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Pacific Curriculum Network Volume 10 Number 1, 2001

Teaching Literature Appreciation in Secondary School

Frances C. Koya-Vakauta

This paper looks at the time is devoted to language learning and

constraints of effectively teaching literature.
literature appreciation at secondary In many cases, English teachers
school level. It also attempts to outline a opt to teach only three or even two of
guide for English teachers to enable them the four genres (short-stories, novel,
to go beyond the examination and poetry and drama) tested in English.
unleash the creative spirits of their This, they claim, is to enable weaker
students. Finally, the paper discusses students to tackle the exams better. I
the implications that this change in personally know one teacher recently
direction of literature teaching will have posted to a Suva school who expressed
on prescribed texts at secondary level. concern at having to teach poetry at the
senior level as she had not taught this
Introduction genre past form 4 in her 12 year career!
This paper proposes the need for
The Fiji Islands Education the English teacher to see teaching
Commission/Panel 2000, cites the 1969 literature as more than just another
Royal Commission as having found the comprehension and memorisation
Fiji system to be too examination- exercise and, instead, use the texts to
oriented (Learning Together, 2000: 17). teach students more about themselves
In fact, what the 1969 report itself and human nature. In this light, English
stated was that the curriculum seemed to teachers must expose students to all four
be designed to `transmit factual genres. It is a call to look beyond the
knowledge rather than encourage examination, which mainly tests recall of
creative learning experiences plot, theme, background and character,
(Whitehead, 1980: np). Teachers are for (which are crammed in the weeks before
most of the year burdened with the the exam) and to literally bring the
knowledge that the students they are students out of the box, rather than
churning out of their classrooms each punching bullet sized holes in the box
year are more than anything else and asking them to interpret the world
equipped to become professional through those holes.
students than they are to be creative,
innovative or critical thinkers, ready for Literality: Literature, Literacy, Reality: In
the harsh realities of the world outside that order
the school.
English teachers in Fiji, In the Pacific, the arts are an
particularly at the secondary level, feel inextricable part of who we are and what
the strain of the public examinations we stand for. The art of story-telling is
looming over them. They constantly one, if not the most important,
need to remind students who are more particularly for children. For a lot of
interested in their subject areas of Pacific Islanders, their fondest childhood
Science, Arts or Commerce than in memories revolve around late night
English that, without a pass in English, stories, often mythological, told by an
they fail the examination. This, as well elderly family member. Mythology, as
as the calibre of the class, often retold by a talented story-teller, is one of
determines what genres an English the most important means of transmitting
teacher chooses to teach and how much family genealogies and a sense of
identity. For many children, therefore,

Pacific Curriculum Network Volume 10 Number 1, 2001

their first experience of literature relates students freedom to write on themes

to themselves and their environment. they are interested in. At a later date,
This can and should be continued at students should be given the opportunity
school, if literature teachers understand to read their work to the class and
how important it is for students to see explain what influenced the choice of
literature as reflecting life their own characters, themes, style and setting.
and that of others. This exercise is the first step to
The study of literature goes far developing the skill of contextualising
beyond the narrow scope of the study of literature.
the English language, which looks only at To give an example, a poetry
grammar and the technicalities of the competition was organised at Saint
spoken and written language. In fact, Josephs Secondary School in September
literature is, in a sense, a social study. 2000. Students were asked to write and
Literature teachers in many cases have then recite their poems. Although there
failed to teach their students about was no fixed theme, at least 90 per cent
themselves and the world. They may be of all the poems read were related to the
great transmitters of information on political crisis and the events that
Wordsworths style or the common followed. The exercise was a great
themes that run through Thamans avenue for creative expression as well as
poetry, but have the students really allowing the students to vent their pent
learnt anything beyond this? up emotions and fears in a very
The real challenge, therefore, for therapeutic way. Many other schools
literature teachers is not to cover all the have similar activities during Library
set texts on time, but rather to teach Week or English Week. Participating in
their students to read beyond the text, to such creative activities is very important
use the literature class primarily as a for students, as it puts them in a better
means of creating an interest in reading position to interpret literature texts and
and studying the four genres. This has understand the most important question
serious implications for the selection of of what makes a writer write.
texts for use in secondary schools and
will be discussed later in the paper. The Role of the Literature Teacher
The Form 4 literature teacher
does, admittedly, have the challenge of It is important that teachers of
preparing the students for the Fiji Junior literature at the introductory level allow
exam, but many teachers do not realise students to explore traditional forms of
that students are more likely to story telling, chanting and dancing as
understand the text and remember details part of the oral tradition of the Pacific.
in an examination if they enjoyed reading Thaman (1990), in a paper presented at
the text. the World Council for Curriculum and
Furthermore, it should be Instruction, talks of Cultural Analysis as
remembered that students learn best by an essential step in developing a
doing, so writing or creating literature for culturally sensitive curriculum. Some
themselves about themselves is the most important points that she makes are
effective way to go. Students will be given below.
able to relate to the prescribed literature 1. Culture is central to understanding
texts and literature becomes less western human beings.
or foreign to them. The technicalities of 2. Each group of individuals has a
interpretation such as stylistic features unique system for perceiving and
and thematic analysis skills will make organising the world around them.
more sense to them. 3. Different parts of a culture are
When teaching creative writing, interdependent and form a whole.
however, the teacher must give the

Pacific Curriculum Network Volume 10 Number 1, 2001

4. Cultural patterns are reflected in teach them these concepts before

language, especially meaning. proceeding to Wordsworth,
5. It is useful to see parts of a culture Shelley and Byron. I attended
as they are conceptualized by night classes in creative writing
members of that culture. At school, I had always thought
that to be a writer, one had to be
Cultural Analysis should be male, white and dead (later) I
incorporated into the school curriculum, discovered that poetry did not
beginning in Form 3 with very simple necessarily have to rhyme and
activities such as looking at values and poets could be black and still
beliefs of their own cultures. This alive!
complements current social science Teachers who are attempting to
which includes case studies of traditional release the creativity of their students
rules and regulations. Studying their own must keep in mind that students need the
ways of life gives students an insight into freedom to develop their own sense of
what their cultures represent. Cross- style or voice, enabling them to
cultural studies are also important, for understand how writers develop a
teachers and students alike, as they personal style or voice for a reason. This
foster a sense of pride in the uniqueness realisation is essential as interpretation at
of ones own culture while at the same the senior level (Forms 5-7) requires a
time enabling students to see how people more detailed understanding and
from different cultures value different discussion.
things and perceive the world in different Another way to maintain interest is
ways, and yet how people are alike in to invite local writers to meet with
many ways, too. It also enables students students and to read their work to them.
to see how contextualizing a literature In a personal experience, a group of
text, ie putting it into its cultural context, Seventh formers, the majority of whom
makes all the difference in understanding despised poetry, had to study a series of
why people act in a certain way and how poems by Konai Helu Thaman. The
they relate to each other. students lacked interest and found
Asking students to write a short reading and answering questions on style
piece in their mother tongue and then and theme rather dull. When a meeting
present and translate it for the class can with the poet was held, the situation
help students develop a sense of self- changed completely. Suddenly there was
worth. It makes them feel important that an increased interest in Pacific Art and
they are creating and are also writers, History (and this was a science form).
albeit young and inexperienced. The discussion session was very
Thaman (1997) discusses her own interesting as the same information I had
misconception about writers and gives a given them just days ago suddenly
good example of what a teacher can do seemed more important and meaningful
in the rural context to increase students to them. In the internal examination that
interest in literature and to help them in followed, 25 of the 28 students in the
their studies: class attempted the poetry question.
I did understand the students At the senior level, literature teachers
difficulties with the set texts are expected to be well read in both the
which we had to study. I tried English classics as well as local works.
translating some popular Tongan This gives them a more balanced
songs into English and making up approach and allows them to help their
my own verse about themes students to make connections between
which I thought might interest the great classical writers and our own
them. Tongan poetry is full of Pacific writers, who are in fact great in
imagery and symbolism. I used to

Pacific Curriculum Network Volume 10 Number 1, 2001

their own right, but are often down- the many examinations I had to
graded because of the perception that sit We had to study English
the classics are the ultimate literacy literature, the only literature
works and our Pacific works are second deemed worthy to study when
class attempts at a western art form. I returned to teach at my old
Team teaching is also an effective school, I found that I was
way to teach literature, particularly for required to teach basically the
those who are less confident or same curriculum that I had
comfortable with specific genres. It studied as a student.
would, of course be ideal if teachers Consequently, I was faced with
could specialise in either language or teaching something which had
literature, but as this is not always not meant much to me, and in
possible, teachers can team up and plan the case of English literature,
schemes of work so that block teaching something I actually disliked.
can take place. This allows both
teachers and students to devote a lot The Education Commission Report
more attention to literature texts. Rather 2000 states that the relevance of the
than allocating two periods a term for curriculum is a real cause for concern.
studying the novel, four complete weeks This is certainly the case in English. At
can be devoted to it, using perhaps two present, the Ministry of Educations
periods a week for language and writing Curriculum Development Unit (CDU) is
exercises which are based on the working on a revision of all curricula,
literature text. Block teaching also beginning with those for Forms 3 and 4.
allows a teacher to move between However, it is sad to see that the
classes, so a teacher who enjoys proposed changes focus mostly on
teaching poetry, for instance, can do so internal assessment and the language
in several classes, while the teachers of texts of Link and Target. The review is
those classes can take other genres in not looking to change the literature texts
her class. This type of teaching ensures currently in use, apart from the addition
that students will study all genres with of Rainbows, a collection of Pacific
teachers who are enthusiatic and poems.
competent, thereby gaining some Whilst this addition is welcomed, the
literature appreciation, as well as having other genres remain unchanged. A
unrestricted choice in the exam. Selection of One-Act Plays has been in
use from the early seventies as have The
Implications for the Literature Component Cay and Island of the Blue Dolphins. The
of English Prescription Silent One and Roots, the collection of
short stories, have also been in use for
Often, both the teacher and the some time now, but the stories are
student are frustrated by the content of Pacific-based and the students are easily
the prescribed material but there is able to relate to settings, events and
currently no alternative. A classic characters. Roots was written by a
example of both student and teacher in group of third year USP students two
such a situation, Thaman (1997) talks of decades ago and it would be nice if a
her early days: newer collection of stories could be
compiled, perhaps dealing with more
At school it seems that my contemporary issues. The anthology,
teachers were not interested in Rainbows, was compiled by Cliff Benson
what I knew, but rather what I after calling on local writers to contribute
dont know. Their task was to to the collection. A similar exercise for a
transmit knowledge their new Roots would be equally beneficial.
knowledge so that I could pass

Pacific Curriculum Network Volume 10 Number 1, 2001

The CDU needs to look at locally social study than a systematic analysis of
produced materials at the junior level to a genre. Team teaching is an effective
enable students to work from the known way of making sure that only the keen
to the unknown. If, at junior levels teachers take literature classes. Local
(Forms 3 and 4), the focus is on Pacific writers can be invited to read to the
texts, then the transition to senior level students. Teachers can also encourage
international literature will be easier for creative expression in their students by
both the teacher and the student. organising school activities which help
There is no shortage of Pacific unleash the students creativity. Teacher
literature with playwrights like Hereniko training programs should include cultural
and Thomas, and writers such as Wendt, analysis and courses of study that enable
Thaman, Figel, Veramu and Subramani to trainees to develop creative skills.
name a few. There is no reason why our It is imperative that this change go
students cannot learn about themselves hand in hand with a change in the
and their world before going global. This literature component of the English
is, after all, the more logical approach. I Prescription. It is time that education in
suggest, therefore, that Form 3 and 4 Fiji became less product based (exams)
literature be called Pacific English and more process based (learning). As
Literature and Form 5 and 6 International Thaman (1990) states: the history of
English Literature. curriculum development in the Pacific
Islands has been fraught with conflicts,
Teacher training most of which can be traced to different
perceptions of what education should
The BEd Teacher Training Program at be.
the University of the South Pacific does Genuine literature appreciation cannot
not adequately prepare the trainee simply be taught. It can be nurtured and
English teacher to actually teach English developed or it can just as easily be
language or literature, let alone creative squashed, along with a childs creative
writing. It would, therefore, be an imagination. A lot depends on the
advantage if the program required trainee teacher and his/her approach to the
teachers to take a creative writing course teaching of the subject. To conclude,
to enable them to inspire and teach their Subramani (1995: 194) beautifully
literature students. Logically, teachers expresses the importance of developing
must first be knowledgeable about a creativity and imagination in the young:
subject area before attempting to teach
it. Some possible inclusions for the The imagination is a part of
trainee teacher are existing courses human intelligence. As the
UU103, Pacific Oral Literature and minds inner eye, it creates
History; and LL231, Creative Writing I pictures of the world. For those
and/or Creative Writing II. who are dissatisfied with things
as they are, the imagination helps
Summary in creating a model of how things
could be.
I have proposed a change in the
approach to literature teaching at the References
secondary level, which should help to
create a genuine interest in literature and Learning Together: Directions for
encourage students to view it as an art Education in the Fiji Islands. Report of
form. the Fiji Islands Education
English teachers must be well read, Commission/Panel (2000).
knowledgeable and enthusiastic about Government of Fiji. Ministry of
the subject, teaching literature more as a Education.

Pacific Curriculum Network Volume 10 Number 1, 2001

Thaman, K.H. (1990) Towards a Literature Society of America

Culture-Sensitive Model of Curriculum (MELUS) Conference, Honolulu, April
Development for Pacific Island 18-20, 1997.
Countries, Plenary paper presented at Subramani (1995) Altering Imagination,
the World Council for Curriculum and Fiji Writers Association, University of
Instruction Regional Conference, the South Pacific, Fiji.
Sydney, July 6-10, 1990. Whitehead, C. (1981) Education in Fiji
Thaman, K.H. (1997) Of Daffodils and Since Independence, New Zealand
Heilala: Understanding Cultural Council for Educational Research,
Contexts in Pacific Literature, Wellington, New Zealand.
Invitation Address, Multi-Ethnic