Teaching Particulars, Literary Conversations in Grades 6-12
by Helaine L. Smith
paul dry, 248 pages, $18.95
Too often, the teaching of English literature lacks the developmental sense that other disciplines have. As you go from a basic English course to an advanced one, it isn’t clear how one step builds on the other. Each math course, for instance, presumes knowledge developed in previous courses, and other humanities fields have a graduated curriculum. Foreign language teachers have a system that guides students up the ladder of competence. Students of Latin first learn vocabulary and grammar, then read remedial texts slowly and carefully, and then progress to more complex authors. The same goes for music instruction. There is a clear path from new learner to advanced player. But teachers of literature find little consensus of what constitutes competence, let alone how one might guide students on a path to mastery.
Helaine L. Smith’s Teaching Particulars, Literary Conversations in Grades 6-12 is a refreshing attempt to take on the challenge. While many programs aim to instill “critical thinking skills,” Smith demonstrates how one might actually make good on that promise. Drawing on many years of teaching, she focuses on the practice of close reading for lower- and higher-level students. Highlighting the verbal particulars of the text, she shows teachers how to lead students through the basic skills of analysis, and progressively build upon these skills so that students may handle progressively more sophisticated texts and questions.
There are many superb readings, as well as a fine development of questions to ask students in a class discussion forum. The book asks to be read in an experiential mood, almost as if it were a work of creative non-fiction. It is written in the first-person and has an idiosyncratic feel, often taking Socratic approach that constructs an imagined conversation between an ideal teacher and equally ideal students.
Smith wades through the Odyssey, Joyce’s “Araby” and Poe’s “Amontillado,” poems by Donne, Shakespeare, Coleridge and Hopkins, plays by Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Beckett, and more stories by O’Connor and Thomas Mann. One might assume that the curriculum would graduate from lighter to more difficult texts, given the ages of the students (she begins with 6th graders). But that is not the case. Shakespeare, Hopkins, and Browning make early appearances. Smith’s method focuses on the higher and lower abilities to analyze a text, not on the difficulty of the texts themselves. Progress is measured by the complexity of questions students ask of a given text.
Each chapter adopts the same dialectic approach. Smith highlights a particular aspect of literary language and steers readers through a close reading. We get a blow-by-blow account of the lesson in action. In a presentation geared to 9th graders, on Yeats’ “No Second Troy,” she begins with a background lesson on Homer’s original and Yeats’ personal relationship with Maud Gonne. She then delves into the details of poetic grammar: How many sentences? What kind of sentences? How many questions? How long are the questions? Other details of the poem are drawn in: the images, adjectives, stresses, even the vowel sounds. From there, she widens the scope, prompting the students to compare and analyze the four questions that structure the poem as a whole. As the verbal elements are registered, students tackle the bigger concern, namely, the poem’s overall meaning. Smith ends with a satisfied conclusion: “I can think of nothing to add or ask, and simply say, That was great.” Each particular class has that sense of a class well taught and of full student engagement.
Such sophisticated readings are made possible by earlier preparation. Starting off with 6th graders, Smith begins the book with, fittingly, a class on the book of Genesis. She begins by asking students to focus on the details, not on the grand metaphysical questions that would naturally follow in a class discussion. No comments on whether God really did all that until they know exactly what happened on the second day! They examine the text as it is, marking the storytelling, the beauty of its descriptions, the vividness of imagery. They consider the perspective of the author behind the text. Why does God find “good” at the end of each day of creation? What does that say about the creator’s intent? The goal is not to analyze the creation into literary pieces and let them stay there, to demystify the text into a flattened textuality. It is to appreciate the full force of “Let there be . . .” That’s the operative assumption of this semi-technical approach in Teaching Particulars: if you don’t recognize the details distinctly, you miss the real significance and beauty of the work.
As for other content, there are quite a few good texts that one wouldn’t readily think to offer in a secondary school syllabus. I especially liked the inclusion of Anthony Hecht’s Rites and Ceremonies, E.B. White’s Once More to the Lake, Lamb’s Old China, and Malouf’s An Imaginary Life. I imagine works such as these are accessible to students who have been taught to read texts closely from an early age. That said, Teaching Particulars is largely a guide for teaching advanced students, in all age groups. In truth, I can’t imagine that this approach would fly in most public school environments.
What does this mean for the everyday classroom? Results, as they say, will vary. There are many good bits in here that would enhance any teacher’s work in the classroom. Moreover, one could design a strong syllabus around it, and even institute a curriculum with sequenced pedagogical goals that span many grades. It is important to remember, too, that the practice of focused, linear, slow reading remains central to the college classroom. Students who haven’t the talents or disposition to linger intently over the complex texts typical of freshman coursework are often the ones who drop out. Smith’s exercises plant a talent that will serve youths well beyond high school. There should be more books of this approach and quality.
Andy Ladd, Ph.D. is a free-lance writer and editor from Madison, Wisconsin. He taught high school Latin as well as English literature, and rhetoric and composition at the college level.