Engage Event: How to Inspire Students

Once you’ve determined who is a great writer, how do you engage with Great Writers? How do you engage students/learners with writers and literature? How do you inspire them?

How was one student inspired?

Student ambassador Cleo Hanaway began by discussing why and how she was originally inspired by literature. She came from a household full of books (especially her mum’s ‘murder books’), and had quite a few inspiring teachers in school, then attended University of Leeds and is now pursuing her D.Phil at the University of Oxford, focusing on James Joyce.

Cleo sites her inspiration as coming from three main sources:

  1. Direct access to inspiring things
  2. Support and direction
  3. Freedom to experiment

Here’s what she meant:

1. Direct access to inspiring things:

To inspire students, they need copies of the works, whether through good old-fashioned photocopies, being lent books, or these days, electronic editions of works.

2. Support and direction:

Cleo was luckily enough to have teachers who noticed she was bored, and who her toward literary criticism. She was inspired to discover she could examine a literary text in so many different ways.

Teachers also considered her interests and recommended other books she might enjoy on similar themes.

She was also given encouragement to access archives she didn’t know she would be permitted to see: offering students unusual resources can get them inspired about a topic.

3. Freedom to experiment

Cleo was allowed (and encouraged) to explore interdisciplinary connections (for example, studies of Victorian sensation fiction can be supplemented with research on physiognomy). She was permitted to come at texts from unusual angles, and that kept the material fresh and exciting for her as a student.

How can you inspire students?

Cleo did acknowledge that it would be much more difficult to inspire students who did not grow up in a household full of books, the way she did. Teachers attending the conference suggested the following means of inspiring students:

*Make it relevant: Students want to understand why they should care about the text. Teachers need to have a quick answer to the question, ‘Why should I read this?’ Students live in a system where the value of doing a task is clear. For practical, kinesthetic learners, that value has to be made plain. How will reading a text yield results  in their world, whether emotional, experiential, or intellectual?

*Remember that great texts will speak to different students in different ways. The multiple possible readings of a great text lends itself to a differentiated classroom.

*Never talk down to students; it’s the easiest way to quash inspiration. For example, students do understand that Shakespeare is very much a part of our culture, and still is accessible. Respect students, and inspire them to approach a text differently or seek out further information (the Great Writers Inspire website is a great space for that). Be careful when breaking texts down not to patronise students.

*Take note of the developmental moments in students’ lives, and consider how many levels of analysis you can incorporate into discussion of text in a way that will appropriately reflect the mental and emotional state of your students.

*Part of inspiration is just negating students’ fear of the text. Reassure them they can do it, and make material accessible (this is one of the great advantages of texts being available online- searching for related texts in a library can be intimidating, but clicking on related links online is right in most students’ comfort zone).

*Most importantly, show enthusiasm yourself! If you love the text, it’s more likely your students will as well.

*Reading can be a dry task. One option for teachers is to offer small and achievable access points to the text over a longer period, then students can feel that have achieved something before they finish a book. Reading a whole book can be daunting and turn students off. These introductory snippets need to be small, interesting, contextualise the work, and offer a sense of achievement just by reading these excerpts.

This suggestion engendered a lot of debate: is it acceptable to break up or cut out parts of a text? Is this helpful, or patronising? Must the choice depend on the kind of institution in which you’re teaching? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

How do/would you inspire your students?

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About Kate O'Connor

Kate O'Connor works as Publicity & Outreach Director for Post5 Theatre, Literary Assistant and Office Manager for the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival, and Dramaturgy Intern for the Profile Theatre. She earned her M.St. in English Literature 1550-1700 at Lincoln College, University of Oxford and a BA in English from Stanford University. As an undergraduate she worked as the research assistant to Prof. David Riggs and as Literary Intern for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
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One Response to Engage Event: How to Inspire Students

  1. Pingback: Engage Event: Some Personal Reflections | Great Writers Inspire

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