Helping teachers bring world literature to high school students

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When English teacher Denise Beasley assigned Snow, by Turkish writer and Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, to her seniors at Osseo-Fairchild High School earlier this year, she got an earful from the class.

"They hated it at first," she admits, of the novel rich in political and historical themes. "We are a small school in a very rural district. My students rarely read anything from other cultures. I have to build connections and empathy. And it is not easy."

Every year, Beasley plunges her advanced seniors into a different work of world literature through the Great World Texts program, an outreach initiative of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for the Humanities. Drawing on critical resources provided by the program — from teaching guides to workshops with UW-Madison faculty — she strives to make the works exciting and memorable through close reading, discussion, and projects.

Denise Beasley, an English teacher at Osseo-Fairchild High School who is shown holding a copy of Snow by Orhan Pamuk, has utilized the Great World Texts program for five years. (Scott Schultz) Denise Beasley, an English teacher at Osseo-Fairchild High School who is shown holding a copy of Snow by Orhan Pamuk, has utilized the Great World Texts program for five years. (Scott Schultz)

A five-year veteran of Great World Texts, Beasley is committed to it for several reasons: she doesn't want her students, all from small towns and farms in Wisconsin's rural Trempeauleau and Jackson Counties, to be "shell-shocked" when they get to college. She wants to shore up their confidence in their own intelligence and abilities (a problem in small rural schools like hers, she says). And she wants to meet the requirements for the Common Core State Standards Initiative— a mandate adopted by Wisconsin and 45 other states.

High school teachers involved in UW-Madison's Great World Texts program say their students end up ahead of the curve when it comes to bringing a variety of perspectives — social, political, cultural — to a work of literature.

While some of the Great World Texts over the program’s nine years have been ancient classics (Antigone, Dante's Inferno), others have reflected contemporary issues (Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, and Pamuk's Snow).

"We try to help teachers generate meaningful discussions tied to real events in society, the state, the world," says Heather DuBois Bourenane, Great World Texts coordinator.

Those links proved key for Beasley’s students. In September, Beasley traveled to Madison to attend a Great World Texts teacher workshop on Snow, taught by faculty specialists in world literature, Islamic traditions, and Turkish history.

"One presenter [Funda Derin, a lecturer in the Department of Languages and Cultures of Asia] talked about veiling," says Beasley. "This is a crucial part of the book. [Teachers] had lots of questions. When do women wear veils? Why is it a big deal when they don't? How does it affect education? We knew our students would have the same questions."

Back in her classroom in Osseo, the veiling conversation — and the central question it raised: would you be willing to sacrifice your education for religious beliefs? — consumed students for days, Beasley says. Once their curiosity was aroused, "it was epiphany after epiphany."

“We try to help teachers generate meaningful discussions tied to real events in society, the state, the world.”— Heather DuBois Bourenane, Great World Texts coordinator

Great World Texts also turns out to be an ideal way for teachers and students to meet rigorous Common Core goals in a creative way. Recently Beasley was one of several teachers invited to meet with the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to develop "exemplar models" based on Great World Texts curricula that DPI will make available online.

Overall, Bourenane says, the program nails this stated Common Core goal: "Students … readily undertake the close attentive reading that… builds knowledge, enlarges experience, and broadens worldviews."

Erika May, an English teacher at Southern Door High School in Door County also helped develop the DPI modules. She says what she finds wonderful about teaching world texts is what they reveal about human nature across centuries and cultures.

"What my students realize is that we're not so different," she says.

An annual conference at Union South brings living authors to campus (including Pamuk on Dec. 2) and shows off student projects related to the text — everything from plays to paintings to live performances. It's this opportunity that really elevates students' visions of themselves as intellectual achievers, says May.

"There is a great variety of creative thinking involved," she says. "With their projects, students get to play to their own individual strengths. They take it as far as they want to go."

Often that can be all the way to a four-year college. May has heard from several former students that the Great World Texts program was critical to their academic development.

"They write me when they get to college and thank me for the opportunity," she says.[slideshow_deploy id='13585']