Chapter 6: Literature as a Learning Tool (review by R.D. Snyder)

Part of the Collaborative Book Review of Structuring Equality: Handbook for Student-Centered Learning. The book is available here. This post reviews Chapter 6, “Literature as a Learning Tool: A Lesson Plan” by Nicky Hutchins.

In “Literature as a Learning Tool,” Nicky Hutchins seeks to use peer review to engage students in more meaningful responses to literature. Drawing on primary and secondary school expectations, college students are too often asked to simply read and report, instead of being given chances to critically engage with the professor and classmates on their readings. Hutchins argues for a student-centered intervention, gearing assignments toward developing students’ critical reading, thinking, and writing abilities instead of simply counting as points toward a final grade. To this end, Hutchins argues that students should engage with their classmates in peer review of short literary response papers throughout the term.

The chapter outlines a lesson plan which aims to achieve these goals at the beginning of a new term. An icebreaker activity sets up students to interact meaningfully with the professor and their classmates for both large and small group settings, after encouraging self-reflection. This leads to a writing assignment in which students compare and contrast two literary readings on identity and prepare to share them in peer review. This assignment sets the tone for a course which uses thoughtful pieces of literature in order to facilitate discussion in both small groups and a larger class environment.

In seeking to approach a broad lack of reading and writing training in education, Hutchins’ plan does leave a number of questions unanswered: is literature the only way to encourage such peer interaction? Should this approach be taken to all readings in the humanities and beyond? How should a professor deal with students whose views upset or anger their group? Digital tools are also briefly mentioned, but unexplored. However, by asking more from what might be a familiar and lackluster assignment—the reading response—this lesson plan ultimately recognizes the importance of literature in fostering critical thinking and writing. Importantly, it also does so within a much larger framework that trusts in college students to care about and engage in complex issues. In valuing students’ experiences and perspectives on challenging readings in this way, Hutchins ultimately promotes their agency in the classroom.