Bringing critical thinking and social justice into the literature classroom

What is literature? Why do we teach literature? These were the two questions that I used to start off my ‘Teaching Literature’ workshop with 25 language teachers at Sanghamitra School in Hyderabad on April 16.

It was interesting to hear their responses, identify the common points, and note the ways in which teachers’ beliefs about literature have a bearing on what and how they teach. It seemed like the group was equally divided between teachers who thought of literature as a vehicle to teach language, and teachers who thought of literature as a means to talk about social justice. Literature was accorded the status of being a mirror to society, and of being a window to worlds different from one’s own. Unfortunately, reading for pleasure wasn’t mentioned by any of them.

It was important for me to point out that literature isn’t necessarily written; it includes a variety of oral forms. During the activity wherein participants were required to think about how they would work with Vietnamese poet Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem ‘Call Me By My True Names’ in their classroom, I decided to show this video clip featuring folk singer Prahlad Tipanya singing the bhajan ‘Tu Ka Tu’ attributed to the 15th century Indian poet Kabir. It is an excerpt from Shabnam Virmani’s ‘Kabir in America’.

Prahlad Tipanya (Source: Kabir Project)

What followed was a delicious conversation around self, identity, binaries and compassion. My objective in this part of the workshop was to get the teachers to shift their focus from explaining a poem to opening up a poem for students to enter. Unfortunately, a lot of language teachers in India diminish the joy of experiencing poetry by using poetic texts to teach vocabulary and dictionary skills. I introduced them to a few exercises that would foreground the students’ process of meaning-making.

We also spent some time talking about how getting to know the author’s context or the setting of a literary work can sometimes enable a deeper appreciation of the text one is engaging with. I chose the children’s picture book My Chacha is Gay by Eiynah to help them explore this idea. Before we delved into this story told by a child whose uncle is gay and lives in Karachi, we watched an All India Bakchod video that examines how Indians and Pakistanis can unlearn stereotypes with first-hand interaction between the two.

(Source: Nice Mangos)

I was moved by the openness with which teachers embraced the idea of using the literature class to talk about taboo topics such as queerness. They had lots of questions, and wanted more resources, so I showed them videos of people narrating their own experiences of being lesbian, genderfluid and transmasculine.

Later in the day, I facilitated a guided meditation that required them to imagine themselves hugging a tree before they would explore Gieve Patel’s poem ‘On Killing a Tree’. The debriefing after the meditation brought forth so many wonderful sharings from the teachers who had hugged apple, eucalyptus, neem, banyan and mango trees during this brief exercise.

Before we ended, I wanted us to engage with the travelogue as a form of literature. I could not find any short piece, so I ended up using this one that I wrote for International Gallerie after my visit to Kashmir. The task I had for the participants was to place themselves in the piece, and to note down what they saw, heard, smelt, touched, thought and felt as they read. They appreciated this method of approaching a text, and said that they would like to try this out in their classroom. I love working with participants who take responsibility for their learning, and inspire me to offer my best.

Writer, educator and researcher

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