Literary Themes and Connections

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[[This blog was original posted on January 23, 2013.]]

I’ve previously discussed on this blog ideas about the ambiguity and open-endedness of interpretation. Today I’m thinking specifically about how making connections across texts is central to the work of the literature classroom.

This is something, I think, that students often need to be given permission to do.  I’m not sure if it’s a matter of fear that they’ll have the “wrong” answer, or if it’s simply a matter of not remembering things, but I’ve found that my students  need some prodding to answer the question: “Does this text remind you of anything else we’ve read this semester?”  While I certainly include that question among their reading journal assignments, I’ve also found that a bit more direct intervention is important.

Certainly, we can do our own modeling of making connections, announcing when we see a connection with something else in the text.  (In fact, one of the things I love about teaching an intro to lit course is that I read things that are normally outside of my immediate area of expertise, and thus I begin to see connections I might otherwise have missed.)

But we can also create a situation where students are required to make those connections on their own.

I’ve found the following exercise to be helpful.

  • I have students read 5 to 6 poems before class, poems that fit within a theme. In our course, it’s poetry about death.
  • Prior to our class meeting, I print up a sheet of questions (see below), and print on separate strips of paper the titles of the poems.  Depending on the size of the class, I’ll make 3 or 4 copies of each poem title. In class, I divide the students into small groups and then go around and have one student in each group pick two of the slips of paper (think magicians asking you to pick a card).
  • Students then have the task of answering the questions about the poems and, more importantly, making connections among the poems, whether it’s through theme, the personas of the poems, or the figurative language that they see in the texts.  By having students select the texts for comparison at random, I am trying to encourage the students to think about the many complex ideas – and particularly the way that those complex ideas can appear across poems.

Sample questions (and these are drawn from various sources, including, most recently Judith Stanford’s Responding to Literature. I’ve been asking some of these questions for so long at this point, that I’ve lost track of which ones were inspired by what sources):

Directions for the group: Answer each question for each poem, keeping in mind where the poems have commonalities and where they have serious contrast:

  • What is the relationship of the speaker to the person who has died or is dying?  How might this influence the speaker’s feelings about death?
  • In depicting death itself, what sort of metaphors or figurative language do these speakers use?  How does this affect the way that they feel (or you as the reader feel) about death?
  • What other pieces of literature might be useful in a comparison here?  (These can be from any other day’s reading in the course.)  Why might they be useful?

Once my students have worked together — and after I’ve talked with each group — we come back together as a class to discuss individual poems and how each poet portrays death. When we deal with themes in literature such as mortality, love, learning, or any other big concept, we encourage students to deepen their understanding of the literature they read, and to connect these themes with their own lives and experiences.

About the Author
Emily Isaacson received her BA from Augustana College (Illinois) and her MA and PhD from the University of Missouri. Previously at Chowan University, where she was the coordinator of the Chowan Critical Thinking Program, Emily is now working as an assistant professor of English at Heidelberg University. She has presented her work on early modern literature and on teaching literature at meetings of the Shakespeare Association of America, the Renaissance Society of America, South Atlantic Modern Language Association, and the College English Association. She also frequently reviews books about teaching literature in the classroom.