All schools teach literature in some capacity to elementary students. “English” classes take up a large amount of a child’s day at conventional schools, yet we see children reading less and less. Reading for a long uninterrupted period of time is rare, and reading for joy seems like a relic of the past. Why?
Most conventional programs don’t have a clear purpose for teaching literature and so default to technical and test-based standards outcomes. Using great works of literature to teach punctuation, symbolism, structure, and writing mechanics. But is iambic pentameter really why we love Shakespeare?
Purpose of a Literature Education
In our view, the goal of all education is to foster in a student the ability to live a full life. A guided journey through literature affords our students the opportunity to develop some of the deepest foundations for such a life: the capacity for empathy and passionate values, heroic inspiration, and a profound understanding of oneself.
In the mathematics curriculum, we use the hands-on Montessori materials to represent abstract mathematical concepts. With the Golden Bead material, children can explore the decimal system as they master basic arithmetic, with the Geometric Solids children learn how to visualize volume and pave the way for calculus.
Literature is the equivalent of those math materials for character development. A great work of literature offers a concrete experience of characters, decisions, consequences. In Laura Ingall’s Wilder’s novel Farmer Boy, they see how hard work can bring a family together. In seeing Poppy the mouse boldly defy the tyrannical owl Mr. Ocax in Avi’s Poppy, they see what it means to stand up for your beliefs and trust your own mind.
In the Classroom
Literature is a cornerstone of Rhyme and Reason Academy. We read about a dozen works a year, over six years that amounts to more than 70 novels, plays, poems and stories. At graduation they will be more than “well-read,” they will be nuanced thinkers and passionate valuers.
The full power of literature is possible only through a very careful section of books. We use the following criteria as a starting point for choosing books, and you can view a sample list here.
- Engaging stories that are thematically profound and tell us something significant about life.
- Characters that are inspiring and value-driven. These characters make choices between what is right, and what is easy, showing us virtue- or lack thereof.
- Use only full length novels, plays and poems, as the author intended. We do not use abridged, excerpted, summarized, or “kid versions” of texts.
In the classroom we have daily discussions to bring light to the important aspects of plot, characters and theme. The ideas that move a character are related to the child’s own life, “Have you ever had an experience like this?” “What would you do if you were this character?” These discussions help the child develop a personal love for literature that lasts a lifetime.
This is a discussion between two of my Montessori trainers about the importance of literature in a child’s life.