What Mathematics Can Teach Us About Literature

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Missy and I spend a lot of time showing parents how to teach short stories with pictures by means of simple questions like “does the main character succeed?”

This approach has helped thousands of teachers get young students started in literary reading with children’s classics like Mem Fox’s Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, Patricia MacLachlan’s All the Places to Love, or Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon.

But what, we are often asked, should older students do? Are there other methods necessary to develop students at the high school level? What about books like Dante’s Inferno, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby? What new techniques must be learned to handle such mature subject matter?

This is an odd question, if only because a parent would never ask it about math. For example, how would you describe the technique used in the following pre-calculus exercise for high school seniors?

Pilot Tim Jones takes off in his plane for his grandmother’s house, which is located 675 miles west by southwest of his location. He starts out heading 34 degrees west of south. After 240 miles, he changes direction to 78 degrees west of south and travels 480 miles more. How far is the plane from its starting point? What is Tim’s bearing compared to his starting point? Has he arrived at his grandmother’s house?

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What techniques are involved here? Short story? Check. Pictures? Check. Simple questions like “does the main character succeed?” Check.

In math, this kind of teaching is appropriate for all levels, from arithmetic to algebra and beyond. In literature, for some reason, we forsake these techniques after about the sixth grade and look nervously for some other, more age-appropriate method for our older students – as if asking these simple questions couldn’t possibly help them understand Dante or Shakespeare.

But the question of age-appropriateness doesn’t apply to method like it does to content. The method used to solve algebra problems is much the same as the method used in arithmetic; in fact, math teachers often present algebra as an application of arithmetic to a new set of conditions. Students later find that calculus requires a similar application of the techniques of algebra, and thus of the principles of arithmetic. The whole point of teaching math is to create the proper mental habits by doing things the same way from the beginning, never forgetting the rudiments of the discipline.

Literature works just the same way. Good Lit teachers show beginners how to identify the parts of a story and the ways they interact to emphasize an author’s themes. Then, they help the students practice this same technique on increasingly difficult stories as their reading skills mature. In the end, students can easily understand the most difficult stories by using the same method they learned at the beginning. The simple questions that make Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge clear to the youngest readers can make Hamlet clear to High School students, as long as they are familiar with the proper technique.

This is why smart Lit teachers use children’s stories, even with their older students: the simplicity of the content makes it relatively easy to learn the method.

But teachers should not confuse simplicity with irrelevance. There is no substitute for the basic techniques of literary reading learned from children’s literature. They are essential to a student’s understanding of any literature at all. In fact, until a student acquires these techniques, he will never notice the profound themes in Dante, Shakespeare, or Hemingway. To continue the algebra/arithmetic analogy, he cannot hope to factor a trinomial until he learns to add and subtract.

Importantly, though, as all teachers will agree, no student can learn to add and subtract in an algebra class. Arithmetic is a prerequisite; the student must have it before he begins algebra. In the same way, a student cannot learn literary reading in a Shakespeare class; he must have learned it already, with much simpler stories.

The High School Lit teacher hoping to teach literary reading, therefore, is in a fine pickle: his students can’t learn the proper techniques by reading Shakespeare, but can’t understand Shakespeare without them. 

What would his colleague in the Math department do? Go back and teach arithmetic! It would not matter to him that his students were “too old” for arithmetic; remedial work is never age-appropriate.

Here is a rule with no exceptions: The person who has never been taught to read literature properly does not know how.  Nobody is born with this skill, even if their phonics are perfect. All readers must learn the fundamental principles of the subject, regardless of their age.

But many of us who agree with this idea still try to teach the fundamentals of literary reading with the adult classics. We shun picture books especially, which we deem insufficiently challenging for our older students.

It testifies to our own poor reading that we miss the profound artistic and philosophical content of the simplest bedtime stories. Perhaps we need some “arithmetic” lessons ourselves! In Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, for example, Mem Fox depicts the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between separate individuals (long the preoccupation of empiricist and existentialist philosophers) and suggests that ignorance, combined with the sensations provided by universal human experience, may produce fellowship and so provide a remedy. In Owl Moon, Jane Yolen contrasts the anxiety of an unknown future with the warmth and security of the family relationship using as powerful an image as Charles Dickens ever conjured.  In All the Places to Love, Patricia MacLachlan questions the wisdom of putting one’s faith in houses and land while acknowledging this universal tendency, and so emphasizing the poignancy of the human condition. Many authors of adult classics treat these themes as well; you could argue that none does it better.

As a genre, in fact, “children’s literature” is perhaps the most widely misunderstood and abused of all labels. For all the merit we accord it, we might as well use it to mean “written by children” instead of “written for children.” The truth is, however, that even this last definition misleads. Children’s literature is written for readers, including children. The grown-ups who wrote it didn’t consider it beneath them; good readers of all ages will always agree.

This is by no means to suggest that children’s literature should replace the adult classics in your High School curriculum. Your students should not read Wilfrid Gordon instead of Hamlet; they should learn how to read Hamlet by reading Wilfrid Gordon. If, in so doing, they also learn to appreciate Wilfrid Gordon itself, they will be that much more human for it.

Students who have learned the techniques of literary reading can find profound beauty, truth and goodness in all sorts of books, from Winnie the Pooh to War and Peace. Such students can choose their genre at will, and they will find as much joy in children’s literature as in any other genre, no matter how old they grow. If they do not learn these techniques from a kids’ book, however, the classics will be closed to them. There can be no choosing between algebra and arithmetic until arithmetic is learned. It’s arithmetic then algebra, and finally, since one contains the other, arithmetic and algebra together.