, M. “Ok Kilito, I Won’t Speak Your Language: Reflections after Reading Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language,” in Octo-Emanations. Carter Kaplan, ed. Brookline, MA: International Authors, 2020: 233-236.

Risse, M. “Teaching Literature on the Arabian Peninsula,” Anthropology News website, October 7 2019. http://www.anthropology-news.org/index.php/2019/10/07/teaching-literature-on-the-arabian-peninsula/

 Risse, M. and Miriam Al Sabbah. “Don’t Be Afraid of the Novel: Austen for ESL Students,” Proceedings of the 16th Oman International ELT Conference. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 2017: 28-35.

Risse, M. “Writing Prompts to Facilitate Creativity and Interesting Texts,” Proceedings of the 15th Oman International ELT Conferences. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 2016: 46-52.

Risse, M. “Selecting the Right Literary Texts for Middle Eastern Students: Challenges and Reactions,” in Focusing on EFL Reading: Theory and Practice. Rahma Al-Mahrooqi, ed. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 2014: 165-188.

Risse, M.  “Frosty Cliffs, Frosty Aunt and Sandy Beaches: Teaching Aurora Leigh in Oman,” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 43.4, 2013: 123-145.

Risse, M. “Who Are You Calling ‘Coddled’?: ‘Cloistered Virtue’ and Choosing Literary Texts in a Middle Eastern University,” Pedagogy 13.3, 2013: 415-427.

Risse, M. “Do You know a Creon?: Making Literature Relevant in an Omani University,” in Literature Teaching in EFL/ESL: New Perspectives. Rahma Al-Mahrooqi, ed. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 2012: 302-314.

Risse, M.  “Using Local Voices in Literature Classrooms,” Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: Gulf Perspectives 9.1, 2012. http://lthe.zu.ac.ae/index.php/lthehome/article/view/71

Risse, M.  “John Clare Looks Good in a Dishdash: Linking John Clare to Middle Eastern Poetry,” John Clare Society Journal 30, 2011: 53-63.

Risse, M. “An Open Letter to Alice Walker,” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Feb. 20, 2009: B11. http://chronicle.texterity.com/chronicle/20090220b/?pg=11#pg11

I am happy to announce that I will be presenting “Bringing Language Teaching into Literature Classrooms”

l will be presenting “Bringing Language Teaching into Literature Classrooms” at the English Scholars Beyond Borders – Dhofar University International Conference. Dec. 4-5, 2021.

My presentation will argue that in non-Anglospheric institutions such as Dhofar University, literature teachers will always need to be language and culture teachers. Given that many students on the Arabian Peninsula will use English when traveling or teaching primary or secondary students, texts must be chosen for their linguistic and cultural, as well as literary, qualities. I will use examples from teaching literature, cultural studies and education on the Arabian Peninsula for over 15 years to discuss how to create syllabi which reflect both the literary canon and students’ needs, with an emphasis on teaching multi-level classes and explicating cultural narration differences, as well as sneaking in language lessons. For example, folding language teaching into literature classes means both silent editing (such as not calling attention to spoken mistakes but repeating the student’s words with the correct pronunciation and/ or grammar) and short, explicit lessons. Lastly, it is vital to foreground cultural differences in plot, characters, settings and themes, in addition to narrative structures as an analysis of a literary text in English is expected to have the author’s opinion clearly stated with proof in the form of quotes and specific details, a format that Arabian Gulf students sometimes have not learned.

“Altar Smoke” by Rosalie Grayer

I wrote my dissertation on travel writing and, while some people keep a St. Christopher medal for travel protection, I look for travel poems. This is one of my favorites.

“Alter Smoke” Rosalie Grayer

Somewhere inside me

There must have always been

A tenderness

For the little, lived-with things

A man crowds upon his worn fistful of earth.

Somewhere inside of me

There must have always been

A love

Made to fill the square aggressiveness of new-cut hedges,

And feed the pursed green mouths of baby leaves;

A love made to understand

The way grass cuddles up to porch steps leaned upon by time,

And why dandelions nudge the stones along the walk;

A love for the garden hose curled sleeping in the noon hush,

Coolness trickling lazily from its open mouth,

For shingles starched and saucy in white paint,

And an old rake rusty with dreams of tangled grass and butterflies.

A love

for candle flames, like pointed blossoms on their ghostly stems,

And frost-forests breathing wonder on the parlor windows.

Somewhere inside me

There must have always been

An altar of hewn stones

upon which my love casts these–

burnt offerings–

To make a sweet savor

Unto my soul.

 

Continue reading ““Altar Smoke” by Rosalie Grayer”

“If You Get There Before I Do” by Dick Allen

(photo by M. A. Al Awaid)

“If You Get There Before I Do” by Dick Allen

Air out the linens, unlatch the shutters on the eastern side,

and maybe find that deck of Bicycle cards

lost near the sofa. Or maybe walk around

and look out the back windows first.

I hear the view’s magnificent: old silent pines

leading down to the lakeside, layer upon layer

of magnificent light. Should you be hungry,

I’m sorry but there’s no Chinese takeout,

only a General Store. You passed it coming in,

but you probably didn’t notice its one weary gas pump

along with all those Esso cans from decades ago.

If you’re somewhat confused, think Vermont,

that state where people are folded into the mountains

like berries in batter. . . . What I’d like when I get there

is a few hundred years to sit around and concentrate

on one thing at a time. I’d start with radiators

and work my way up to Meister Eckhart,

or why do so few people turn their lives around, so many

take small steps into what they never do,

the first weeks, the first lessons,

until they choose something other,

beginning and beginning their lives,

so never knowing what it’s like to risk

last minute failure. . . .I’d save blue for last. Klein blue,

or the blue of Crater Lake on an early June morning.

That would take decades. . . .Don’t forget

to sway the fence gate back and forth a few times

just for its creaky sound. When you swing in the tire swing

make sure your socks are off. You’ve forgotten, I expect,

the feeling of feet brushing the tops of sunflowers:

In Vermont, I once met a ski bum on a summer break

who had followed the snows for seven years and planned

on at least seven more. We’re here for the enjoyment of it, he said,

to salaam into joy. . . .I expect you’ll find

Bibles scattered everywhere, or Talmuds, or Qur’ans,

as well as little snippets of gospel music, chants,

old Advent calendars with their paper doors still open.

You might pay them some heed. Don’t be alarmed

when what’s familiar starts fading, as gradually

you lose your bearings,

your body seems to turn opaque and then transparent,

until finally it’s invisible—what old age rehearses us for

and vacations in the limbo of the Middle West.

Take it easy, take it slow. When you think I’m on my way,

the long middle passage done,

fill the pantry with cereal, curry, and blue and white boxes of macaroni, place the

checkerboard set, or chess if you insist,

out on the flat-topped stump beneath the porch’s shadow,

pour some lemonade into the tallest glass you can find in the cupboard,

then drum your fingers, practice lifting your eyebrows,

until you tell them all—the skeptics, the bigots, blind neighbors,

those damn-with-faint-praise critics on their hobbyhorses—

that I’m allowed,

and if there’s a place for me that love has kept protected,

I’ll be coming, I’ll be coming too.

 

Foodways and Teaching Culture

Food appears at unexpected times while teaching. I was discussing color metaphors (What does it mean to say, “she’s blue” or “he’s green with envy”?) and brought up “peachy” as a slang response to “How are you?” Then I had to stop to describe a ‘peach,’ not a common fruit on the Arabian Peninsula. I tried to triangulate as I know the Arabic words for orange and apricot but it turns out that no one in the class has seen a fresh apricot; they only know the dried ones. Getting the word “dried” straight somehow led to talking about how raisins are dried grapes and prunes are dried plums, but no one knew plums. So I tried to go by colors, looking around the class to see if anyone had ‘peach-’ or ‘plum-’ colored pen or notebook.

In one class we were confronted with the metaphor “chill iron,” so I did a quick run through the differences between chill (verb, to make cold), chill (verb, slang – to relax) and chilly (adjective). And then chili (similar to stew) and chili peppers.

Getting the vocabulary down is only the first step, as food interactions in stories almost always bring out cultural differences. Reading Peter Pan meant discussing that Mr. and Mrs. Darling were not horrible parents for leaving their children at home (and with a dog!) while they went out to eat. In Oman, children are almost always with their parents or relatives in the evening and would normally go out to dinner with the family.

Even my everyday actions spark conversations as bringing a cup of coffee with me to class and drinking it while teaching is not normal teacher behavior on the Arabian Peninsula. And I warn students that if they visit an American family, they will probably not be pushed again and again to eat. I tell them the story of one Arab administrator who, when he arrived at his host family in America, was asked if he wanted dinner once and only once. As he was expecting the offer to be repeated and food to be given to him as a matter of course, he refused. The Americans did not repeat the offer and he went to bed hungry.

This photo is from social media and I love it because the food in the back-left corner could be ‘read’ as pita (Lebanese  bread) rolled with processed cheese or fried bread with cinnamon and sugar depending on your cultural back-ground.

y - good morning

 

 

 

 

Foodways and Literature – Animal Poems

As I was looking for food poems last week, I realized how many animal poems I have taught and have written out a partial list below.

One starting place is the Mu’allaqa, most of which have many vivid descriptions of desert animals, for example in Imru al-Qays “Halt, friends” and Labid’s “The campsites at Mina.” Another group of early poems which feature animals are by the sa’alik poets; no one who has read Shanfara’s Lamiyyat (“Sons of my mother”) can forget the wolf metaphors.

“Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” Adrienne Rich

“Bear,” Valerie Worth

“Butterflies,” Fawziyya Abu Khalid

“Cat, Valerie Harper

“The Crocodile,” Lewis Carroll

“The Darkling Thrush,” Thomas Hardy

“Darwin’s Finches,” Deborah Digges

“December Snow,” May Sarton

“The Dromedary,” Archibald Young Campbell

“The Eagle,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson

“The Face of the Horse,” Nikolai Alekseevich Zabolotsky

“The Gazelle Calf,” D. H. Lawrence

“The Goat Paths,” James Stephens

“The Horses of the Sea,” Christina Rossetti

“How To See Deer,” Philip Booth

“The Last Wolf,” Mary Tall Mountain

“Minnows,” Valerie Worth

“A Night with a Wolf,” Bayard Taylor

“Not Swans,” Susan Ludvigson

“The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Fawn,” Andrew Marvell

“Pangur Ban,” unknown, Irish

“The Plaint of the Camel,” Charles Edward Carryl

“The Poet and the Moth,” Ahmad Qandeel

“The Raven,”  E.A.  Poe

“The Seal’s Lullaby,” Rudyard Kipling

“Sister Cat,” Frances Mayes

“Snake,” Emily Dickinson

“Snake,” Valerie Worth

“The Terrapin,” Wendell Berry

“To a Skylark,” Percy Bysshe Shelley

“Turtle Came to See Me,” Margarita Engle

“Upon a Snail,” John Bunyan

“The Vixan,” John Clare

“The War God’s Horse,” unknown, from the Navajo

“The White Stallion,” Abu I-Salt Umayyah

and many poems by Mary Oliver including “Ravens,” “Swans of the River Ayr,” “Turtle” and “White Heron”

More of her poems can be found at: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/mary-oliver

Short stories: “Pepsi” by Mohammad Al Murr, “A White Heron” and “A Dunnet Shepherdess” by Sarah Orne Jewett and all the Jungle Book stories by Rudyard Kipling

Foodways and Literature – Food Stories and Poems

(photo by Salwa Hubais)

I teach literature classes but my most recent book is on foodways, which might seem like two dissimilar topics but food is omnipresent in poems, stories and dramas so my students and I often have conversations that include foodways, literature and cultural differences. Explaining a reference to Persephone in a poem led to my telling the story of Demeter/ Ceres, which led to a conversation about cereals.

Sometimes I focus simply to the vocabulary aspect: explicating “civil as an orange/ and something of that jealous complexion” in Much Ado about Nothing or “cucumber sandwiches”  and “sugar tongs” in The Importance of Being Earnest. But occasionally food takes center stage as with the fishing with a sword scene in Tawfiq Al Hakim’s Princess Sunshine when the question of ‘who makes dinner’ helps carry the theme of the play. Another food-centered example is the dual breakfast scene in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. On our first run-through, it’s simply a confusing jumble of random statements. But when we have read it a few times and then ‘perform’ it with one student per character, the beauty (and sadness) of that section shine through. Students often remark, “it’s like that at my home.”

Some stories show cultural similarities, such as Laura bringing food to the widow in Mansfield’s “Garden Party,” but they can also show differences. Unlike in Oman, only Laura visits the house (not with her mother and older sister) and she only stays a brief time.

Another Mansfield story “The Doll’s House” uses food to give insights into the social standing of the schoolgirls – having a sandwich with meat shows wealth while a jam sandwich wrapped in newspaper points to poverty. Similarly, the social niceties observed in the dining room at the beginning of Room with a View preview the theme of the novel. Who sits at which table reveals the hierarchies which Lucy will eventually break.

Food issues can even be the comic element of a story as with Elizabeth Gaskell’s magnificent Cranford with its details of manage your cook, take care of your cow and why you should eat your orange in your room (so you can roll it under your bed to check if anyone is hiding there and then slurp the orange sections in private).

Food essays are also wonderful for sparking good student writing. “Jam” and “A Thing Shared” from The Gastronomical Me  by M. F. K. Fisher, “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid and “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens” by Alice Walker are great example texts to help students see how to write about their own food experiences.

As for poems about food, we have to start with

“Talk,” Gökhan Tok

You never hear it

but at breakfast the sweetest talk

is between the jam and the honey.

and Naomi Shihab Nye’s wonderful “Arabic Coffee,” “My Father and the Fig Tree,” “Sifter,” “The Traveling Onion” and “The Tray.” For more, please see https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/naomi-shihab-nye and https://poets.org/poet/naomi-shihab-nye

Other poems include:

  • “After Apple-Picking,” Robert Frost
  • “The Angler,” Thomas Buchanan Read
  • “The Bean-Stalk,” Edna St. Vincent Millay
  • “Blackberry-Picking,” Seamus Heaney
  • “Coolness of the Melons,” Matsuo Basho
  • “Cynddylan on a Tractor,” R.S. Thomas
  • “The [Date] Palm Tree,” Adnan Mohsin
  • “The Fisherman,” Goethe
  • “From Blossoms,” Li-Young Lee
  • “I Return to the Place I was Born,” T’ao Yuan Ming
  • “Love Poem With Toast,” Miller Williams
  • “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost
  • “The Solitary Reaper,” William Wordsworth
  • “Sorry I Spilled It,” Shel Silverstein
  • “What’s That Smell in the Kitchen?” Marge Piercy

A few food-oriented short stories include: “A Dash of Light” by Ibrahim Aslan, “I Saw the Date Palms” by Radwa Ashour, “A Cup of Tea” by  Katherine Mansfield and “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl, as well as several by Mohammed al Murr including “A Late Dinner,” “The Night’s Catch,” “Look After Yourself” and my favorite: “Dinner by Candlelight.”

y - morning coffee

Poems

September is the time to read lots of poems, trying to find good ones to teach. Here is one of my favorites:

My childhood is a long way off

My old age is a long way off

My country, my exile, a long way off.

Tourist!

Give me your binoculars

Perhaps I might glimpse a hand or a handkerchief

In this world

Waving at me

Take my photographs as I weep

Crouching in my tatters on the steps of the hotel

Write on the back of the picture

“This is a poet from the East.”

Spread your handkerchief on the pavement

And sit beside me under this tender rain  

Let me disclose to you a great secret:

“Go dismiss all your guides

Throw to the mud…to the fire

All the notes and impressions you’ve written

Any old peasant in this land

Can tell you with two verses from our sad ‘Ataba songs

All the history of the East

As he rolls his cigarette in front of his tent.”

            Muhammad Al-Maghut (1987)

Other good poems

“Arabic Coffee,” a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye

Favorite Poems

and the favorite poem of all poetry teachers:

Poems – “Finding Poems for my Students” by Mohja Kahf