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3 Ways to Use Literature, Storytelling, and the Humanities for Transformative Learning in K12 and College


Education at its best provides information, knowledge, and learning that, too, contribute to a student’s maturation and growth as a person and civic-minded citizen. In light of The Global Achievement Gap documented by Tony Wagner with students and employees underprepared for the 21st century workplace, the extent to which American college graduates have become unmoored and “adrift” in debt and bereft of professional employment, and current college students underprepared for college work, it is high time that the humanities step up and remember its role throughout the ages and begin to provide creative solutions to all three of these problems.

1. A deeply informed and engaged humanities curricula can contribute to student progress in their own lives and toward their post-graduate careers:

  • An (eco-)composition class that includes service-learning with environmental restoration work.
  • A course on Native American literature with a regional approach that teaches students the history of the places where they grew up.
  • A Business Communication class that includes a central focus on social media networking and new business writing for digital audiences.

2. Strategically selected works of literature (poetry, novels, film, drama, stories) that include deeply moving examples of struggle and resilience can provide valuable lessons for students today, even as many of these texts have done throughout past generations:

  • William Wordsworth’s poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” reminds us that we all have those quiet moments that can turn either depressive or reflective. By remembering and reflecting on restorative moments, often with the beauty of the natural world, the arts, or wonderful selfless acts of human courage and service, individual thoughts and feelings may turn to wonder, praise, thankfulness in the marvel of that which is beautiful and good.
  • Simon J. Ortiz’s poem “This America” looks directly at the horrific legacies of conquest, colonization, and genocide, while also seeing that there is, too, goodness and beauty and continuance, that the natural world reminds us of the cycles of nature and that even after a terrible winter, there is a springtime that brings light and life.
  • The documentary Winged Migration with narrative by Jacques Perrin teaches the lessons of seasonal cycles through the remarkable migrations of birds around the world, migrations fraught with incomparable effort, struggle, and danger, but accomplished out of the love and mission of family, survival, and continuance.
  • From Langston Hughes’s poem “A Dream Deferred” and Emily Dickinson’s “We never know how high we are,” we read the weights and burdens of race, class, and gender that “warp” the soul that “sags like a heavy load.”  And yet, too, we read in these poems that “we are called to rise;/ And then, if we are true to plan,/ Our statures touch the skies--” and we may “explode” with the creative force of poetry, song, and life.

3. In addition to feeling emotionally connected to a story or work of literature, what is different about the arts and literature (written, digital, oral) are their capacity to engage us within a temporality that alters the pace of our lives and provides moments of reflection, consideration, even the depth of contemplation:

  • When Emily Dickinson tells us that “There is no frigate like a book/ To take us lands away,” she ends her poem explaining that the deeply felt and considered experience of literature literally moves the “human soul.” This very experience can be deeply transforming as is true of any deeply felt and reflected upon experience.
  • We all know the dictum that by learning history, we avoid repeating the errors of the past. Through an engaged depth of linguistic and literary experience, individuals and communities have gained knowledge and understanding, and, thereby, have arisen to contribute to the betterment of their communities and the lives of others.

For as Wittgenstein reminds us, there is no such thing as a private language. The very nature of language is in its shared creation and space that at its best becomes a meaningful place for thought, growth and life.

So, literature and stories matter. They matter deeply, for our lives, our functioning in the world, in our families, at work, and in school. Stories are the threads that stitch together the worn and torn fabric of the world, but it is through our reflections, our consideration, and our applications of what we have learned that is the stitching so needed for the betterment of our lives, our families, our communities, and the whole world.

Even without added funding for smaller class sizes and curricular travel budgets, there are nonetheless many ways that we can re-conceptualize and recraft our humanities classes and classes in majors across the curriculum to equip students forward as active citizens, community volunteers, servant-leaders, and committed employees. This means doing more, much more, for our students’ sakes, for our own sakes, and for the world.

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