The lesson’s part of a larger discussion about why we write, and about why writing matters. By the time kids are seniors in high school, they typically know how to regurgitate a great deal of "surface-level stuff" - what a theme is, or what the hero's journey entails - that's been sort of beaten into them over the course of their educational lives. What they often lack is an understanding of why any of these things matter - as well as the relationship between gaining that sort of understanding and being able to pull much more out of experiences that were already enjoyable (watching TV/movies/etc.). (It’s fun to watch The Dark Knight
, but isn’t it wonderful to be able to recognize what Nolan’s accomplishing as a writer and director beyond simply following his plot?)
In other words, there's often a gap between what students know and what they understand. For example, if a fairly intelligent senior in a typical college-prep English course wrote me a paper on GTTS
, he/she would probably give me a thesis like "Family is an important part of Greater than the Sum
." Then he/she would compose three paragraphs filled with examples of where family appears in the book, paying only cursory attention to why those examples exist in the first place (let alone why the concept of family is worth placing at the heart of a novel to begin with), before concluding with a paragraph that essentially repeats the introduction.
It’s the sort of essay-writing-from-a-template that’s often encouraged in classes where simply getting all thirty-plus kids to recognize an essay format is a struggle, but it doesn’t say
anything. Does the student understand what a theme is? Yes. Do they understand why the theme was used? Possibly, but tough to say. Do they understand why certain examples resonate particularly well in a discussion regarding family as the thematic heart of the book? No.
The key, then, as an English teacher is not to simply force kids to tell you what you already know. It's to challenge them to surprise you, to enable them to teach or at least introduce you to a new concept overthe course of a few pages.
Showing them the way you incorporate family and familial concerns throughout the narrative, especially when you're not placing it front and center (such as showing the harm the entity unwittingly causes through its stubborn unwillingness to let those in its "care" risk suffering), can help further our conversation about what makes “good” writing. It can also demonstrate that the best writers aren't the ones with the longest thesaurus-words or the longest essays, but the ones who recognize their opportunity to share with the world through their writing - whether the author is Hesse or Bennett, whether the work is a novel or an essay.
That’s the final key – to teach that all writing represents an opportunity to say something new, or to announce a discovery that can change someone’s day. A surface-level reading of Greater than the Sum
can be enjoyable, but a closer reading is ultimately more rewarding…and if you’re taking the time to read something, you might as well have more fun doing it.
Don't know if that's particularly clear, but it's what I came up with on short notice.