Using Visuals and Props to Teach Literature

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Today's featured guest blogger is Howard Cox, Instructor at Angelina College.

My epiphany came one day when I was teaching Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in a sophomore literature course.  In Chapter VIII of the novel, Jake and his friend Bill are taking a stroll along the river Seine.  Bill, who evidently has decided to avoid hangovers by never sobering up, had previously suggested that they stop almost every ten feet for a drink.  After looking down the river at Notre Dame, the bridges over the river, and the islands covered with trees in the river, Bill remarks, “It’s pretty grand,” and “God, I love to get back.”


A few moments later, Jake, being considerate of his friend asks, “Want to have a drink?”  Bill says, “No, I don’t need it.”

The point I make about this exchange is that the beauty of the cathedral at night, the river, and the scenery is intoxicating enough in and of itself.  Alcohol isn’t necessary.

My students, many of whom already have extensive experience with alcohol, don’t get this.  My aha moment came when a student asked about part of the description that says, “Down the river was Notre Dame squatting against the night sky.”  “Why does it say squatting?” she asked. “How can a church squat?”

I explained that Notre Dame was a Gothic cathedral built in the Middle Ages with flying buttresses.  “Viewed from the right angle,” I said, “it looks like a giant toad squatting on the river bank.”  Blank looks were on every face.  “It’s a kind of awe-inspiring sight,” I offered.  “Have you ever seen something so amazing that you just kept staring at it?”  Crickets chirped in response.

I was a getting a little exasperated when inspiration struck, and I happened to be in a classroom with a computer hooked to a projector.  A couple of minutes later I had a southern view of Notre Dame, about four feet tall, up on the screen.  Comprehension began to creep into students’ faces.


“Yeah,” one said, “it does kind of look like a frog.”


“Definitely squatting,” said another.


I had learned an important lesson.  Our students, who have smart phones with more computing power than the spacecraft that went to the moon, often don’t bother to Google images of things they are unfamiliar with, any more than they look up new words on  Seeing something, though, is often key to understanding the point an author is making.  Incorporating this into a lecture yields surprisingly positive results.


The following week I was teaching Wordsworth in a British Literature course.  This time I was ready and was able to quickly reference online photos of Tintern Abbey and the River Wye.  It may not have helped any students to understand the themes in the poems we were discussing, but it definitely helped them to understand the inspiration for the poems and the places being described.


In recent semesters I have added props to the online visuals I have been using.  When discussing fiction dealing the American Civil War, I pass around a replica revolver, a Minie ball, and a kepi cap.  There is something about touching and holding an artifact that brings the literature to life for many students.  For a British Literature class on the Medieval Period I recently acquired a broadsword replica.  When I discuss how medieval swords were purposefully made to look like crosses, it is much easier to make the point when you have one to display and for the students to touch.  After a serious intellectual discussion about swords in that class, we took ours outside and sliced a watermelon with it.


My experience with using props and visuals has been overwhelmingly positive, but there are some legitimate concerns that some instructors may have:

  1. Cost: You can find anything for sale online these days, but I was surprised to find good quality replicas were available for not much money at all. The most expensive prop I have is a revolver replica that was $80.00. 
  2. Time constraints: It does take time to display visuals, and to have students interact with props.  Some advance planning is always involved, but I don’t find this to be any more burdensome than planning, say, a group activity, for example.  I often arrive a little early to pull up online visuals on a classroom computer, and to make sure the projector is working.
  3. Safety: Replica firearms are impossible to fire, but some states do have regulations concerning their display and use. Sword replicas are sold without sharpened edges. The only danger from either of these props is dropping one on your foot. 
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Howard does a great job highlighting the challenges of teaching any sort of reading comprehension skills to a generation less likely to read for pleasure. With the glut of "instant gratification" entertainment (YouTube, Netflix, etc.) available, fewer young people take the time to plow through any sort of literature. it's harder to get students to picture anything they can't see directly in front of them. Using such visual aids as Howard describes is a perfect way to bridge that imagination gap. (And knowing Howard the way I do, I would have killed to see him attacking a watermelon with a broadsword.)

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Incorporating physical props and visuals into your teaching is a form of experiential or hands-on learning. This approach can make literature more relatable and memorable for students, as they can connect abstract concepts to concrete objects.Engaging multiple senses, such as touch and sight, can deepen the learning experience. When students can see and touch objects related to the literature, it creates a multisensory connection that aids in comprehension and retention.The use of visuals, whether through images of Notre Dame or online photos of Tintern Abbey, helps students visualize the settings and concepts described in the literature. This visualization can improve their understanding and interpretation of the text.Props and  visuals can make literature more relevant to students' lives. For example, handling a replica revolver or slicing a watermelon with a sword can spark curiosity and discussions about historical contexts and themes.Using props and visuals can enhance student engagement. It breaks the monotony of traditional lectures and encourages active participation.Your experience also highlights the challenges of teaching literary concepts that may be unfamiliar to students. Providing concrete examples and visuals can bridge these gaps in understanding.Your concerns about cost and safety are valid. It's essential to ensure that props are safe for handling and comply with any relevant regulations. The relatively low cost of the replicas you've mentioned makes this approach feasible for many instructors.Planning and preparation are key to successful implementation. It's important to have props and visuals ready in advance and to integrate them seamlessly into your teaching. My Star Card