• Literature and English Language teaching revisited

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    BEING greatly interested in literature, I invite you to journey with me through time and reflect on teacher practices designed to enliven a class and what must have been the educational perspectives behind the activities required of students in literature and language classes.

    In secondary level literature classes, lessons end with students tasked to draw out the message of a story, a poem or an essay. Students analyze whether a character’s choice/decision was morally wrong or right; whether the character was genuinely honest or merely clever. Whatever was the answer, students had to justify their responses. In another class I observed, where students judged a short story character to manifest a negative behavior, students were to write whether what the character did was justified, and if not, what the students themselves would do as being in the shoes of that character and considering control of events was impossible. Students presented their assignments before an open forum—their class bubbly participating in that interactive approach.

    To me, having those teenagers go through the decision-making process and to anchor decisions on one’s principles, considering circumstances beyond their control, was an innovative means to develop critical thinking. It is not always easy to judge whether there is a better choice for the character/s to make, especially if any choice would seem leading to sensitive moral grounds. Adding to this approach, I think, the teacher could have invited an expert, perhaps even a priest, or a member of the bench from among parents in the PTA who can be requested to have a forum before students and their parents on freewill and decision-making under delicate circumstances. My stand is, for students in their early teens, literature is not about literary cannons but is to shape morals, minds, emotions — and to understand what exactly is meant by “goodness” in the context of what Confucius suggests which is to keep to the golden mean — particularly because “too much good is no good.” Perhaps, during my teens, I wouldn’t understand unless with further explanation why it wasn’t good to be too good. In later years, I would realize that some people have a propensity to abuse one’s kindness. Beginning at the secondary level, literature could help shape our thinking, moderate our actions and temper our emotions.

    On teaching literature to secondary level students, the learning task was to draw out the message – usually a straightforward advice that was not difficult at all to understand. Such was a poem by Margaret E. Sangster’s Sin of Omission: “It isn’t the thing you do dear It’s the thing that you leave undone, That gives you a bit of heartache At the setting of the sun.” The poem advised the readers not to procrastinate; to do what they have to do without shelving this for some other time. For nature poems, students had to describe in their own words the piece of wondrous nature that they draw out from the poem. They were given varied options in translating the poem — into painting or tridimensional paper craft, or a miniature replica of the scenery drawn out from the poem and music accompanying the artwork. Similarly, for poems with other themes, students translated these selections into creative ways and explained their work during their presentation. I think this activity responds to the phenomenon of multiple intelligence, giving students an outlet of their innermost feelings and depth of thought —- of heart and mind, together. It’s about what William Blake tells us when he wrote “to see the world in a grain of sand, And heaven in a wild flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.”

    In a class of English language and literature majors, a lesson on short stories as a genre had the teacher assign a story to every group of five students with each group doing a ten-minute dramatization of the group’s preferred ending of the story. They then justified their choice, anchored on literary principles or cannons discussed in earlier lessons. A visiting short story Palanca awardee critiqued the outputs paving a way for students to an authentic understanding of the short story as a genre. In addition, the teacher stretched lessons on syntax and parallelism and figures of speech, using the assigned short stories in the service of language teaching.

    Honed to us was that speaking is as important as the other three communication skills in teaching language. Aural errors (due to mispronunciation) such as spelling their instead of there or vice versa are not uncommon among masters students enrolled just a few months after their baccalaureate graduation. Number agreement of subject and verb errors are committed to this day. Maybe the latter’s mix-up lies in plural nouns having to end usually with “s;” correspondingly then, verbs should also end with “s.” Of course we know the rule is otherwise. As an aside, that’s a living characteristic of the English language; it can’t be consistent; at times it can even be funny. To illustrate—the plural of “tooth” is “teeth;” but that of “booth” couldn’t be “beeth!” And here’s another one – dressing the chicken, really means undressing it. But like it or not, English is the official language of Asean. Of the ten Asean countries, three are recognized for English language proficiency – Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia. Let’s have us truly outstanding in mastering the language.

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    Teresita Tanhueco-Tumapon, Ph.D., is one of the Philippines most accomplished educators and experts on institutional management in colleges and universities. Her studies have included not only education and pedagogy but also literature. She has studied not only in the topmost universities in the Philippines but also in Germany, Britain and Japan. She is at present the Vice-President for External Relations and Internationalization of Liceo de Cagayan University (in Cagayan de Oro) after serving as its VP for Academic Affairs for six and a half years concurrent to her ten years as dean in the Graduate Studies of the same university. She holds a Lifetime Professional Achievement Award from the Commission on Higher Education.

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