Literature as a Learning Tool: A Lesson Plan

Back to Structuring Equality

Literature as a Learning Tool: A Lesson Plan

Nicky Hutchins

As a parent, college student, peer tutor and future college professor, I want to address and help solve an important learning issue.   Within the late twentieth century, there has been an increase on the emphasis placed on elementary, middle and high school educators and administrators to spend more time on preparing their students for the yearly standardized exams and less time on forming and building their students’ reading and language arts skills.  This paradigm shift in the early years of a college student’s learning techniques and development have made me increasingly concerned that youth today can make it all the way to college and still struggle to read and write at the level needed to successfully apply critical thoughts to complex texts. I would like to address this problem by focusing on enhancing students’ method of thinking, learning and writing skills with the use of literature.

Many college students in addition to attending classes a couple of days a week are also managing their other full-time roles and responsibilities.  My belief is that in order to succeed in college, in their professional fields, and even to enhance their social images for personal and professional networking, all students need to be able to express their thoughts and feelings in a critical manner and that they should also be able to write effectively and appropriately for their intended readers.  According to the updated NCTE position on education issues, “often in school, students write only to prove that they did something they were asked to do in order to get credit for it or else they were taught a single type of writing and are led to believe this type of writing will suffice in all situations” (1).  Texting, audio devices that can read to us, and you-tube internet learning have changed the formal methods in which children and adults use to read and write.  School trips to the neighborhood library to hear the librarian read aloud the newest children’s book of adventures or to help grade-school students obtain their first library cards are no longer a common occurrence.  Now that the focus in elementary school is to prepare students for end of the year core exams, storytelling time in kindergarten is reduced or obsolete.

When I was an elementary student, penmanship and developing my cursive handwriting and weekly reading comprehension quizzes were all part of my grammar education and a curriculum requirement.  Also as part of our writing practices, teachers across the nation would exchange letters written by their students with other teachers in other states creating what was once a cultural and popular educational tool called “pen-pals”. The ability to read closely and to write clearly about what you have read has practical values as well.  These skills can help a student succeed in their other courses and beyond.  As Rebecca Moore Howard states, “scholars recommend the pedagogy of collaborative learning and writing not only because of its epistemological felicities but also because it offers students practice in common forms of work-place writing[…]for scientists too, collaborative writing is a familiar writing[…]and even preachers engage in collaborative writing” (57).

As a resolution to restructuring upper-level college students’ higher learning reading and writing skills, CUNY created a college-proficiency examination. The CPE as it was commonly called required all students who were either completing their associate degree programs or beginning their junior level college programs to take and successfully pass an exam that combined their writing and reading skills as proof that they were above college-entry level. CPE peer workshops and freshman and level two English literature classes helped students prepare for the exam as well as provided the learning opportunities for students to build up and develop their close reading and writing skills towards graduate-degree levels. In 2010, amid complaints that the costs of administering the CPE were more than it’s worth, CUNY discontinued the required exam and though it gave students a sigh of relief that this “ritual of passage” was no longer part of their academic program, it still didn’t help with the issue of getting students up to par with their reading comprehension and writing skills.

Digital technology is not entirely to blame for the lack of close reading skills that many college students exhibit, nor did the discontinuation of the CPE exams and tutor sessions. Even if we take in regard the factor that many students also work full-time jobs, are full-time parents and may not have full support at home for their higher-educational goals, the problem could possibly lay in the lack of close engagement from teachers and fellow classmates that the students do not receive in their writing and reading classes. Because many incoming college students are required to take timed reading, writing and math exams to see what level they are currently in, the habit of doing hasty reading becomes an automatic procedure that they use in their course works’  required reading as well.   Assigning the students reading assignments and asking them to write about what they read or to do ten page essays on the required coursework readings is not an effective teaching method as some freshman and/or remedial  English classes tend to do.  As educators we need to change the goal of just passing the students so that they can move onto the next level, and using basic assignments.  Instead we need to create lessons and assignments that will be more student-centered and engaging so that the writing and close reading skills they learn and develop in our classes and that emphasizes their critical and creative thinking will become embedded and characteristic as they move forth in their higher education and professional developments.

During my studies as an undergrad, I was introduced to and required to read, annotate and participate in thoughtful discussions in three separate courses using the following collections of readings: Making Literature Matter: An Anthology for Readers and Writers, Philosophy: An Introduction Through Literature, and Reading for Diversity and Social JusticeEach edited book contained a diverse selection of literary works that integrated literature (classical and current) with discussions of current events (past, present and future) and social interests that engaged students.   As students we were required to read and thoughtfully respond to the assigned readings via discussion board posts and/or two page essays prior to the following week’s class.   We would then submit our responses to our classmates and professors for review and then in the next class discuss our writings amongst each other.  By having to annotate reading passages, we were encouraged and also forced to closely read the assigned readings, especially if our reading responses were going to be reviewed and shared among our class peers and not just submitted to the professor for grading.   What I learned from my experiences as an undergraduate student in the various English literature classes I took and as a CPE peer tutor receiving feedback from my fellow students was more effective at times than the feedback from just the professor.

As higher education students, we tend to develop the habits we acquired in elementary school of writing for the professor.  However, from experience I believe that once we reach college-level we should be learning to write for our scholarly and professional peers.  Many of the scholarly articles that we are required to read and use for our research papers are written by professionals in their fields first for their peers in similar career fields to review and comment on.    Therefore my main instructional method would be to use short readings from an anthology of literature, required weekly thoughtful reading responses to subject questions I would assign to be completed at home and mandatory participation in classroom discussions. These combined methods would help students understand that their learning process is not just teacher based but student-centered and vital for their academic and professional success. My goal as an instructor would be to start the training of my students to write less to impress me as a professor and to write effectively for their peers in and out of the classroom settings. I would create new ways of teaching alongside some of the traditional methods.

For the remainder of this essay, I would like to propose some specific and practical ways that we can use literature and peer reviews to help students develop their critical reading and writing skills.  To begin this process, I will have students read two to three assigned readings each week and write a one to two page response/ reaction to what they have read.  I believe that weekly assignments like this would assist with one of my goals, which is to get my students to adjust their behaviors of writing to impress the professor’s eyes, and towards a new way of writing creatively and critically for their scholarly peers.  I will also have each student forward via email to a fellow classmate on an assigned name list order their written response for a peer critical/annotated review.  Within a time period, each student will receive back from their “grader” their commented paper and then use the critiques for revising prior to the in- class discussions on the readings.

Since this may be the first time that many of my students are doing this type of peer writing exercises, I believe it will be best that they first exchange papers with a couple of their classmates via email versus using other types of share writing forums, such as blogging and discussion posts on virtual blackboards which can be viewed by many.  I want to create for my students a safe way to build confidence and to provide for them the opportunities to learn how to accept and give peer-level critiques and annotations, and at the same time assist with their developments out of their comfort zones of writing only to complete an assignment for grading by their teachers.  According to Thomas Newkirk, “when students are urged to consider their classmates as the audience for which they are writing for, then instead of writing to impress their teacher in order to earn a grade, the students’ writing styles and content will be more effective and appropriate for their audience of peers” (301).

The goals of this type of writing and sharing exercise is that the students learn from each other how to critique, find overlooked grammatical errors, and build trusting relationships with their peers while preparing and revising short papers during the beginning and mid semester. By the time the final and longer papers are due the class as a whole will be better prepared and their thoughtful and critical reading and writing skills are more developed than they were at the beginning of the semester. One of the many goals of using literature and peer reviews of written assignments as open discussions in class together, is that this will provide for students a safe and comfortable    opportunities to voluntarily read aloud their revised/corrected papers and listen openly to critique from fellow classmates. Another goal of this type of learning setting is that it would allow all students to let their voices to be heard on various topics and subjects of personal and professional interests.  Another important result will be that this type of student-centered learning exercise will encourage the quieter students who tend to shy away from in class discussions to want to engage with their classmates more openly.

Literature can spark students’ curiosity into further research of a particular topic. Making reading and writing assignments more engaging for college students will make learning feel less like they are being required to develop a skill that should have been developed before they graduated from high school. It will also build their willingness and enthusiasm to complete their assignments effectively and timely. In their anthology for readers and writers, Making Literature Matter, editors Schilb and Clifford state, “examining literature is best seen as a process during which you gradually construct, test, revise, and refine your sense of a text.  We think literature is most worth reading when it does challenge your current understanding of the world, pressing you to expand your knowledge and review your beliefs” (13). I believe that by assigning and using literature as a tool for writing exercises, it not only forces and encourages the student to read more closely to understand the points the author wants the audience to get; literature also provides many opportunities and discussion topics for the student to exchange insights with their classmates and teacher.

Traditionally issues such as family relations, justice, love, and past and current events of society concerns, were the basis of literature topics that students would read and write about for class.  According to Schilb and Clifford, over the last few years, literary studies has turned to several new concerns such as:

  1. Traits that significantly shape human identity, including gender, race, ethnic background, social class, sexual orientation, cultural background, nationality, and historical context
  2. Representations of groups, including stereotypes of others,
  3. Divisions, conflicts and multiple forces within the self
  4. Politics and ideology, including the various forms that power and authority can take; acts of domination, oppression, , exclusion, and appropriation, and acts of subversion, resistance and parody.
  5. Economic and technological developments, as well as their effects.
  6. Values—ethical, aesthetic, religious, professional and institutional.
  7. Desire and pleasure
  8. The body
  9. The unconscious
  10. Relations between ‘high’ culture and ‘low’ (that is, mass or popular) culture
  11. Relations between what’s supposedly normal and what’s supposedly    abnormal
  12. Distinctions between what’s universal and what’s historically or culturally specific
  13. Boundaries, including the processes through which these are created, preserved, and challenged. (39)


My first in class lesson would be a combination of a few of the above listed literary topics with an introductory writing assignment that would allow the students to open up and meet the people they would be learning with for the next few months. Since this is an exercise I have done as a student in a few of my classes I am sure this would be familiar to many readers however I will also add a bit of a twist in the type of questions I will have my students answer and share.   After distributing a set of index cards I would give students about three minutes to list as many descriptive terms as applicable as they answer the following questions “who am I now,” and “who will I become in the next three years”?. Depending on the size of the class I would have them break up in groups of three or four and introduce themselves to their group members for about three to five minutes. Afterwards, collectively each student will introduce their fellow group members to the class. I will also fill out a card and share my replies with the class.  From my perspective as a student, when the professor shares a bit of themselves, it made the class setting and tone feel less formal structured and more open-minded for learning, personable and engaging, therefore as professor I would like to create this type of atmosphere for my students in the very beginning of the semester.

This writing exercise besides being an ice breaker will also prepare the students for the first set of assigned readings which are based on at least six of the new literary concerns listed above although the readings are based on essays from the earlier twentieth century. The first two assigned at home readings which come from Lopate’s The Art of the personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present would be James Baldwin’s essay,” Notes of a Native Son” and Edward Hoagland’s essay, “The Threshold and the Jolt of Pain”. In his essay Baldwin shares his autobiographical account of growing up as a young black man in Harlem, and the effect it had on his writing career along with the impact of his relationship with father. Hoagland’s essay also is an autobiographical account of his relationship with his father, and the impact it had on his desire to be a writer, however his childhood as a young white man challenges differ greatly from Baldwin’s.

This writing assignment will have two parts.  First the students must compose a one to two pages essay in which the two authors’ points of view would be compared and contrasted in reference to their relationships with their family members, their race and class standings within their society and the impact this has on their self-identities by using the following questions as a guideline:

1)      What is the main point, message or theme of this essay?

2)      Summarize at least three key-points, specific details or examples used in the essays that convey the general message that the author wants the reader to get.

3)      What is my response to the main point? (Be specific in referencing passages, sentences or words as support).

4)      Why do you think, do these two readings supports the discussion we had in class today about our self-identities? How?

5)      What new information have you gained from this reading?


Since this will be the first set of assigned readings, in order to get the students prepared for their future peer review critique assignments, the students will first submit via email to me their essays by the deadline I set.  Second they must bring in their essays typed and prepared for a ten to fifteen minutes peer reviewing session by their classmates in the following week’s class. Third students will have opportunities to read out loud their corrected essays and discuss their reactions and thoughts about the readings with their classmates in the time remaining for this class.  This type of assignments as well as the in class discussion sessions will encourage and engage the students with the desires to start learning how to do a closer reading of literature in order to pick out the key concepts needed for writing a thoughtful and reflective essay.

These two diverse and autobiographical essays written by male authors will reiterate our first few class meetings theme of how the essays we will be reading “places social identity in the broader context of identity development more generally and describes the ways in which one’s identity develops through the interaction between a person’s internal sense of who one is (based upon one’s social groupings)  and the views of oneself and one’s group that are reflected back by others in the broader society”,  which is a major theme discussed in the Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, which I was required to read and use as an undergrad studentAll of the assigned readings will cover such a broad spectrum of social, historical, personal, philosophical and relevant issues that each student will be able to find something to connect to and perhaps lead later to their desire of wanting to do more research into in the future.

The Oxford English Dictionary, defines the word literature as , “familiarity with letters or books; knowledge acquired from reading or studying books, especially the principal classical texts associated with humane learning; and is also now a branch of study”.  The image of a typical college student has changed since the OED was first published, however what is still current is that by the time a student has entered college they would have acquired and experienced a few life lessons of humanity.  Digital technology and various forms of the media offers people of all ages and from all over the world easy accessibility and a wide range of availability of information on various subjects. Today’s college student varies from a young adult who is entering straight out of four years of high school to an adult who are in their mid to late sixties, who has a wider background of various educational,  job and life experiences.  By the time an incoming college student has begun their higher education learning they would have already been exposed to a wide variety of world interest topics.

Literature comes in many forms and genres, such as poetry, fiction, autobiographies, and essays just to name a few.  Literature also covers an abundance of interests, points of views, topics, genres and insights from philosophical, to political, to religious to social sciences, just to name a few.   Having my students write, critique, annotate and discuss among their peers, assigned literature readings I will provide them the opportunities to reflect on what they have read and teach them how to develop and apply it critically to issues that matter and affects them personally and professionally.


Works Cited

Adams, Maurianne. Readings for Diversity and Social Justice. New York: Routledge, 2000. Print.

Bruffee, Kenneth A. “Two Related Issues in Peer Tutoring: Program Structure and Tutor Training.” College Composition and Communication 31.1 (1980): 76. Web.

Delbanco, Nicholas, and Alan Cheuse. Literature: Craft and Voice. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010. Print.

Howard, Rebecca M., Amy Rupiper, and Kurt Schick. “Collaborative Pedagogy.” A Guide to Composition Pedagogies. Ed. Gary Tate. Oxford UP, 2000. 54-70. Print.

Kleiman, Lowell, and Stephen C. Lewis. Philosophy: An Introduction through Literature. New York, NY: Paragon House, 1992. Print.

Lopate, Phillip. The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. New York: Anchor, 1994. Print.

“Professional Knowledge for the Teaching of Writing.” NCTE Comprehensive News. Web. 11 May 2016. <>.

Newkirk, Thomas. “Direction and Misdirection in Peer Response.” College Composition and Communication 35.3 (1984): 301. Web.

Schilb, John, and John Clifford. Making Literature Matter: An Anthology for Readers and Writers. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. Print.

Topping, K. J. “The Effectiveness of Peer Tutoring in Further and Higher Education: A Typology and Review of the Literature.” High Educ Higher Education 32.3 (1996): 321-45. Web.

Back to Structuring Equality


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *