#07_Empty Rooms or Uncharted Spaces

Ten years ago when I was in Secondary Two, studying Literature at Upper Secondary was one of the surest decisions I made. Heck,  it wasn’t even achoice because I knew for sure I wanted to study it for O Levels, and knew for sure that I could. But hearing from fellow teacher friends after their recent promotional meetings and seeing my Secondary Two students decide which subject combination to opt for during the streaming exercise sends a chilly excitement up my spine. The feelings of anxiety and uncertainty are just too familiar.

One promise we made before we were sent out to the various schools earlier this year was to keep the lit torch shining high and bright. Lit is dying – they told us – and urged us to keep the passion for lit alive. Some of us were sent, somewhat like the apostles in the early church, to schools that didn’t yet have the skeletal foundations in place to support the teaching and learning of Literature as an O/N Level subject. That is why you were sent there – our Literature prof said with such power that he nailed that very line to our hearts with steely conviction. Six months later I beg to paint a slightly grey and different picture than what I expected to see.

Upper Secondary Literature is teetering tottering on the edges of nonexistence. I heard that the students are struggling to cope with the demands of the subject – the intense readings, the rigour of writing and thought combined, the subtleties of the language – and the teacher is struggling to cope with the huge learning gap between student and exam requirement. There are several reasons to explain this huge disparity. The main reason is that students are automatically made to study Literature when they do not qualify to sit for other subjects in particular subject combinations. The same go for subjects like Art or D&T. (Out there, people think that as long as you have a paintbrush, paint and paper, you can be an artist. Smirk.) So students and teacher are suffering because of this incomprehensible pothole in the way the school’s streaming system works (or the options the school provides).

In any case, the school has decided to address this gap by not offering Literature at Upper Secondary level any more. Normal (Academic) students who have probably not written a full-length discussive essay in their entire lower secondary lives, will no longer be shell-shocked when they have to do so in their third year. Express students have also been made to think that Literature is a monster that will churn out X-es in your paper, because this troll will never find satisfaction in your language use.

What do I have to say about this?

Nothing. Not yet, at least. I understand the limitations of the school, the students and the system. I don’t think it is realistic to demand that we maintain Literature classes at Upper Secondary, because there is clearly a learning gap between Literature at Lower and Upper Secondary that needs desperately to be addressed and re-examined. Having taught the Secondary Twos this year, I know that not many of them have a flair for reading and/or writing, and it would be pushing it to open up an Upper Secondary Literature class next year. It is not practical, and it does not make sense.

However, because we lit fellow teachers have been so well-trained with the mantra that we must not give up holding the lit torch up high in difficult times when we face persecution (oh this religious analogy does grow in flavour), I know for sure that Lit is the way to go. Literature to my Secondary School was a compulsory subject, although everyone said it was the hardest to score being the most subjective of its Geog and History counterparts. Yet, that worked. Nobody had qualms doing Literature whether in its Pure or Elective form, because they knew from Day One that that was the catch you had to live with. And they worked at it. And I enjoyed my Secondary School days because of Literature.

Not (only) because I did well in it, but also because Literature opened my eyes to many more things. I enjoyed the Sciences and Mathematics because I had Literature to help me appreciate numbers through the rigour of appreciating words. I also believed that Literature was responsible for developing our school culture in a huge way. In making us sensitive, thinkers, writers, speakers, presenters. In developing our skill for language and oral communication and speeches. In adding value to the arts like Art and D&T and Home Economics. Literature was important – and in a big way – more than just books and technical elaborated linguistic jargon. Lit was about life, and it taught us to learn.

That is why I strongly believe that our school culture needs to be rooted in some kind of Lit thought. We are beyond discussing Literature as a subject combination here; I would like to suggest looking at Literature as an approach of thought and culture. We need to gun for aesthetic appreciation, performances, musicals, plays; a reflective culture, one that enjoys expressing their thoughts and feelings in words; a communicative body, one that enjoys sharing and airing personal views in public spaces; a compassionate entity, one that values the person’s morality and good character. We need to fire up a passion for reading, good vocabulary, for storytelling, for imagination. Not WOW or mindcraft imagination, but fireworks, beach parties, a whole new world kind of imagination. And I think if we keep shooting for these, the kind of students will change. They will become more appreciate of the arts, they will be more knowledgeable about performances, they will be better audiences and we can begin to groom creative thinkers and speakers and idealists from the lot that comes in with us.

I had a short chat with some EL teachers today, and we wandered into the risky desert space of talking about dreams and ideals. You can have ideals and dreams, he said, but you will find… Truth be told the rest of the sentence trailed off beneath or beyond my head into nothingness. I am not gunning for immediate change, I do not expect Literature classes to hatch in one or two years. I do not expect to see a change in our student’s language proficiency in the next one or two years.

But I do expect to keep holding up the Lit torch. Even if it just me doing so now, and even if I am not holding up a Literature class, but merely a shadow of the Literature classes that are to come. I think the school needs to move in a particular direction and we need to help students become more aware socially, emotionally, mentally and linguistically. And surely we cannot keep on doing the same thing and expect our students to grow in calibre and passion for Literature and the Arts? Hopefully this is where we can have a bigger part to play for school – be creators and thinkers rather than silent followers.

When Prof D told us that Lit is dying, he probably stated it as a generic claim. But perhaps in some schools, Lit is in its incubation period? Like eggs that need a period of time to incubate and warm themselves up, like chicks that need a period of time to flex their wings and learn to walk and subsequently fly, I think our school and our students need that time and space to become thinkers, learners and creators with a fairly good mastery of language. And because that the ability to use words to your advantage and knowing how to appreciate literature and the arts (and life) is so important, we will fight to give our students that.

Empty rooms or uncharted spaces?

I prefer to look at it as the latter.

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