How to Use Literature to Explore Complex Issues

How to Use Literature to Explore Complex Issues

Literature is an important way for teachers to help students to learn more about themselves, others, the world and bigger, complex issues and challenges, according to literacy expert Sharon Callen.

There is much more to reading and writing than technical skills, it’s also about enriching your experiences.

On Episode 49 of The Teacher’s Tool Kit for Literacy, Sharon talked about the importance of literature in tackling complex issues, emotions and ideas in a way that’s sensitive, thoughtful and insightful.

Sharon said there are many important books that unpack major challenges, such as coping with change and environmental empathy, in a relatable way for young readers.

She said teachers need to take the time to find the right texts that allow students to interpret, appreciate, evaluate and create their own texts in response. This often means looking out for texts with artistic and cultural value as well as different text and illustrative styles.

“I went on an intentional search for dealing with some of those things in classrooms which we want to be able to deal with. Issues where we’re thinking how do we deal with it – what if we’re not feeling positive? Or what if friendships are causing some challenges or what if we are getting a little bit anxious about something?” Sharon said.

“So these books really let us get into some of those things in a clear and intentional way, and also in safe ways. Books really are my default position when I think about, ‘ok, something’s going on that I want to work with my class on’. Sometimes it’s the book that just does that the best, and sometimes it’s enough for the book to do its work, we don’t have to always do more with it.”

One technique explored was the use of animal characters, which she said are ‘great for children to identify with’. This is seen in Upside Down Friday by Lana Spasevski and Nicky Johnston, a book where the main character is a monkey who feels anxiety when Fridays don’t go to plan.

“So in here, all our characters are a whole range of animals. So it’s nice, it’s kind of like one step removed again and it shows thatsometimes it’s animals that can bring us that other perspective around how we might be feeling,” Sharon explained.

“So for children who are feeling this, we can see ourselves in this but we can also understand that it might not just be us that has this, monkeys can have this anxiety too.”

Sharon also referenced Pear of Hope by Wendy Shurety when delving into the power of symbolism, illustration and sensitive words when tackling tougher concepts such as coping with illness, cancer and resilience.

“In this story, a little girl loves the old pear tree at the bottom of her garden. When she becomes seriously ill, the tree gives her comfort and strength, especially when she plants a seed from one of the trees. So this is a story of hope for any child who might be struggling to feel positive, whatever journey they might be on,” she said.

“So we might say ‘how do we write in a way for children who are struggling to feel positive? What does that sound like? How is it safe?’ So here, it’s told through sensitive words and beautiful illustrations.”

By exploring these different areas and ideas, Sharon said it opens up students to the ‘big things’ and ‘big feelings’ in their lives through their own writing.

“By being able to see and learn that we’ve got stories that can bring heart and understanding about the world, as a child they can also do that through story and bring the big things in their lives. And they see it’s safe to write about those things,” she said.

“[This includes] when things go wrong, when things haven’t worked out … our feelings, things that scare us, or things that make us feel any number of emotions.

“And it’s not only just about the trying to remember what we might’ve done on the weekend. Maybe it’s some of these bigger things in life, because little lives have big things happening in them, and we want to bring one to open up and explore their understanding more about those things and know that our students can create that for themselves.

“These are important messages to bring their peers and an important process for them to be able to explore that about their own lives.”

While Sharon recommended that teachers build their own collection of texts over time, they said it’s equally important for educators to also understand their current students and research books which are relevant to their cohort.

I think it’s good to go looking for the kinds of literature that we can share with our students to really help them understand more really what it is to be human, what it is to be in this world, what feelings we have to deal with at times, what circumstances and experiences we sometimes need to deal with,” Sharon said.

“I’ve always had a collection of books that I think deal with particular things, but I don’t always know in any year what those things might be.

“So when we find ourselves thinking about students in our class or events that are happening, ask yourself ‘what could we bring to that?’ And not just ‘oh sports day coming up’. We want to think more about feelings and about empathy and about these concepts and values of creativity and resilience and hope and things that can bring deeper levels of understanding to our students.”

Find out more on Episode 49 of The Teacher’s Tool Kit for Literacy below or subscribe on Apple PodcastsSpotify or Google Podcasts.

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