Literature instead of set texts

By Gilberte Dietzel, May 2013

How original texts can set the imagination of pupils alight.

Everything in a text

A text should have content and images which send the imagination of the reader soaring, touch his or her soul and awaken his or her interest in what is depicted, in the language, the different age and culture. The pupils should learn to study texts not just for their content but also for the implicit and explicit intentions of the author. As the world is revealed in written texts through the word, the path which is pursued with the upper school pupil must of necessity let the world of the text come alive in him or her through feeling and thinking.

If the aim of the teacher is to let the pupil comprehend the multiple layers of a text, then space  must be created for such an encounter between the pupil and the text. But such an encounter can only take place if the teacher can design tasks which are newly adapted for each text, carefully thought out and stimulate the imagination.

Tasks not “exercises”

The task should be meaningful and fun and correspond to the pupil’s stage of development. It should present the pupil with a challenge in terms of its content and language, but one which he or she can manage. It should provoke questions in the pupil, get him or her to try things, reject them, try again. It should be anchored in reality and offer various ways to a solution. It should be as complex as possible so that it cannot be seen through so easily and solved mechanically. Above all, it should end in a new skill.

Other than normal exercises, this kind of task should awaken the desire in the pupil to express himself or herself. The teacher does not present a solution, the pupil becomes the independent actor of his or her own learning. This entails that the teacher withdraws from what is happening in the lesson and leaves the pupil to act on his or her own.

The silence of the text

These tasks require thorough preparation by the teacher. He or she must have analysed the text very well so that he or she can determine the content of what is to be learned in each task.

Learning content can be: handling certain grammatical points (e.g. conditional sentences), characterisation of fictional characters, use of stylistic devices or practicing a particular text format (letter, diary entry, newspaper article), collecting arguments for a debate, conversational techniques, a telephone call – formats, then, which are often taken from everyday life. Thereafter the teacher above all requires imagination in designing the task.

Imagination means looking at reality from an unusual perspective, changing it through something unexpected, uncommon, subversive. Imagination has a liberating effect.

Here the text is scoured for what has been left unsaid, for narrative omissions, for what the narrator has not mentioned. Strongly condensed texts contain moments of silence. For the writer always makes a choice; he or she can never write everything that might have happened. A operating manual, assembly instructions, a grammar book must not leave out any details, otherwise they would become imprecise and unusable. A novel which depicts every item, specifies every detail quickly becomes boring because no room is left for the reader’s imagination.

The tasks are not about reproducing the explicit content of the text (example: “Summarise the section” or “Describe character X”), but utilising these blank spaces, these concealments. That in turn stimulates the imagination of the pupils and awakens the wish in them to express themselves.

Lessons mean encounter

At the start of the work, the text is read with the whole class. The pupils concentrate exclusively on understanding the content. Unfamiliar words, expressions and grammatical structures are briefly explained if necessary, but that is not the focus of the work. The teacher is purely there to aid comprehension, he or she does not use the text to introduce new vocabulary or grammatical structures.

Take the example of Guy de Maupassant’s short story Boule de suif. Right at the start of the story, the anxious wait of the inhabitants of the city of Rouen for the arrival of the Prussian soldiers in 1870 is presented in short sentences – “La vie semblait arrêtée; les boutiques étaient closes, la rue muette. Quelquefois un habitant, intimidé par ce silence, filait rapidement le long des murs. L'angoisse de l'attente faisait désirer la venue de l'ennemi”. In rapid brush strokes the author sketches the atmosphere of fear in the town. Such a text passage can be the starting point for various tasks: what remains unsaid? The everyday life of the people in the town such as for example the conversations in a shop between the shopkeeper and his assistants about the reason why the shop remains closed for the time being. Or the thoughts of a housewife whose supplies are running low about how she can persuade the housemaid or her husband to venture out to the merchant. Or the diary entry of a young woman whose fiancé is serving in the French army. Many more examples could be found.

What learning tasks would fit with such content? The conversation between the shopkeeper and his assistants could be combined with the requirement to use causal and final conjunctions. In the thoughts of the housewife conditional clauses or expressions requiring the subjunctive should be used, the diary entry should have the appropriate form. If the pupils are to be prepared for analysing texts, they have to take the historical background and contemporary situation into account.

The important thing is that the teacher should formulate the task to be done clearly and precisely. The pupils work on the task in the lessons alone or with several in a group; besides the teacher, they have bilingual dictionaries and contemporary documents to hand. The teacher does not say what should happen but helps when requested and keeps resources available.

Once everyone has solved the task in the agreed time, the moment of exchange arrives. Any written work is laid out so that everyone can read the texts which have been created. Any oral preparation is presented to the class.

Some might argue that such tasks trivialise literature and turn it into a utilitarian object. But what happens in practice is that the pupils closely connect with the text and begin to identify with the persons and situations. This makes subsequent text analysis exercises easier.

The initial insecurity of the pupils when the task is set evokes a need for vocabulary and grammar. They must make up that deficit through their own action. The new knowledge with its connections to already existing skills is coherent and usable in a new situation. It is not about accumulating knowledge but about insights which are the starting point for independent exploration of texts and become the tool for communications, analysis and involvement in the world.

The teacher’s silence is a gift, a gift of time, time for comprehension, time for thinking, time for learning. Silence is just as strong as the word, but only in a different way. It creates freedom whereas the word constricts, it is a breathing out which allows the imagination and the thinking of the pupils to soar.

About the author: Gilberte Dietzel is a French teacher at the Frankfurt am Main Free Waldorf School. She is the regional consultant for French at the Landesarbeits­gemeinschaft (LAG) in Hesse, works as  a lecturer in basic, further and advanced training, and is a member of the specialist commission for the Abitur (university entrance exam) in Hesse.