Texts as Tools for Thinking: The Topic is Not the Message

The study of literature presents interesting difficulties for teachers and students. More than most subjects, literature invites interpretation and introspection on the part of the reader—it raises questions, offers ideas for consideration, and challenges assumptions—and a text can be “difficult” for different reasons. Sometimes, it is simply a matter of dated language, but other times, the difficulty lies in the shape of the stories and characters themselves.

Inquiry By Design is not a “one-note” curriculum. Our texts contain selections that tend toward very positive emotional moments, such as that moment of kindness and shared respect at the end of “Raymond’s Run,” (Toni Cade Bambara) as well as texts that may leave a reader disquieted, such as the final moments of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (Flannery O’Connor). There are also many texts (Persepolis, “The Lesson,” “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons”) that lie somewhere in between, where characters encounter different kinds of conflicts and determine, as best they can, how to respond to them.

At the core of our work is the idea that texts are tools for thinking. In the course of their work with any of our selections, students have multiple opportunities to process the text through writing, partner work, and whole-class discussion. There is never an expectation that students “agree with” or “conform to” the ideas or content of any particular reading, only that students engage in the kinds of work we expect of adult readers and writers: honest engagement, civil and respectful discussion, and careful explanation of ideas.

The social nature of this work and the opportunity to talk with peers about things that are deeply felt means that even in cases where a text itself is not “happy” in the typical sense, the actual experience of students in the classroom is a positive one of engagement and respect—a chance to hear others and to be heard. Sometimes teachers find that the emotionally difficult moments in a text show students they are not alone in their feelings and experiences; other times, these moments offer students a window into lives very different from their own.

As such, one of the challenges in selecting texts is to find those that are ambiguous enough to stand up to multiple readings and multiple discussions, allowing students an authentic opportunity to make their own meaning and interpretive argument.

It’s natural that through this process of discussion, reflection, and writing, responses and reactions to a text change. In fact, it’s one of the greatest joys of our curriculum. As students learn to read and think below the surface of a story, they often uncover messages and themes that, at first glance, might seem at odds with the content. Our units are designed to both allow and inspire this opportunity. So, while a text like “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons” may contain some disturbing imagery, students are more likely to come away with messages of fierce familial love, community, and the risks of letting go. Conversely, they may find more disturbing messages lie beneath the surface of seemingly happy, innocuous stories like “The Halloween Party.”

In any case, literature, from Shakespeare’s tragedies to the latest Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is inherently rooted in conflict. And conflict is inherently uncomfortable. Our hope and design is to build a positive learning environment that can allow students to grapple honestly with the ideas and conflicts in the world around them while building the skills of respectful academic conversation.