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Teaching english in Hong Kong
Significance and Purpose of the Study
Literature in English is currently being taught in settings ranging from English language schools in Toronto to specialized locations like international schools in Hong Kong or mother-tongue environments in parts of India. Wherever it is taught, teachers are engaged with questions of what to teach and how to teach it. As a subject area, literature studies is also part of a larger field of pedagogy, a catchment for questions of what constitutes literacy, the relationship between literacy and teacher development, and finally, values of development in education.
The purpose of my study is to understand teachers’ experiences in teaching literature in English to students in Hong Kong. The rationale for undertaking such a study is to present findings which contribute to the current debate about how best to teach literature in the context of increasing theoretical and pedagogical challenges in what is commonly referred to as the global village. One goal is to help clarify vexing and persistent questions that the sometimes conflicting stances of multiculturalism, post-colonialism, and response theory currently generate for secondary English teachers. Results from this study will potentially enrich teacher practices in an increasingly diverse cultural landscape, one which uses English as the medium of instruction.
The following questions provided an initial framework for my study and were derived largely from my own classroom experience. Personal practical knowledge of teacher-subjects as well as my “agent-central researcher role characterized by a caring subjective stance vis-Ó-vis teacher participants” (Clandinin, 1986, p. 13) were essential epistemological postures in the formation of the research questions guiding this study.
How participating teachers understand the nature of the reading experience for themselves and their students lies at the crux of the current theoretical frameworks that have likely shaped their values and practices in the classroom. To understand these currents clearly in the context of Hong Kong international schools, it is necessary to appreciate the development of these theories and to contextualize them within the larger political and social changes affecting the teaching of literature in English. This will be accomplished in the following chapters.
This study is situated within multiple strands of research focusing on the reading of texts in secondary classrooms and uses the unique context of Hong Kong international schools to engage questions linked historically to the more than 200 year old tradition of teaching literature in English. I chose this particular site of learning – where numerous forces are at work shaping new conceptions of identity and identity formation – because “the international school sector [in Hong Kong] has been sensitive to social and political changes and thus has provided a barometer through which the impact of such forces can be measured” (Yamoto & Bray, 2002, p. 24). I suggest that the international school environment in Hong Kong constitutes an evolving social construct, a post-culture, (Abbas, 1997) where “culture is itself experienced as a field of instabilities” (p. 145). I also argue that educational environments with similar characteristics are being replicated in a variety of contexts worldwide, making research undertaken in Hong Kong an ideal location for examining student response to literature, teacher beliefs, and teaching practices. I hope that the conclusions of this study will help lead to new conceptions of practice and provide support to those teachers in the field who wish to make meaningful and informed choices about which texts they teach and how they go about teaching them to their students.
In regards to the language issues that potentially arise in a research site like Hong Kong, it is important to stress that the participating teachers do not regard themselves as second language specialists; nor do the majority of students regard themselves as second language learners in English. Why this is the case will be discussed more thoroughly when the Hong Kong context is looked at in greater detail as a research context. This study is oriented away from the potentially limiting exercise of assuming the existence of language barriers in international school environments and towards an understanding of my subjects’ regard for literature’s potential interaction with their students’ rapidly evolving identities.
The results of this study will offer a new perspective on research focused on cultural influences upon Chinese students’ learning styles in Hong Kong (Briggs, 1996; Kennedy, 2002; Rao, 2002), as well as on studies analyzing the effects of colonialism on the identity formation of Hong Kong students (Pennycook, 1998). This study may also provide further important commentary on the potential influence of Confucian values in the international school environment of Hong Kong and in similar settings in Asia, building on the conclusions presented by Littlewood (1999) on the impact of Confucianism on Chinese education settings. Analysis of the complex mix of competing values and beliefs found in the international school systems and their relationship to socio-cultural identity is effectively explored by Yamoto and Bray (2002), but not through the particular prism of literature studies. Macia (1999), for example, looked at Cuban-American ESOL students and their responses to literature in the classroom. Johnston (1997) argued that teaching literary texts at the secondary level brings to the forefront for developing adolescents a very particular set of issues in relation to identity formation and self-representation. As well, the study of literary texts has the capacity to expose and consequently interrogate the values and beliefs of a society, a necessary step in the process of identity formation for adolescents (Purves & Pradl, 2002). Following the lead of several scholars (Cai, 2001; Pike, 2002; Sumara, 1996), this study will examine how the readings of either canonical or representative texts affects students’ engagement and, consequently, identity formation in the unique educational environment presented by the Hong Kong international school sector.
It is my hope that the results may also add new dimensionality to recent work in the area of transcultural identities (Grewal, Gupta & Ong, 1992; Macia, 1999, Trimmer & Warnock, 1992; Willis, 1994). The findings of these scholars suggested that students with truly transnational identities may have the skills to transcend ultranationalism and ethnocentrism and, instead, create new definitions of community from a position of diversity (Willis, 1994). I am interested in whether the responses from teachers in Hong Kong international schools suggest that they believe their students embody similar potentialized identities. It is my passionate belief, after more than twelve years in the classroom, that studying literature in secondary classrooms needs to be regarded as increasingly relevant for young people, “a part of our remembered, lived and projected lives” (Sumara, 1996) in ways no other school experience can be. The goal then is to add a new and perhaps illuminating piece to the increasingly rich and diverse descriptions of “actual practice in different cultural settings” (Street, 1993, p. 1).
Finally, since my study focuses on teachers' conceptions of their own practices, Schon’s (1983) notion of “reflection in action” underscored the value of perceiving teaching as a learning experience for both researcher and subjects. Beck and Kosnick (2001) suggested that “not only are teachers capable of extensive reflection while they teach, such reflection is essential if they are to make the adjustments required by attentive teaching” (p. 217). I believe that my subjects gained unexpected insights into their own teaching practices as a result of taking part in the year-long exercise of reflection and examination through teaching conversations.
The following chapter both situates this study within a number of theoretical frameworks and critiques the impact of multiculturalism and reader response theory, to name but two constructs, on curriculum choices and teacher practices found in classrooms where in literature in English is taught. Chapter Three details the design of this year-long study while Chapter Four focuses on the discussion of the findings. The final chapter offers direction towards new conceptualizations of teacher practices in light of the findings of the study.
Reading Theory, Teaching Literature in English and Socio-Cultural Perspectives
The compelling questions underlying the literature review portion of this study include: What theories frame the experience of teaching literature in English in Hong Kong international schools? What factors inform my subjects’ perceptions regarding literature’s role in the curriculum and its role in the developing lives of their students?
Firstly, it is necessary to create a context to understand how literature came to a position of prominence in English language curricula. Next, it is important to understand how this history laid the groundwork for reconceptualizing literature studies in the last 100 years. Lastly, then, a review of the very recent directions taken by educational and literary theory will uncover how the articulation and development of various theories and frameworks by educators and researchers alike potentially influence practices in secondary classrooms. The end result will be both a historical and schematic overview aimed at unraveling the numerous strands of the complex story of literature studies in secondary English classrooms.
The philosopher and economist, Adam Smith (in Court, 1985, p. 328), saw the possible value of the moral dimensions of literature. Smith suggested that its study could aid in the development of good citizenry, serving as an antidote to “avaricious individualism,” which he believed was an unfortunate but predictable outcome of laissez-faire capitalism. Smith believed in literature’s moral capacity to change and influence human behaviour. Commenting that a “good citizen was essential to the prosperity and natural harmony of the commonweal”, he contended that the novel, for example, which was just on its rise as a popular form, could provide “lessons of good character” (in Court, 1985, p. 328).
Until the mid-18th century, only language learning in Latin and the rhetorical features of English were considered pedagogically valid in higher education in Europe. Smith’s thinking on the subject only became common currency later in the 19th century when literature began to assume a core position in secondary and university English classroom settings. It was used particularly to bolster notions of English superiority and the moral right of the Empire. “English Literature became the centre of the educational syllabus, enshrining the qualities of an essential ‘Englishness’ and attempting to hold at bay the worst evils of contemporary life” (Widdowson, 1999, p. 56).
This line of thinking has continued nearly unabated for the last century. Specific works of literature, such as those of Matthew Arnold or Daniel DeFoe, for example, were “canonized” as acceptable tools for developing moral principles in the classroom. As a subject area, literature tended to serve the political and social aspirations of England. It was not long before it was taught in places like India and Canada as a “civilizing testament to Great Britain’s natural moral and literary greatness” (Willinsky, 1991, p. 5). The western canon, a term denoting an authoritative list of “great works of literature,” most likely came into common parlance, in part, as a result of the Great Books of the Western World program at the University of Chicago and the subsequent adoption of such programs in universities across the United States. The publication of How to Read a Book (Van Doren & Adler, 1940) in the mid-part of the 20th century further cemented views of canonical literature. The following quote from John Gardener’s seminal (1982) work, The Art of Fiction, attempts to explain these notions of authority and greatness:
In great fiction, the dream engages us heart and soul, we not only respond to imaginary things – sights, sounds, smells – as though they were real, we respond to fictional problems as though they were real. We sympathize, think, and judge. We act out, vicariously, the trials of the characters and learn from the failures and successes of particular modes of action, particular attitudes, opinions, assertions, and beliefs exactly as we learn from life. Thus the value of great fiction, we begin to suspect, is not just that it entertains or distracts us from our troubles, not just that it broadens our knowledge of people and places, but also that it helps us to know what we believe, reinforces those qualities that are noblest in us, leads us to feel uneasy about our faults and limitations (p. 31).
Literature’s role in the curriculum and perceptions about its potential power to shape the ideals of a more progressive vision of education also grew in strength with the advent of more child-centred pedagogical practices in the early part of this century. Dewey’s Democracy and Education (1916) and earlier My Pedagogic Creed (1897) set out the principle that “education must be conceived as a continuing reconstruction of experience…the process and the goal of education are one in the same thing” (in Dworkin, 1959, p. 27). Dewey’s groundbreaking transactional theory of the learning process gave rise to a host of new pedagogical practices that focused for the first time on the needs and desires of the learner.
For example, Rosenblatt’s (1938) landmark Literature as Exploration brought Dewey’s ideas to bear on the value of studying literature. In it, she stressed that society could be improved by an education which focused on each individual’s experience in the classroom and, specifically, on the democratizing influence of literature studies. Rosenblatt, in particular, turned Smith’s original contention, that literature has by its very nature a moral force, into an argument for equality for all. This equality would be achieved through empowering student-centered transaction practices in schools “because in a democracy we need citizens with the imaginative capacity to put themselves in the place of others and see the human implications of ideas” (Rosenblatt, 1995, p. 353). What follows next, then, is a more in-depth discussion of the response theory and its tremendous impact on the teaching of literature in the West during the last 75 years.
The Development of Response Theory
Teachers helping students to read and understand literary texts are involved in a number of processes: acting the role of facilitators, attempting to glean the intentions of the individual author, working with the actual words on the page and, finally, bringing to their approaches the critical interpretations of experts. Until the late 19th century, however, the role of the reader in this process was never really considered. The advent of science, particularly psychology, laid the groundwork for thinking about what the reader brings to the experience of reading a text (Rosenblatt, 1995).
Literature in Exploration (1938) is thought to be the first full articulation of what is now referred to as reader response theory. Influenced by her academic background in Comparative Literature, the pragmatic philosophy of Dewey and by the psychologically-based theories developed by Vygotsky (1962) and others, Rosenblatt sought to present a coherent argument for the value of studying literature in schools. Reader response, while seeming quite obvious now, helped to re-configure how educators understood the reading experience.
As early as 1896, Dewey defined interaction, either between individuals, with nature, or with a cultural object, as a transaction. The term designated as ongoing process in which the elements or factors are aspects of a total situation, each conditioned by and conditioning the other (Rosenblatt, 1976, p 17). From this, Rosenblatt derived a theory of aesthetic reading. This theory puts the reader, rather than the text or the author, at the centre of certain kinds of reading experiences and acknowledges the reader’s selection and organization of cues according to the past experiences and expectations as a part of the equation (p. 18). She drew primarily upon the Einsteinian theory that the “observer must always be taken into account in any observation because human beings are the mediators in the perception of their world” (Karolides, 1999, p. 160). She then asserted that the reader’s selection and organization of cues according to past experiences and expectations were as important as the intentions of the author or the understanding of the literary critic (1976, p. 18). This began a process of fundamentally altering pedagogical practices, putting the primacy of student response on equal footing with the text, authorial intention, and the voice of critic. Simply put, “no one can read a poem (her item for the literary text) but us.” (1938, p. 32). Later, in The Reader, the Text, and the Poem, Rosenblatt (1976) further clarified the transactional nature of reading. She suggested that because all the readers are capable of an “inner-oriented focus of attention” (p. 35), they can actually engage in a kind of literary re-creation, a circular, reciprocal process between text and reader, out of which the literary work is formed. Rosenblatt termed this reading experience as aesthetic. Recasting the reading process as a ‘lived through’ creative endeavor helped form a broader definition of what constitutes the reading experience and, in turn, gave greater potential meaning to the experience for every learner.
In the past, this process was viewed as a dissemination of meaning from the author or text, often through the expert critic to the passive consumer. Reading theories henceforward acknowledged the active participation of the reader. However, at the heart of this new conceptualization remained the question of how teachers understood the nature of the reading experience for themselves and their students. Reader response also engaged other equally pressing issues of literacy, teacher development, and values education. Therefore to understand where the use of reader response theory has been potentially expressed in the teaching practices of my subjects, it is essential to examine in greater detail the theory’s development and to contextualize it within recent political and social change.
Rosenblatt (1976) employed the concepts of efferent and aesthetic reading to help support the idea that any work can be equally evoked as art and to distinguish between different but equal reading ‘stances.’ For example, an efferent reading of King Lear (Shakespeare, 1604) focuses on the information required to comprehend its meaning. During an aesthetic reading of the same text, the reader changes her focus or awareness away from the purely practical or referential to the immediate qualitative aspects of the piece. In other words, “if a literary text is to ensue, the reader must turn his attention as fully as possible towards the transaction between himself and the text” (p. 28). What is gained in the aesthetic stance is a re-creation of meaning derived from the reciprocal, lived through, relationship between art and its ‘maker.’ In short, a new King Lear.
For educators, Rosenblatt’s aesthetic stance helped to free literature studies from the blunt criticism of elitism and to link it with democratic goals, moving away from a formalist approach and towards a more engaging and meaningfully understood school-based endeavor. The distinguishing features of her theory included the primacy of the reader in the reading process, a continuum of reading experiences book-ended by efferent and aesthetic stances, and the capacity of literature studies to contribute to furthering democratic principles that guide the school experience. In a later section of this literature review I will show how current research into the concept of globalized identities echoes some of the principles of Rosenblatt’s work.
Redefining the Relationship between Reader and Text
Socio-political change was also a catalyst for shifting how the relationship between text and reader was understood. The process of decolonization was occurring in the early part of this century in places as diverse as India and Asia, reaching its full flowering with India’s independence, the emergence of modern African states and, most recently, the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997. A generation of intellectuals emerged from these dynamics that began asking questions about identity and, further, about the representation of identity in literary works. Thus, the post-colonial stance emerged, with its fullest articulation found in the works of the Palestinian intellectual, Edward Said. His book, Orientalism (1978), focused attention on the question of how western authors gaze upon the East. He argued that the ‘textual attitude’ of works from the western canon, for example, is one of inequality that fosters an essential relationship on political, cultural, and even religious grounds between a strong and a weak partner. Consider, for example, the different perspectives established when reading Twain’s (1885) Huckleberry Finn or Shakespeare’s (1598) Merchant of Venice when these texts are read by a black American or a European Jew rather than someone of White Anglo-Saxon decent. Therefore, Post-coloniality builds upon the foundations of response theory but focuses its attention on the socio-cultural characteristics of each particular reader.
The African writer Chinua Achebe (1995) echoed these arguments in his essay, Colonial Criticism. He put forth the idea that western literary critics apply universality derisively to works of literature that do not speak sufficiently to the values of the dominant culture and, in turn, praise those works that meet such requirements. Achebe (1995) suggested that it is the nature of things that the work of the western writer is automatically informed by ‘universality’ while others must strain to achieve it. When educators employ the term universality with their students, their shared humanity is incorrectly assumed. The term ‘universal’ is regularly evoked when teaching Shakespeare, the Bible or Greek drama. But in the post-colonial world order, according to Achebe, universality must be re-negotiated to ensure it is inclusive of views once dismissed or even unknown. Therefore, differences among individuals, not similarities, must be embraced. Post-coloniality is a message from the East to the West, from those outside the dominant culture to those within it. It is also part of an ongoing process, a theory evolving as decolonization continues across the globe.
The development of multicultural theory must be viewed somewhat differently from post-coloniality because it radiates from varying social circumstances found primarily in the West. More than one specific theory, it is a series of approaches more closely linked to the historical realities of industrialized societies like the U.S., Canada, and European nations. The terms was first used in the West in 1981 when William Safire argued that a “multicultural way of life was an antidote to nationalism, national prejudice and behavior” (in Cai, 2001, p. 312). It was not until the late 1980s, however, that the term was put to wide use to define the need for broad representation of members of groups distinguishable from the mainstream. Banks and Banks’ An Introduction to Multicultural Education (1994) presented a framework for teacher practices in a multicultural setting, proposing that there was a growing need to address the “demographic imperative” of diversity in the United States (p. 10). The book’s premise echoed Achebe’s (1995) position that “the recognition of individual differences is multiculturalism’s fundamental base” (p. 328). In its application to the reading process, multiculturalism actually depends upon certain assumptions underlying reader response theory. Faust (2000, p. 15) argued,
Dewey and Rosenblatt can (and probably should) be read as anticipating, not reader response theory, but post-modernism because the literary experience is best understood as an event uniquely situated at a particular place and time, involving unique socio-historical configurations of limits and possibilities.
Multiculturalism, like post-coloniality, assumed the primacy and value of the reader’s emotional and attitudinal engagement with the text. It assumed that readers are their own meaning-makers. The theory also assumed that literature has the capacity to form and develop values. However, it also asked for a redefinition of identity. Multiculturalists asked what characteristics of the reader’s previous experience are important. Is each human being an imaginatively engaged subjective being or are class, race, reading level, parental literacy practices of equal importance? Multiculturalists also asserted that identity needs to be understood as socially, and not just psychologically, constructed. Therefore, the cultural setting readers emerge from says as much about identity as does any other feature. As Street (1993) suggested, “the rich cultural variation in (cultural) practices and conceptions leads us to rethink what we mean by them and to be wary of assuming a single literacy where we may simply be imposing assumptions derived from our own cultural practices on to other people’s literacies” (p. 1).
Multicultural theorists recognized the reader’s construction of meaning, as Rosenblatt did, but accorded as much importance to the social and political context of the reader’s experience. Anzaludua (1987) argued that culture forms beliefs: “We perceive the version of reality that it communicates…and culture is made by those in power” (p. 45). Shifting the emphasis of identity construction away from a psychological to a socio-cultural lens led to a prolonged public debate about the goals of education and the value of teaching the western canon. Bloom (1987) and Howe (1991) wrote about the importance of the literary canon, decrying what they saw as the increasing attempts to politicize literature and literature studies; in other words, to redefine the meaning of concepts like ‘greatness’, ‘canonical’ and ‘western’. Concurrently, others including Gates (1989), Kincaid (1988) and Morrison (1992) argued for the need to include books on curricula which explore the experiences of minorities from the view of a minority writer and not from the perspective of the dominant culture. Gates (1989, p. 35) pointed to the silence or “natural absence” of the black experience in canonical works, while Morrison (1998) questioned the “certain set of assumptions conventionally accepted among literary historians and critics as “knowledge” (p. 12). She focused on the unconscious engagement with a black presence in America literary canon – an encounter, in effect, with racial ideology – rather than merely the absence of Black Americans in canonical works, and explored the effects of this engagement through her works of fiction, including Song of Solomon (1977) and Beloved (1987). Kincaid (1988) took the argument further when she called those of the dominant culture who, to use Said’s phrase, attempt to ‘gaze’ outside their cultural experience as a group of “ugly human beings” (p. 35). In the last 30 years, long-preserved assumptions about identity and its relationship to communally shared values have been called into question during this sometimes bitter debate.
While response theory, according to Rosenblatt (1976), does view each individual as bringing his or her personal experiences – “the possible structures he brings out from the stream of his life” (p. 11) – to bear upon their reading of the text, it loses its viability when one considers how a reader’s past history might be one of exclusion, isolation, poverty or disenfranchisement. How profoundly different is a reading of, for example, Hemingway if a reader has lived in Africa all his or her life or if that same reader is a child of immigrant parents just learning to read English. As a theory, multiculturalism maintains that it is crucial to find and choose literature that contributes positively to the identity construction of those not of the dominant culture. In this way, it shifts the understanding of the reading experience away from the multiplicity of readings and towards the multiplicity of identity.
A closer re-examination of Rosenblatt’s (1938) articulation of response theory reveals an insistence that each reader “undoubtedly come(s) to literature with increasingly strong attitudes toward political and social themes” (p. 99). Unfortunately, such a broad statement leaves fundamental questions unengaged. How, for example, does the reading level of the parent influence a child’s ability to understand Shakespeare? Rosenblatt (1938) maintained that the “emotional and sensuous structure created by the author will be brought into organic connection with broader and deeper streams of thoughts and feelings [of the reader]” (p. 108) and assumed that there will be no disconnect between author and reader. Differences in cultural values are less relevant because the transaction between reader and text occurs in an aesthetic, emotionally driven context. Theoretical constructs like multiculturalism have helped reposition the reading experience based on a new assumption that each individual constructs his or her own meaning from texts. This meaning is constrained by an array of elements known but also, ultimately, unknowable. Multiculturalism also focused on other elements in the reading process, including the role of the text and the attitude of the author, and encouraged the questioning of what books are being taught and why, as well as the vantage point of the author and the sorts of values he or she transmits.
Multiculturalism also offered another obvious critique of Rosenblatt (1938). Like many of her peers, including Dewey, she made assumptions about “our great heritage of literary experiences” (p. 106). Here she was referring to works of literature written primarily by white men for a homogeneous audience. Of course, this brings up the question of both author intentionality and perspective. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) or Huckleberry Finn (1885) offer critiques of American society but from the perspective of white children and written by white middle class authors. Where in the canon, asked multiculturalists, were books written from the minority perspective: by women, by slaves, by persons of colour? Answers to these questions go well beyond simple notions of texts, readers, and contexts into an exploration of a transaction embedded in multiple worlds “a transaction negotiated in conflicted worlds” (Beach & Galda, 2001, p. 71). Granted, many teachers today have far more options about what books to choose but more choice has presented other challenges. With so much called into question, a kind of rapid-fire pluralism of theoretical and pedagogical stances flourishes today and teachers must negotiate what these multiplicities mean for their practices.
Teaching Western Works of Literature to Non-Western Students
A growing body of non-academic literature has emerged from the experiences of educators teaching western works of literature to non-western students that has shed further light on the present debate around reader response and representative texts. These works are relevant to this study because each author uses a particular site, often a post-colonial one, to explore the meaning of the reading experience for themselves and for their students. Through the medium of memoir and travel writing, they explore how literary engagements can redefine universality, identity, and communal values. A closer examination of the transactions between reader and texts described by these authors provides an extremely meaningful opportunity to both critique and fully understand the historical trajectory of the teaching of literature in English through the lens of teacher practices in post-colonial or new world settings.
Sketches in Winter (1992) written by Charles Foran and Iron and Silk (1986) by Mark Saltzman are just two early examples of teacher-memoirs published in the last 20 years in which teachers of English engage with the cultural complexities of their roles in relation to their students’ identities. There are two further examples within this genre focusing specifically on the engagement of differently cultured students with western works of literature. River Town (2001) by Peter Hessler explored his experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English and American literature to college students in Fuling, a city in China that, at the time of writing, sat waiting to be submerged by the Three Gorges Dam project. The studying of foreign literary texts in Fuling at that juncture offered a potential opportunity for his students to make sense of their disappearing world. As Hessler (2001, p. 44) asserted:
There was intensity and freshness to their readings that I’d never seen from any other students of literature, and partly it was a matter of studying foreign material. We were exchanging clichÚs without knowing it: I had no idea that classical Chinese poetry routinely makes scallions of women’s fingers and they had no idea that Sonnet Eighteen’s immortality had been reviewed so many times that it nearly died, a poem with a number tagged to its toe. Our exchange suddenly made everything new; there were no dull poems, no overworked poems, no characters who had already been discussed to the point of clinicism. Nobody groaned when I assigned Beowulf – as far as they were concerned, it was just a good monster story.
What Hessler, himself a graduate of an Ivy-league literature program, looked for and seemed to find in his experience “was some sign that literature was still enjoyable, that people read for pleasure and that this was important in and of itself, apart from politics” (p. 45). Hessler’s goal of pleasurable reading was consistent with the distinction that Rosenblatt made between efferent and aesthetic reading, asserting how valuable aesthetic reading is in the lives of students.
Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003) by Azar Nafisi, an English literature scholar, employed the interpretative location of post-revolution Tehran to discuss the value of the literary transaction for her students. She established a secret book club in her home for her best female students who could no longer read banned authors like Vladamir Nabokov and Henry James. The memoir explored the intimate details of what she saw as the outright suppression of the human spirit in present day Iran and argued that the refuge of literature studies was life-affirming, even life-giving, when life truly seemed hellish:
Those of us living in the Islamic Republic of Iran grasped both the tragedy and absurdity of the cruelty to which we were subjected. We had to poke fun at our own misery in order to survive…This was one reason that art and literature became so essential to our lives: they were not a luxury but a necessity. What Nabokov captured was the texture of life in a totalitarian society, where you are completely alone in an illusory world full of false promises, where you can no longer differentiate between your savior and your executioner (Nafisi, p. 23).
Both authors fixed on the concept that in Fuling and Tehran, they and their students needed literature and its imaginative properties to transcend miserable and difficult circumstances. Such a transformation can occur at specific historical junctures and these ‘moments’ can be rich and unique sites of negotiation where layers of meaning evolve. What Hessler and Nafisi see in the hearts and minds of their students is a real hunger fed by the literary works in English that they teach; a crossing, so to speak, of cultural boundaries into the heartland of the human soul. Consider these experiences in terms of what Bakhtin had to say about what great literature can achieve:
The Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin said that all great narratives had come into existence on the borders of two neighboring countries. In fact, for him, it was “dialogical imagination,” the fruit of many years, even centuries of cultural, social, and linguistic barter across the borders of identities that molded the form and content of both historical and literary narrative. The writer of such narrative was branded by the burning rod of hybridity – a kind of psychological, social or historical schizophrenia – and a vision that required more than one pair of eyes, surveying the universe in a multilayered mirror designed for simultaneous reflections of both identity and difference (Baraheni, 2004, D15).
Perhaps it was primarily Hessler and Nafisi’s own passions, needs, and huge commitment which made this experience so full of transcendence for their students. Nonetheless, both memoirs manage to encapsulate a great many of the current tensions around the teaching of literature in English in sites around the world.
New Directions in Response Theory and Practice
In response to current conceptions of the readings experience, Rosenblatt recently attempted, in an interview with Karolides (1999), to clarify her position on the role of the reader, author intentionality, and the reasons for her choice of the terms ‘efferent’ and ‘aesthetic’. This interview included both further clarifications and some recapitulations of previously held positions. In discussing the teaching of Hamlet (Shakespeare, 1602), Rosenblatt supported the ideas of the multiplicity of meanings by suggesting “we (must) recognize that different transactions between readers and texts at different times under different circumstances and for different purposes may produce different interpretations, different works” (Karolides, 1999, p. 163). She also continued to insist that the goal of education should be the development of democratic values. And, finally, Rosenblatt decried what she viewed as the emphasis on the personal response as a sole pedagogical strategy and blamed this trend on a misapplication of reader response theory.
The irony here is that her theories and the problematic aspects of multiculturalism have both contributed to the “almost confessional mania” (Karolides, 1999, p. 167) in classrooms throughout North America. In settings where reader response is privileged, a purely subjective emotional response to literature is acceptable. And yet, in classrooms where multicultural/post-colonial theory predominates, there may be a danger of presenting identity in totalizing ways. As educators have been discovering, essentialism, that is, seeing others solely through the lens of their cultural experiences, has as much potential to marginalize and categorize students as did previous perspectives (Johnston, 2003). While certain corrective practices are meant to address historical wrongs, they can, in turn, create other forms of paternalism. Texts are now often packaged and expressly labeled ‘multicultural’ and organized around representation of an “ethnic group-specific literary tradition” and to fulfill an “ideological need” (Wong, 1995, p. 177). Teachers are left with “the problem of making decisions about which ‘black’ books to read, which ‘Latino’ books and so on. Smagorinsky (1992) argued that teachers need, instead, to “represent people as complex” (p. 227).
Changing the curricula to reflect global consciousness then becomes a prohibitively diffuse task, forcing us to select those works which will constitute our new culturally diverse curriculum. …when we make these selections we do so with a bias that undoubtedly affects our students…What single writer, or small set or writers, can possibly represent the old Soviet Union, an immense nation in which over forty languages were spoken by people of countless ethnicities (Smagorinsky, 1992, p. 221).
Johnston & Luce Kapler (1996) suggested that educators must be ready to offer a range and choice of reading and writing opportunities to students to foster plurality and to reject the idea that any one text can be truly representational of any one person’s experience: “We as teachers must develop comfort with ambiguity…language gives us the power to generate chaos but also to find ways out of it…” (p. 21).
Instructional approaches to the teaching of literature at the secondary level and, by extension, the teaching of writing, are influenced by the changes brought about by multiculturalism and post-colonialism and new conceptions of response theory. Recent studies exploring the tensions and connections between reader response theories in multicultural classroom environments reveal a range of experiences for students (Cai, 1998; Godina, 1996; Pike, 2003). For example, resistance to characters who do not correspond to their lived experiences is documented as frequently as inter-textual connections that individual readers made between texts and their own lives (Beach, 2000). Instead of viewing contradictory concepts of identity, culture and the reading process as roadblocks, recent writing by practitioners and theorists alike has synthesized these tensions into enriched classroom practices. Many teachers are responding to the complexities of identity and book choices by problematizing their approaches to literature teaching. These practices may include reading a canonical and non-canonical text dialogically (Gallagher, 1995), negotiating the binaries of reader and text through critical distancing (Lewis, 1999), or the bringing of post-structural or post-colonial theory forward through student response (Cai, 2001; Johnston & Luce Kapler, 1996; Meachan & Buendia, 1999; Soter, 1996). If students can construct texts as “cultural worlds, they are learning to interpret characters’ actions within larger frameworks…constituted by cultural or ideological forces” (Beach & Galda, 2001, p. 67). Such contemporary practices give students the tools to achieve true plurality. Rosenblatt (1999) pointed to the contributions of various critical perspectives on the literary transaction: “the possession of knowledge or insight – historical, philosophical, psychological, political, for example, may yield a special angle of vision or powerful organizing frameworks.” (p. 61).
Recent re-engagement with Rosenblatt’s aesthetic stance by theorists and practitioners (Connell, 2001; Lewis, 2000) acknowledged its democratizing potential and underscores that her foundational ideas continue to resonate. Connell (2001) asserted, “Aesthetic experiences promoted by literary study can connect students in a unique way with the emotions, needs, problems, and separations between themselves and other human beings” (p. 54). The seemingly simple but electrifying concept that the reader must be acknowledged as the most central feature of the reading event is just one of Rosenblatt’s early conclusions and a point of continued engagement with reader response theory. It is worth remembering that without the individual reader, the enterprise itself ceases to exist.
Other Conceptions of the Literary Engagement
Perhaps understanding what happens to students and what is possible for them as they read Shakespeare or Harper Lee might be best summarized by the concept of transformation. The etymological roots of the word come from the Latin: ‘trans’ meaning ‘over’ and ‘form’ meaning ‘shape’. Though words such as ‘transcend’ and ‘transfiguration’ have had long-accepted spiritual associations, it is only recently that they have been used in relation to the study of science or linguistics which for so long relied on the idea of objective and measurable knowledge. Today, the concept of transformation is accepted among educators to denote pedagogical approaches that are spiritual and holistic in nature (Krishnamurti, 1953; Miller, 1999;). This conceptualization of transformation can help inform the teaching of the literary canon, the teaching of other-cultured children, and fully engage the question of the continuing importance of literature in the curriculum.
Rosenblatt (1938) employed the term ‘transaction’ to explain the phenomenon of interaction between text and reader. Iser (1978) later used the term ‘translation’ in his work on reader response theory to designate what happens when a reader engages with a literary text. Implicit in both terms is the notion of change. For Rosenblatt (1976) transformation of the reader must occur because “the boundary between the inner and outer world breaks down and the literary work of art leads us into a new world” (p. 21). This is virtually the same as Iser’s (1978) contention that when the reader feels so involved in a literary text, it results in “the coming together of text and imagination” (in Tompkins, 1980, p. 54). The notion was built upon more recently by Sumara (1996) when he argued that we are “transformed by our interactions with texts and with each other” (p. 87). The second part of the statement is crucial to his contention that reading can be a powerful tool for communal, as well as individual change, and an important addition to the argument for literature’s place in the curriculum. Therefore, if transformation can be conceived as a harmonic chord running through my research project, the connection established between transformation and self-hood explored by Neo-Confucian scholar Tu Wei Ming can add another strand of resonance.
Self-transformation is a key concept of Confucianism and is tied directly to how the acquisition of knowledge should be conceived. The journey towards complete self-hood in Confucianism is believed to be a lifelong process of learning. In Tu’s (1985) updated reading of Confucian philosophy, there are no objectified facts delivered by a teacher. Rather:
Exemplary teaching necessitates a sense of discovery…The dialogical encounter as an incessantly confirming and renewing process of self-understanding always involves creating a profound person and is therefore as much a process of internal self-transformation as a communal act (p. 69).
In Tu Wei Ming’s reinterpretation of Confucian values and, in particular, Confucian influence in education, there are parallel elements of Dewey’s (1938) thinking about the necessary democratizing effects of education. On the question of the self, Tu explained that:
Self, in the classical Confucian sense referred to a center of relationships, a communal quality which was never conceived of as an isolated or insoluble entity…One’s ability to harmonize human relations does indeed indicate one’s self-cultivation…Self-cultivation is a precondition for harmonizing human relations (p. 55).
The close relationship between self-cultivation and harmonization in Confucianism echoes the communal nature of both Rosenblatt’s (1976) aesthetic reading stance and Iser’s (1978) concept of translation. These commonalities are worth acknowledging and exploring in greater depth for what they can reveal about the influence of Confucian values in Hong Kong. This is particularly valid when attempting to understand the city's educational institutions, even those with more westernized environments. As well, these connections between western reading theory and eastern philosophy also help deepen our knowledge of Asian learning styles and multicultural classrooms worldwide. Moreover, considering these commonalities may encourage practitioners to reflect on the extent to which their practices engage with reader response theory as it is currently understood.
A Case In Point: Chinese Literature in the Classroom
In the words of the recent Ontario English Curriculum Guide for Grades 11 & 12 (2000), “the study of literature is central to the English curriculum; it offers students opportunities to expand their intellectual horizons: as a creative representation of life and experience, literature raises important questions about the human condition, now and in the past” (p.8). A glance at the recommended writers, listed in the literature section of the recent Ontario Curriculum, English Grades 10 & 11 document (Ontario Ministry of Education & Training, 2000) reveals the impact of multiculturalism and post-colonial theory on suggested reading choices. Margaret Atwood, John Steinbeck, Joseph Conrad and Robertson Davies are listed alongside Chinua Achebe, Toni Morrison, Rohinton Mistry and Michael Ondaatje. One can surely surmise that the inclusiveness debate has effectively opened doors to new voices. The challenge for educators now is to find methods to teach both Ondaatje and Conrad in ways that promote a critical understanding of multiple perspectives. This critical understanding must avoid essentialism while positively engaging students in discussions of both authenticity and authority. Johnston (1997) maintained that students need to start from the belief that "writers often write successfully from a perspective that is not their own" and must be guided to "recognize agency in others, not simply comprehend otherness by trying to reduce it to an inferior version of our own world view" (p. 99). The question is how do literature teachers successfully navigate these complexities?
The treatment of Asian perspectives within the North American English curriculum provides a compelling example of this challenge. In recent years, Amy Tan’s novels have been held up as exemplars of multicultural literature. But there are numerous implications to the teaching of Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991) in comparison to, for example, a Chinese novel in translation. Consider the possibilities if Tan’s novel were taught alongside, for instance, a novella length story originally written in Mandarin by the well-known Chinese modernist Wang Meng. The ‘gaze’ upon the native culture in Tan’s novel is the gaze of the Chinese-American upon the old country. This is quite a different gaze from that of Wang Meng as a writer living in China and working in his native language. By reading both perspectives, students could explore the fundamental differences and possible similarities between the two. It is possible that the two novels could work dialogically; helping students to develop a full and critical understanding of the complex world they inhabit (Johnston, 1997).
There is little doubt that the works of authors like Mark Twain are no longer taught as frequently in North American classrooms. One the other hand, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) remains prominent on the high school curricula across North America (Altmann & Mackey, 1998; Applebee & Stevens, 2000). Why does Harper Lee’s novel about racism in the American south connect more with students in contemporary classrooms than Twain's works? The answer may lie in exploring how these tensions play out in the context of Tan’s highly popular novels, The Joy Luck Club (1989) or The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991). Both books are now frequently taught in classrooms across North America not only because of their accessibility but because they are deemed representative of a Chinese cultural perspective (Wong, 1995). Fifteen years ago, secondary educators who were interested in offering an example of multicultural literature might have opted for Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior (1976). Hong Kingston’s book, however, is now rarely taught. This results from a “narrow focus on a single ethnic work [which] tends to have an ahistorical effect…and encourages the cult of a minority genius, [and] isolates the value of the text” (Trimmer & Warnock, 1997, p. 177). In other words, the popularity of Tan’s novels has contributed to creating a new form of essentialism rooted in an immigrant’s sentimental view of her homeland.
What are the restrictions when a teacher teaches only The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991) and holds it up as a multicultural text providing an authentic view of China? Wong (1995) suggested that the Amy Tan phenomenon is an example of a text that has been seized upon by a white dominated readership as a convergence of an ethnic group-specific literary tradition and ideological need. While this view appears to be just another way to interpret identity in essentialist terms, it is true that Tan’s narrators are always mothers/daughters/sisters of Chinese immigrants who learn about the complexities/difficulties/triumphs of their parents’ early lives in China. These lives are borne out in great, and often very moving, detail. Readers are uplifted in a very conventional manner by these stories of suffering and courage. They learn about the cultural traditions of China and come away with some knowledge of the country’s harrowing political and social upheavals. But that view is always from the perspective of the younger generation who ‘escaped’ to America. Tan and her storytellers are arguable no more ‘inside’ the culture than a colonial writer. Her portrait of the country is highly sentimental, often loving, but wholly confirming of China’s ‘otherness’. It may be, in fact, that Tan’s canonization was partly the result of a perilous search for so-called authenticity actually created by post-colonial and multicultural theorists in the first instance. Having found an acceptably accessible author who wrote about a country as ‘mysterious’ as China, readers and critics were satisfied. Therefore, in the end, teachers of literature chase the tail of authenticity and authority. The dangerous dichotomy of "us versus them" can strike one as a case of the ‘wolf’ of colonial literature having dressed up in 'sheep’s' clothing. As a result, students may come away from their only contact with a new culture with an insufficient appreciation of its complexity.
Spence (1998) provided a way to look at the relationship between East and West without necessarily being drawn into the vortex of essentializing identity. In Chan's Great Continent Spence explored the writings of westerners about China since Marco Polo. As a historian, Spence (1998) was interested in the ways that levels of reality intersect and overlap (p. xviii) and what these writers’ interest in China said about their own passions and creative imaginations. He argued that China is a great subject because it is a “different world” which engenders “responses [which] were mixed, overlapped in space and time in ways that make tight categorizations virtually impossible” (p. xvii). Of course, there have been bigoted and ignorant depictions of China through the eyes of westerners, Spence conceded, but there have also been examples of respect, affection and awe. “Individual experiences rarely match the allegedly universal trend…” (p. xviii) of seeing another culture in a generalized manner.
To return to Amy Tan, in The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991), she offered a single view of China, that of a closed and unknowable place:
The newspapers reported only what the government wanted you to hear, just a little bit, only good things about their side. I am not just talking about what they do in China today. It was already this way during the war. Maybe it’s always been that way, keeping people ignorant, like some kind of strange custom, although nobody calls it that (p. 123).
Tan’s novel confirmed the fact that westerners stand outside China, looking in. Spence (1998), in contrast, argued that a single view encourages tight categorizations and a monolithic interpretation of culture. And yet, taking a comparable immigrant story such as Frank McCourt’s much-read Angela’s Ashes (1996), readers do not perceive Irish culture as closed, ignorant, unknowable or in any way reducible to his Limerick upbringing. This likely occurred because readers were generally more familiar with Ireland and recent Irish history. But nor do readers have the same reaction to the work of Salman Rushdie. Rushdie made India and Pakistan great subjects by imaginatively creating them as full and different worlds. The gaze from Midnight’s Children (1980), for instance, was unsentimental, unblinking, and from within. What Tan’s work, in fact, successfully explored were relationships between women in a feudal context and offered a “rosy outlook of familial renewal” in the words of David Leiwei (in Trimmer & Warnock, 1997, p. 195). Her work is probably best understood as a feminist telling of a universal family saga and as a wishful reconstruction of the past, many steps removed from being written out of a modern Chinese context (Chow, 1991). In short, the argument cannot be made that Tan presents a more authentic view of China than any other writer looking into the culture from the outside, colonial, post-colonial or otherwise.
These restrictions on Amy Tan’s view of China do not necessarily have to stand in the way of teaching her books in secondary classrooms. Exploring with students the questions about the literary tradition out of which she is writing, the colonial repercussions of writing in English, and the immigrant gaze upon China, can enliven the approach to her novels. For example, Spence (1998) discussed Jane Austin’s Mansfield Park (1814) in which the author used China as a metaphor for male power outside the domestic sphere. It might be more fruitful to see Tan’s fiction as part of the writing tradition of the Brontes’ and of Austin, rather than authenticating or representing Chinese cultural identity.
Richer possibilities also exist if teachers approach Tan’s work in dialogue with a novel written originally in Mandarin by a native Chinese. The novella length story, titled The Butterfly (1989), by Wang Meng is a text that might best exploit these possibilities. Wang Meng was a celebrated writer in China in the 1950s. As a result of the publication of The Newcomer in the Organization Department Wang was labeled a “Rightist” and send to labor camp. He was also prevented from publishing until after the Cultural Revolution. His more recent work deals with these historical upheavals impressionistically. This was perhaps the only way, he argued, that one could make sense of such madness. The Butterfly (1989) is the story of Zhang Siyuan, a government official whose fall from grace during the Cultural Revolution and later rehabilitation are examined through a series of episodes tracing his life from the late 1940s through the late 1970s. During the course of the story Zhang’s wife commits suicide, his first son dies because of Zhang’s neglect, and another son lives on and eventually publicly condemns his father. An obvious parallel point between The Butterfly (1989) and The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991) are both works’ relationship to the "butterfly" literature tradition. Chow (1991) argued that butterfly literature, works which melodramatically extol the conservative virtues of Chinese society, were suppressed by the government because they were seen as fundamentally dangerous to a society which “relies on its members’ earnest, serious, and thus appropriate involvement with what they read, learn and study” (p. 162). Chow suggested that butterfly literature actually fulfils a post-structural notion of literature as essentially paretic, a contestation of language, and that it makes a powerful statement about the role of women in feudal Chinese society. Wang Meng’s The Butterfly (1989), as its title implies, playfully engages the reader in this ongoing tension between feudal and ‘modern’ cultural attitudes in China. The tension is in evidence in Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991), in the form of Winnie’s insufferable first marriage and her struggle to be set free. Yet Tan’s relationship to the butterfly tradition lacks the post-structural relationship to language as well as the implicit historical critique vividly present in Wang Meng’s story. Female entrapment in a feudal system, which promotes suicide as a form of honorable problem-solving, lies at the heart of both works. How each reckons with this terrible reality would make a good starting place for a class discussion encompassing others’ literary and cultural traditions, as well as their own.
While there are many points of contact between The Butterfly (1989) and The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991), there are further differences worth exploring. The most obvious is the treatment of class in both works, particularly as manifested between author and reader but also, of course, between author and character. Winnie, in The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991), while experiencing some privations, is able to keep servants and is patronizing of women who must earn their living. Her daughter is also firmly middle class, married to a doctor and with no concern about her financial future. Conversely, the characters in Wang Meng’s novella are utterly shaped by their class; the security of their futures is at once uncertain and variable as well as fixed and unchangeable. The rise, fall, and bitter resurrection of Zhang Siyuan, the party official at the centre of the story, are tied to the socialism-driven upheavals of modern China. High school students need to have the opportunity to analyze literature through the perspective of class, as well as gender, and these two works provide different platforms from which to begin.
Both practitioners and theorists are currently exploring and reassessing the problematic issue of identity brought to the forefront by post-colonialists and multiculturalists. There is still much to be sorted out. Terms like ‘identity’, ‘authenticity’, ‘literary merit’, and ‘canonicity’, continue to provoke heated debate about their meaning and impact on the curriculum. Literature can function as an affective lightening rod for passionate debate and for learning about language and writing in multiple cultural contexts. Discussions of literature can also provide an opportunity to interrogate societal values and norms in an imaginative space that may never again be replicated outside school. This experience can take on greater significance if teachers have the time and resources to teach two novels in concert, thereby providing opportunities for conversations that resound with multiple voices and perspectives (Johnston, 1997).
Design, Context and Analysis
In this study I examined how five teachers regarded their students’ understanding of the texts they read. There are many reasons why this is such a burning question for me. In my own class, a severely dyslexic student said of reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) aloud that it was the very first time he had truly been transported into another world by words. Shen Heng (all names are pseudonyms), like many of my students in Beijing, said that Austen’s characters in Sense and Sensibility (1811) helped her make sense of her life. A student who I taught 12 years ago in Montreal came up to me at a recent reception and said, “I still have the well-worn copy of Wuthering Heights (1847) we read together – I’ll never forget that experience.” Tiffany, a student in Hong Kong, visually rendered Ralph’s bitten-to-the-quick fingers as described by Golding (1954) in Lord of the Flies with such aching beauty that I can never again disconnect the character from her drawing. I wished to examine the meaning of these experiences for me and for other teachers of literature. I wished to bear witness to the above experiences as a teacher of literature first and secondly as a researcher because human experience - in this case, engagement with literary texts - makes sense to those who live it, prior to all interpretation and theorizing (Creswell, 1998).
Miles and Huberman (1994) employed the German term "lebenswelt" or 'essence' to describe what is "constant in a person's life across manifold variations" (p. 8). As a researcher, my goal is to uncover what is constant in the teaching reality of literature studies across manifold variations and to emerge with a "practical understanding of meaning and action" (p. 8). It is for this reason that I was led to phenomenology as a research framework for this study. The following sections provide a brief historical overview of phenomenology as well as a further rationale for this choice of frameworks.
Phenomenology emerged from the philosopher Husserl’s (1962) Ideas: A General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, first published in German at the turn of the 20th century. Deeply influenced by Marxism, Freud’s theories, and existentialism, Husserl wanted to describe the way the human mind perceives the meaning of experience; in other words, he tried getting at the ‘essence’ of experience and its structures, doing so without judgment or bias. “The phenomenological method consists of describing…the objects and the contents of knowledge such as they give themselves as pure and simple intentions of consciousness, of meanings, [and] to render them visible and manifest as such” (Thevenaz, 1962, p. 44).
Husserl’s ideas were critiqued and later built on substantially in the context of research models by Moustakas (1994). He developed what is now regarded as the definitive four-step model for a phenomenological study. These steps included bracketing, horizonalization, finding clusters of meaning, and providing a structural and textual description. Stage one, or bracketing, states that the researcher must set aside judgment, bias, or preconceptions in order to best understand the experiences of participants in the study. The research problem is approached inductively with philosophical assumptions about human experience rather than by placing social science theories at the forefront. Next, in the horizonalization or reduction phase of analysis, the researcher attempts to list every significant statement relevant to the topic and gives it equal value. The third step of clustering meanings occurs when the researcher begins to group statements into ‘meaning units’ or themes that emerge naturally from close textual analysis. These themes may include commonalities as well as differences among the participants’ responses. The researcher then writes a description of how the phenomenon was experienced by individuals in the study and finally, in the textual description phase, the researcher writes about the meanings individuals have experienced, including the researcher’s own meanings. The goal is to reduce rich data to the essence or essentials of that shared experience (Moustakas, 1994).
Frameworks by their very definition have limitations. As different ways of interpreting experience develop, it becomes increasingly difficult not to recognize and accept the dissonances in research practices. Husserl (1962) first, and then later Moustakas (1994), both asserted the importance of epoche or the setting aside of prejudgments regarding the phenomena being investigated. However, over the years, particularly in education, this epistemological position in research has been challenged. Clandinin and Connelly’s (1990) narrative inquiry model, for instance, while suggesting that research is always a form of collaboration between researcher and subject, does not preclude the existence of preconceptions or biases in either. In this model, the idea of pure objectivity or, for that matter, subjectivity, simply has no basis in reality. Individuals cannot fully understand each other’s experience. Likewise, present knowledge is based on previous experience. Acknowledging this reality is a central tenet of all naturalistic inquiry (Lincoln, 1985). Van Manen's (1982, p. 287) thinking on the relationship between phenomenology and pedagogy confirms necessity of recognizing this 'lived through' positionality:
From the phenomenological point of view, we keep reminding ourselves that the question of knowledge always refers us back to our world, to our lives, to who we are, and to what makes us write and read and talk together as educators: it is what stands iconically behind the words, the speaking, and the language.
Therefore, my position as a researcher can be caring, empathetic, and engaged and also admittedly preconditioned by my own experience as a literature teacher, a mother, an American-born Canadian and, as importantly, a student of curriculum studies. The existence of bias or preconceptions in the researcher is also directly linked to one of the other contradictions within the phenomenological framework.
That contradiction engaged with my research problem and, probably not by coincidence, with one of the secondary goals of my research: to examine the gulf between theory and practice that has vexed educators since the early development of pedagogical studies. Before the advent of social science, teaching was regarded as an art, intuitively understood by those with a talent to communicate and with awareness, one would hope, of human psychology (Dewey, 1938). The element of assessment and the use of scientifically measurable methodological approaches contributed to a growing divide.
Action research, first articulated in Freire (1970), addressed this gulf by critiquing the ideologies that form the basis of society. The goal of action researchers is to create a climate of change through collaborative efforts. Phenomenological research, on the other hand, proposed that an exhaustive description of experience brings about change since experience is, by its very nature, interactive, exploratory, and ultimately transformational. Without explicitly making change the raison d’ŕtre, the research goal cannot help but seem less meaningful.
Finally, while Creswell (1998) untangled the embedded concept of philosophical assumptions crucial to a phenomenological study, researchers themselves may not be entirely clear where they stand. He employed the terms, “ontological…epistemological…axiological…rhetorical…and methodological” (p. 74-77) to clarify how researchers approached their studies with a certain set of beliefs about the nature of reality, the relationship of the researcher to her subject, the roles of values in the study, and the process of research. While all of these ideas are relevant, phenomenology’s philosophical dimensions relate more directly to the nature of human experience – how individuals see themselves in the world. The example of a phenomenological study in Creswell (1998), for example, focused on a ‘caring interaction’ in which the teacher/student interaction is understood as an epistemological paradigm, an essential core human experience.
Similarly, this base study emanates from practice: I, as well as my participants, wanted to better understand how their students in Hong Kong respond to works of literature, and how teaching practices, book choices and cultural settings and identities affect those responses. Therefore, my research questions are not focused on identifying what the epistemological paradigm of teaching means for my participants. Instead, I consider my research subjects and their rich and disparate experience. I do not deny that there is a core experience for them all, but their stories – the primary way human beings makes sense of their experience – are as diverse as life itself (Connelly & Clandinin, 1980; Mishler, 1998).
Further support for my approach comes from Hubbard and Power (1993), who argued that “for too long, education research has tried to answer big questions with short-term, large-scale questions that ignore the complexity of teacher and student interactions” (p. 7). Classroom-based research carried out by teachers either individually or in groups is, in so many ways, the most sensible and realistic investigative compromise. It squarely addresses the theory/practice divide, takes what is best from the qualitative tradition – rich data, researcher engagement and questions arising out of experience – and draws from the quantitative tradition by using modified coding and thematic techniques. Whether the goal of the research is to find the meaning of experience, to alter the experience itself, or to change the fundamental assumptions underlying those experiences, it is the discovery of the research problem and the passion for the process of solving it that matters most. Teacher-researchers choose the best possible research frameworks among many. It is essential to remember that frameworks, whether in the social sciences or elsewhere, are developed to serve the meaningful searches for answers to big questions. According to Olson’s (2000) narrative theory of human existence, the attention must be on existence as it is lived, experienced, and interpreted by the human person. My study was underpinned by a belief in the value and significance of such an approach.
The Hong Kong Context
In a phenomenological study, a clear connection is established by the researcher with the various contexts of the phenomena; in this case, the teaching of literature to English speaking students in Hong Kong. A thorough description of Hong Kong, the international school environment, and the two school systems found within that environment, establishes this foundation. That is, the a priori human experience is to be understood before the application of theory, a necessary first step in creating the correct sequence for a successful phenomenological study.
The original inhabitants of the southern most strip of China, which is now known as southern Guangdong province, were four Chinese races: the Punti or Cantonese, the Hoklos, the Hakkas and the outcast people. They lived largely in segregated communities, often on the water, and spoke their own unique languages. The powerful landowning families of the region, however, were all Cantonese and they were grouped into five Great Clans: Tang, Hau, Pang, Liu, and Man, each with its own villages and inherited lands. By the 1830s, merchants of four foreign powers maintained factories in the city of Guangzhou, or Canton, including the British, the Americans, the French and the Dutch, with a great deal of trade focusing largely on the growth and sale of opium (Morris, 1978).
It was, in fact, the attempt by the Imperial High Commissioner, Lin Z’s-xu, to eliminate the opium trade which encouraged the British navy, at the bidding of British merchants, to claim a piece of China as a territorial base in the aftermath of the Opium War. This base was to be under British sovereignty so that British traders could arrange their Chinese profits well away from Peking’s interference. This was accomplished when a British Captain claimed a small, steep and treeless granite island with a deep harbor and an easy mile-wide strait between it and the mainland. At that point the island had a few thousand inhabitants of the Tang clan living largely in boats, but they were quickly resettled elsewhere. Land auctions occurred and the colony soon became a bustling outpost, though not on the scale of its sister city to the north, Shanghai, which welcomed far more international travelers during the later half of the 19th and earlier years of the 20th century. As Morris (1978) notes, what finally brought Hong Kong into its own was the 1949 Chinese Communist Revolution. The revolution drove a huge number of refugees into Hong Kong, many of them industrialists and others laborers who would later provide the backbone for an aggressive and immense manufacturing and financial centre. The colony’s population grew exponentially over the next 20 years, reaching six million at last count and representing a “kaleidoscopic hodgepodge of races and languages…a phenomenon unique in history” (Morris, p. 28).
In 1984, an agreement was reached between the People’s Republic of China and Britain to return Hong Kong and the surrounding regions to Chinese rule. This decision was partially a fait accompli as the New Territories were scheduled for return under a lease agreement; Hong Kong was added to the arrangement with the condition that it was to be given semi-autonomous rule as a Special Administrative Region for another 50 years. The “jewel in the British Crown” was handed over in 1997 with only minimal aspects of self-government and democratic institutions in place. In July, 2003, nearly half a million people marched in Hong Kong to protest anti-subversion legislation and to call for direct democratic elections of all public officials. These goals, along with many basic rights guaranteed by law in the West, for example, continue to remain out of reach for Hong Kong residents (Yeung, 2003, p. A1& p. A10).
This quickly-sketched portrait of Hong Kong's history underscores how complex the question of “identity” is to those who inhabit this unlikely location. Add to this the fact that knowledge of the region’s pre-colonial history is limited. As well, Hong Kong Chinese are quite distinct from their mainland counterparts, descendants of transient boat dwelling peoples – a fact which has caused a great deal of mistrust and demonizing over the years (Abbas, 1997, p. 2). The return of Hong Kong to China in 1997 aligns the concept of identity in a new direction. It does not necessarily point to an annexing of its capitalist/colonial economy by the mainland but rather to its mutation into a global city which is a "changed and changing space….of disappearance, which in many respects does not resemble the old colonialisms at all" (p. 3). Abbas employed the term ‘hyphenation’ to explain these dis-junctures of colonialism and globalism. This term embodies the city’s tendency to move toward timelessness and placelessness beyond historical determinisms and "to love its own version of the floating world" (p. 143). The process can be seen as a part of the larger shifts occurring worldwide, as port cities become places of intersecting times and lifestyles. Abbas goes on to argue that there is a pressing need for Hong Kongers to locate a definite set of cultural, social and political values on which to build their future. “Hong Kong maybe be viewed as a post-coloniality, a field of instabilities, that precedes decolonization and which bears the fruit of a new and as of yet fully defined set of cultural artifacts and set of identifying characteristics” (pp. 4-5). Therefore, the identities of my subjects and their students are part of Hong Kong’s post-culture, where sifting realities continue to impact teaching practices and the ways in which students respond to literature inside international school classrooms.
International Schools in Hong Kong
The first American International School was established in Mexico City in the late 19th century, serving an expatriate community and providing an American style curriculum. Today 180 American schools can be found in over 133 countries (www.uni.edu/placement/overseas). International schools are a growth trend around the world but particularly in post-colonial settings like Singapore and Hong Kong. The following gives a helpful definition:
What is an international school? Using a broad definition, and assuming that English is the main language of instruction, there are schools large and small, in over 100 countries, in some of the largest cities around the world and in the countryside. School curricula can be based on one or more of: the International Baccalaureate (IB), American curriculum, the IGCSE from the UK, host country requirements, or others including Canadian (usually Ontario). A very large majority of the students are university bound and can be entirely host country nationals (HCNs) or drawn primarily from the international community, but in most cases would be a mixture of the two groups. Similarly, the teaching staff is often a mix of HCNs and ‘import’ teachers. International schools are usually private and can be non-profit with a parent-run board of directors, sponsored by a corporation, sponsored by embassies, or proprietary in nature (www.educ.queensu.ca).
Because a majority of these schools use English as a medium of instruction, their presence engages with important questions of linguistic dominance. In Hong Kong, this situation is further complicated by the fact that the city is now part of a country with 1.3 billion Mandarin-speakers. Equally, one must ask what is the city’s present and future relationship with the language of the colonizers, a language that is fast becoming globally hegemonic? Hong Kong’s identity is at once wholly linked to Cantonese and yet, at the same time, fluid and changing.
English is Hong Kong’s second official language. The majority of the local population is educated in Cantonese language schools, all with strongly financed programs in English language instruction. The imminent return of the colony to China brought forward efforts to open up and reform the education system, allowing for greater choice for local secondary students and their parents. Currently, though, while the 24,000 children attending international schools represent only 3% of the population, the growth rate is astonishing, with one third of the schools established in the past decade alone. Despite this increase and high tuition fees ranging from $5000 to $20,000 USD a year, some students have to wait up to two years for an opening (www.emb.gov.hk.htm).
The first wave of increased school choice reached shore in 1967, when the English School Foundation (ESF) was established by Ordinance of the Hong Kong government, offering a British-style curriculum to Chinese and non-Chinese students. Previously, there had only been a handful of elite private schools offering a full English language curriculum to Asian and non-Asian Hong Kong secondary students. ESF schools are partially subsidized by the local government and, as a result, they continue to be a popular choice for many Asian parents seeking an alternative to the traditional Chinese education system. Today, the five ESF secondary schools educate more than 11,000 students from 55 different countries. Nearly 70% of this student population is of Asian decent. As for teachers, over 90% are from England, Scotland and Ireland, though increasing numbers are now from Australia and Canada and the U.S. (www.esf.edu.hk.html).
In the early 1990s, other not-for-profit international schools began operating with the help of land grants. However, because they are not government subsidized, these institutions must charge significantly higher fees than do ESF schools. Asian residents, many holding dual citizenship, established institutions like the Canadian and the Australian International Schools. These parents were looking for alternatives to the local school system, which traditionally emphasized rote learning and strenuous exam preparation:
The migratory patterns of Hong Kong citizens have fueled the demand for international schools in two major ways. First families preparing to migrate had sought international schools in order to smooth the paths for their children in the destination country; and second, many of the migrants who had already returned had found that their children who had attended schools in the overseas countries could no longer fit into the local education system (Yamato & Bray, 2002, p. 27).
At present, many of these schools are populated by the children of returning Hong Kong residents who left for destinations like Canada in the politically unsettled period leading up to 1997. More than 75% of these students have Asian roots. The schools offer a variety of programs and language-learning opportunities, and often serve as stepping stones to foreign post-secondary institutions. There are approximately 15 international schools and for-profit private schools in Hong Kong, though this number increases yearly (www.emb.gov.hk.htm). The following gives a more thorough description of the types of international schools available to Hong Kong students as they are represented in this study.
English Foundation Schools
Three of the participants in this base study teach English and Drama at two ESF schools. Mark (all names are pseudonyms) is the Head of English at one, while Arthur holds a similar position at another. Marie also teaches English, her particular focus being on Drama Studies. What follows is a brief description of the curriculum and general characteristics of the two ESF schools represented.
Outer Island School opened in 1967 and was, at the time, the only English school for secondary studies on the island itself. It now educates about 1200 students representing some 40 different nationalities, preparing them for a series of British curriculum certifications that include the following:
GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education)
IGSCE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education)
GNVQ (General National Vocational Qualification)
O Levels (established qualifications used to prepare students 14-16 for A and AS Levels)
A and AS Levels (accepted proof of academic ability for entry into universities)
“The framework for our curriculum is based on the UK model,” says the Outer Island School principal, “but increasingly content and values reflect the context of Hong Kong and Southeast Asia” (www.esf.edu.hk). That being said, my subjects revealed that, for example, the English and Drama curriculums are essentially Anglo-centric. Students are required to take four half-year courses in English language and English literature studies. The following is a description of the AS or A Level course requirements:
You will study a play and a selection of short fiction. You will also learn to analyze, understand, and discuss a wide range of texts based on the spoken word, such as extracts from drama, poetry, soap operas, radio and television and advertisement. You will complete writing tasks in response to a selection of reading material on a variety of topics of general interests (www.esf.edu.hk/).
Authors studied include Shakespeare, Orwell, and Conrad. Students are also likely to study Romantic poetry, the plays of the Irish playwright, Brian Friel, and contemporary poetry by Seamus Heaney. Assessment is generally broken down into the following percentages: 30% course work, 70% examination. The heavy emphasis on examinations is consistent with the history of the British curricular approaches. It is, therefore, also an accurate reflection of the local school system expectations in Hong Kong, which combine both the British and Chinese models of education.
That aside, the principal of Outer Island School explained that when local parents visit his school, they are often shocked by the amount of classroom interaction between students and teachers: “The students who comes out of our school can be western with westerners and Chinese with Chinese…exactly the sort of graduate that the business community seeks” (www.esf.edu.hk). This comment speaks volumes about how identity, nationality, and language are understood in multiple ways by individuals living and working in Hong Kong. A comment made by Mark shed very interesting light on how notions of identity in relation to nationality, for example, have evolved:
Until recently, it hadn’t been cool to be Chinese/Chinese (mainland) at Outer Island School. To be Hong Kong/Chinese here was like being a mainlander to Hong Kongers, gawky, not quite with it - unrelaxed. And there was a sort of vortex, whichever way you hit the spiral of western notion of what you were trying to become. Whereas, now, there are groups of cliquey kids who do speak Chinese together. Kids who dress up in Korean hip hop clothes and have their separate identities and don’t want to integrate and don’t want to do community service – they want to come and get their qualifications and get out – the more confident Hong Kong identity.
At Outer Island School, there is both the institutional view of identity and the realities experienced by students and teachers on a daily basis. Clearly, the attitude of the administration is that students are served better when identity is unmoored from specific national or cultural characteristics and instead is embraced as global, diverse, multi-lingual and multi-cultural. In my study, I regard these environments as a representation of the cultural synergy model offered by Jin & Cortazzi (1997) which includes the characteristics of mutual congruence, a collectively-oriented focus, and identity maintenance (p. 116). Jin and Cortazzi (1997) argue that:
There is additional benefit from collaboration which is greater than the single benefit for each side in the intercultural context. Teachers and students from different cultures need to develop an attitude of being willing to learn, understand and appreciate the other's culture without loss of their own status, role or cultural identity. Mutual understanding and adaptation by choice, rather than assimilation, is stressed. (pp. 115-116).
Shousan College, another ESF school represented in this study, was established in 1985 to better serve those families living in Kowloon and the New Territories – locations which are physically attached to the Chinese mainland. Its student population is also around 1200. The school is considered a preparatory institution for students wishing to attend universities in Australia, Britain, and, increasingly, Hong Kong itself. It offers senior students the option of gaining UK certification but also offers certification in the International Baccalaureate curriculum (the IB curriculum will be explained in more detail when discussing Hong Kong International School). Shousan College also offers preparation for the Preparatory Scholastic Achievement Tests (PSAT) and Scholastic Achievement Tests (SAT), its website stating that “the college is stretching the capabilities of students at all levels of ability and laying sure foundations for success in public examinations” (www.shatincollege.edu.hk/). Clearly, the focus is on offering parents the widest variety of potential options for their children’s post-secondary education by making sure that opportunities for admissions examinations are fully exploited.
Chinese Canadian School and American Overseas School of Hong Kong
Early in Hong Kong’s growth as a world business centre, a group of Christian businessmen set their sights on building a school that would educate the “whole child, mind, body and spirit” (www.hkis.edu.hk/). In 1996, supported by the Lutheran Church-Missouri-Synod, their dream was realized and the American Overseas School was founded. Today, 2600 students occupy four separate campuses. The high school is located on Hong Kong Island but well away from the central core. Though its student population is increasingly diverse, especially in the younger grades, the school continues to serve the western/American expatriates living in Hong Kong. As such, it caters more directly to the expatriate population.
There is also an emphasis on the Christian dimension of schooling at American Overseas School of Hong Kong. Pedagogical goals include the value of collaborative curriculum as it functions in the context of the International Baccalaureate program. Students must complete and test in six IB subjects, write an extended essay of independent research guided by a faculty mentor, complete 150 hours of community action and service activities and participate in a critical thinking Theory of Knowledge course. This advanced comprehensive program of study offers an integrated approach to learning across the disciplines with an emphasis on meeting the challenges of living and working in a global technological society (www.hkis.edu.hk/). This mirrors the philosophy put forward by the International Baccalaureate Organization itself which “aims to assist schools in their endeavors to develop the individual talents of young people and teach them to relate the experience of classroom to the realities of the world outside” (www.edu.ouka.fi/koulut/lyseo/ib/philosophy/html).
The increasing popularity of the International Baccalaureate Program (IB) in international school settings suggests that it offers workable solutions to the problems of consistent curriculum requirements worldwide. The IB program was established in 1968 to focus on the needs of 16 to 19 year-old international students who required a common curriculum and university entry credentials. Still primarily a two-year program, it focuses on six academic subjects: mother tongue language, second language, individuals and societies, experimental sciences, mathematics and computer sciences, and the arts. It also includes a CAS independent study project, an extended senior essay, and a graded system of examinations. Responsibility for all academic judgments about the quality of candidates’ work rests with some 4,400 IB examiners worldwide, led by chief examiners with international authority in their field. Each year, approximately 80% of the candidates who attempt the diploma succeed in earning it. Examinations are offered in May for Northern Hemisphere schools and in November for those in the Southern Hemisphere. In the area of language and literature, the IB program policy is to “encourage students to maintain strong ties to their own cultures, respect for the literary heritage and adopt an international perspective” (www.edu.ouka.fi/koulut/lyseo/philosophy/html). In the case of OAS, this means that students are likely to study authors from the British canon, American and Canadians authors and works in translation by Chinese authors.
The Chinese Canadian School was opened in 1991 in a W.W. II –era hospital in the Central district of Hong Kong. At first, it opened as a small primary school with 80 students and was once again a reflection of government policies to further open the education system in HK in order to help develop “a workforce with global perspectives and cross-cultural social skills” (www.info.gov.hk/gia/general/brandhk/1114185.htm). The school was also created to respond to the growing desire of parents to establish schools which would help prepare their children for post-secondary careers abroad and immigration in light of the possible resulting chaos leading up to the 1998 hand-over of Hong Kong to China. This coincided with a Canadian government initiative to encourage immigration of individuals with specified standards of personal wealth willing to invest in Canada. Phase One of a new school campus, built on a very steep 10,200 square meter site in the Aberdeen area, was opened in 1999; Phase Two was opened in 2002 with a total of 14 levels and separate facilities for primary, junior, and senior students. Its mission includes the following:
Provide Canadian education for the children of families returning to Hong Kong, as well as the local and expatriate communities. Operate Reception to Secondary School Graduation classes (a “Through Train”) in one building. Develop in students an appreciation of learning, which includes a commitment to learning as a lifelong activity; self-discipline, independent thinking and aesthetic sensitivity. Develop the skills that will enable each student to develop to his/her full intellectual potential. Develop the whole child by providing broad opportunities in the arts, athletics, as well as provide outstanding academic programs. Assist students to develop respecting and caring for self; respect and caring for others. Develop a sense of belonging; and social responsibility, to be leaders in providing programs which develop an appreciation of Chinese culture and the ability to use Chinese language, to recognize the importance of environmental education and to engage in projects which educate both the students and the greater community. Ensure that students work with leading edge information technology equipment and software as an integral part of the curriculum. Finally, ensure that the credentials graduate receive will provide them access to quality universities around the world, to work with and support the education authorities and other schools to promote the quality of education in Hong Kong and to serve the greater needs of education in Hong Kong by assisting in training pre-service and in-service teachers (www.cdnis.edu.hk).
CCS uses the Ontario Curriculum and supports that decision with hiring practices which favour teachers with Ontario certification. There are regular professional development sessions run by Ontario School board representatives and the school’s certification is reviewed annually.
As I write, the Chinese Canadian School continues to grow, particularly in the primary/junior program where a large pre-school program for four-year-olds is regarded as one of the best in the city. The student body is at least 90% Chinese, many of whom hold both Chinese and Canadian passports. The growth of the school depends entirely on the ability to draw from the local population. Students at CCS may have many qualities in common with their local school counterparts because it is more likely that either they or their parents experienced that system for part or all of their elementary education. CCS has an admission examination for all levels but there will no doubt be increasing pressure to modify those standards as the school continues to draw from the local population. Just recently, the Korean International School closed its door for re-structuring – evidence that there will be greater pressure on the international schools to successfully connect with the needs of the local, rather than primarily the expatriate, population in Hong Kong.
Due to the lack of significant numbers of international schools in Hong Kong, there is little research devoted to classroom practices and the teaching of literature in English in this setting. Bray (2000), among others, undertook investigations into the socio-cultural identity of international school students and concluded that there is a distinct educational culture within these schools. The number, variety, and make-up of the schools are changing rapidly, adding to the challenge of trying to generalize or theorize about them. Walking into the American Overseas School ten years ago, one might have seen more western faces than Asian. Today, Asians, including those from the Indian sub-continent, are as evident, an observation that holds true for other international and English Foundation schools. The numbers of western expatriate families currently residing in Hong Kong are in decline. As well, some students are arriving back from other countries, having been educated there for a period; others are transferring over from the local school systems. Still others have been in the international system all along, but speak Cantonese outside of school. Other Asian students, on the other hand, speak little or no Cantonese and regard English as their mother tongue. It is the case that each school has its own language proficiency exams meant to extinguish concerns regarding ESL/ELL roadblocks to learning. Therefore, the schools operate from the assumption that their students should achieve solid first-language results in an Ontario curriculum or GCSE setting, for example. That being said, more and more institutions, like the Canadian one, are beginning to provide limited English language support for some students outside the mainstream English program, though usually not at the secondary level.
It is clear then that the reality of the level of English proficiency at these schools is, not surprisingly, more complex than it appears on the surface. Teachers may encounter second-language learning difficulties among some of the students and must deal with those challenges on a case-by-case basis, often without administrative intervention. Acknowledging this fact will be necessary in the long run because international schools will continue to draw more frequently students from the local population. The extent to which my participants felt the impact of the first or second language issues on the teaching of literature will be gleaned through close consideration of their responses. However, the focus of this base study is not on the impact of the L1 language on literature studies in the L2 language. It is, rather, an attempt to understand the potential value of a two-way acculturation process (Jin & Cortazzi, 1997) made possible when international school students engage with literary texts.
In September 2002, I recruited five teachers from various international schools in Hong Kong by written invitation. The initial contact was established through a personal or professional connection. I selected participants on the basis of their willingness to commit to such a project, their availability, and the consistency of their experience and education background (Stewart & Shamdasani, 1990). Five teachers, all from different international schools, committed approximately five hours each over the course of a single school year to my research study.
My subject group included a poet and literature enthusiast who grew up in Saskatoon and came to China to teach English, eventually marrying a Hong Kong resident. He is part of a small but passionate community of writers in English and is the father of two mixed-race boys. Three of the other teachers left England years ago and ended up in the then British colony teaching in the English School Foundation system. They share their passion for drama and literature with a mix of students – East Indians, Asians, and, of course, Europeans. Another is an American, teaching at the American International School and married to a Malaysian. She teaches and talks with insatiable energy about the universality of great literature and believes entirely in its capacity to transform and shape the lives of her students. The following is a detailed description of my participants’ backgrounds, experiences, and interests, which in turn, contribute to the formulation of both their teaching practices and professional perceptions (Clandinin, 1986). Their ‘global’ birthplaces, which include Libya, Australia, Canada, and Britain, attest to the kind of teaching culture found in international schools – a linguistically unified group, dis-unified by place, time and space.
At the time of our interviews together, Marie had been teaching English and Drama at Outer Island School for 11 years. She grew up and was educated in Britain where she received an Honours B.A. in Biblical Studies and further degrees in Drama and English Education. Her first teaching position was in London at an all-girls Catholic school, where she taught general level English courses, religious education, and drama. After moving to Hong Kong, she worked at the other ESF school represented in this study, Shousan College, where she taught secondary English and Drama.
Marie is a devotedly religious individual who is an elder in a progressive Christian congregation in Hong Kong. She views her role as a teacher in far greater emotional and spiritual terms than the other interviewees in the study and frequently refers to the potential for growth and self-actualization of each student. She is also keenly aware of the needs of students with lower abilities, language issues, or special challenges. She and her husband, a Sri Lankan who has made Hong Kong his home for many years, adopted three children from mainland China. Her attitudes towards teaching literature are profoundly shaped by a deep sensitivity to the roles that culture and language play in the development of student voice and moral character.
Marie is also acutely aware of, and even somewhat conflicted about, the cultural dimensions of her teaching. She believes, for instance, that “everything’s affected by the situation you’re in but our students’ heritages and their experiences of the world are huge influences. For me, how successfully you can introduce them to a new context or a new situation is limited by their use of English.” Yet she also maintains that “if students can peek into Shakespeare, other writers, other ages, then it does allow students to look more clearly into their own lives.”
Mark was born in Libya but raised in South America, India and the Caribbean. He is a British citizen and has lived in Hong Kong since 1987. Mark is currently the Head of English at Outer Island School, a position requiring the supervision of both full-time and four part-time teachers. Mark is a published author (one book of short stories and one collection of poetry, both published by a Hong Kong press), and a regular book reviewer for the South China Morning Post. He is also involved in school-based activities focusing on the needs of the less fortunate both inside and outside of South-East Asia. He completed an M.A. in English literature at Hong Kong University in 1997, writing a base on representations of masculinity in the works of Joseph Conrad. He is greatly interested in literary and critical theory and its potential impact on the reading of texts in the classroom. Because of this, Mark tends to view the meaning of texts as unstable and the classroom as a site for the joint negotiation of meaning between teacher and student, student and text, and finally, text and author. He suggests that this instability is, in part, responsible for the pleasure he gains from teaching literature in a secondary setting:
That’s the fun thing about teaching literature: you present things to the students they recognize or that are crystallized for them that were vague before and which invites them to experience something they may experience in the future. That’s the multiplicity of lives you engage in fiction. You’ve only got one life and the mistakes you can make along with the characters like, say, King Lear, helps students sort out their own lives.
Mark’s responses are oriented towards dialogic approaches which engage students in questions of authority, voice and appropriation, class, and communicate a heightened awareness of the complexity of his role as a teacher of English in a British school setting.
Arthur is typical of a significant portion of the teachers found in international schools in Hong Kong; those nearing the end of their careers in their home countries and who are looking for new and remunerative opportunities abroad. Many of these individuals have actually already retired from their school boards and are able to count their salaries and their pensions as income. Arthur was not in that category but was clearly looking for a new challenge when he left the UK after teaching there for nearly 30 years. He worked largely in secondary English but with an emphasis on Media Studies – he was at one time the Principal Examiner for Media Studies GCSE (as defined earlier) and a Service Tutor for the British Film Institute. His teaching positions included Head of English and Senior Teacher at Okehampton College, also situated in Devon.
Arthur’s approach to teaching is influenced by an upbringing in working class England. He is acutely aware, for example, of the privilege of his Hong Kong students and the necessity of raising political and social consciousness through the study of literature. For that reason, he tends to be interested in more overtly political texts and applies basic Marxist theory and language when he explains his pedagogy.
I think that feeling of being outside your own culture is compounded for the students by being here, inside an English system which then they take home, where they speak Cantonese. And some parents have very little English…one of the realities of this is alienation. The social risks attached to what we’re doing with our project are significant…everyone is caring but there are a lot of questions that need to be asked about what we’re involved in this system.
At the same time, Arthur evinces a real love of Asia, Chinese culture and the students he teaches. He is a dedicated and highly effective teacher who has given himself a unique opportunity for personal and professional growth. He seems to embrace it all with great enthusiasm and energy. His responses during the interviews suggest he is a teacher engaged with the questions of how students read, analyze and fully appreciate a range of canonical and non-canonical literature.
As a subject, Thomas is distinct since he was also a colleague of mine at the Chinese Canadian School. I decided to include him in the study because the school is a bellwether for the socio-political changes taking place in Hong Kong. The emphasis, for example, on the daily study of Mandarin by all students attests to the desire on the part of the school administration to measure and respond to the winds of change in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia generally. I first met Thomas when I worked at the school during the 1997/98 school year. He had been a teacher there for one year and was just finishing his Masters in English studies at the University of Hong Kong. He was born in Iowa and raised in Saskatchewan but came to Asia in the 1980s as a part of a post-graduate teacher exchange program. Though he returns to Canada frequently, Hong Kong is now his permanent home. His wife, Teri, comes from a Hakka village in the New Territories so Thomas has worked to become proficient in her family’s Cantonese dialect, which is more closely related to oral Mandarin. Like Mark, he is a published poet and short story writer of distinction. Besides these achievements, Thomas is an avid cross-country runner, an active member of the Lutheran church and a much beloved teacher of English, Creative Writing and Social Studies.
Thomas also shares with Mark an affinity for the genres of poetry and short stories. They also appeal to him because of their length and accessibility, a holdover perhaps from his earlier teaching of primary and junior students. Thomas is as equally interested in how students express themselves creatively through writing as he is in their responses to literature. He is drawn to stories and to poems that contain irony and other forms of humorous intention. He tends to be skeptical about literature’s capacity to impart moral lessons, but believes in its capacity to transform:
In regards to the issues of sensitivity to other cultures, my position springs from the old authenticity argument: teach kids something they know. But the opposite actually makes total sense to me. I didn’t read stories about middle class kids growing up in the Prairies. I read adventure stories about places like India or Africa. Show me something that isn’t my life. It makes sense. There is great logic to teaching kids what they know but when it comes to reading, you have to take into account that students are interested in what they don’t know – to expand their horizons.
Though religiously devout, he seems to regard his faith in largely detached terms. He evinces the stereo-typically self-deprecating manner of a prairie Canadian coupled with a sharp intelligence and wit. It is these qualities that make him such an appealing teacher for teenagers looking for guidance but who do not necessarily want to advertise that fact.
Born and raised in Australia, Jane moved to Hong Kong after teaching for many years in Malaysia – the birthplace of both her husband and children. In Kuala Lumpur, she was Departmental Chair of English. There, she developed curriculum documents focused on exploring ways to approach reading and writing in the specialized environment of international schools. She is a member of the East Asia Writing Project, a consortium of international teachers interested in developing new curricula and strategies for teaching writing. She is also a member of a number of professional organizations, including the Western Association of School and Colleges (WASC), a curriculum advisory board based in Australia that regularly advises international schools across Asia. She is currently teaching English and inter-disciplinary subjects as part of the IB curriculum at American Chinese International School and is frequently involved in professional development initiatives.
Jane is enthusiastic about teaching and firmly believes in the importance of developing student voice. The ways in which she talks about literature share a great deal in common with the language employed by Rosenblatt (1938), Iser (1980), and other reader-response thinkers. Jane believes in literature’s capacity to transform and develop minds and believes in its role in helping students reach their full potential, intellectually and emotionally: “Literature isn’t something they have to know and get right. With a real engagement with the text, something happens between the reader and the words, something in the middle, that even the author wouldn’t know was necessarily there.” She insists on high standards and on giving students full rein and responsibility for their learning. Despite her wide and varied experiences in the international school community in Asia, her awareness of the cultural dimensions of her choice of texts is less evident than, for example, Mark’s or Arthur’s.
“The root of all significant theorizing is the sensitive insights of the observer himself” (Glaser & Strauss, 1967, p. 251). I cannot deny the existence of the researcher’s perspective, this is, subjectivity, as part of this project (Lincoln, 1985). My role as a teacher of English and Drama at the Chinese Canadian School in Hong Kong leading up to and during the data collection for this study provided a caring and sensitive perspective for me as researcher and interviewer (Creswell, 1998). Before this experience, I had taught previously in Hong Kong and also in geographic settings as disparate as Beijing, Montreal, rural New York and Ontario. Therefore, I bring years of various classroom experiences to bear upon this project.
My academic background has also played a role in the development of this research study. I hold a Master’s Degree in Anglo-Irish Literature from University College, Dublin. While my current studies at OISE/UT have focused, at least in part, on deepening my understanding of theoretic re-conceptualizations of literature studies, I have spent considerable time studying the history and use of reader response methods in secondary classrooms. I have also considered the complexities involved in teaching literary works, mainly the western canon, in an increasingly diverse cultural landscape, tied together by the use of English as the medium of instruction. Lastly, my various social roles as mother and marital partner have shaped my engagement in this study, building on my analytical perspective as I re-orient myself and my family back to our lives in Southern Ontario.
Yonamura (1982) argued that teachers need opportunities to bring their intuitive knowledge to consciousness for critical evaluation. For her, these opportunities take the form of teacher conversation and focus on teachers’ “ways of feeling” (p. 239). My experiences as an educator support this contention and are closely related as well to Clandinin and Connelly’s (1990) concept of personal/practical knowledge. As a researcher, I feel compelled to give my subjects the opportunity to find the “congruence between espoused theories and beliefs about teaching and actual practice” (Yonumera, 1982, p. 241). Clandinin and Connelly’s (1990) concept of narrative inquiry as a way of understanding experience, also underlines the necessity of collaboration between researcher and participants. Therefore, the value of this study is derived from persistent and meaningful questions arising from years of practice in a variety of educational settings.
An overview of my teaching history creates a fuller context for the phenomena of teaching literature that I am trying to capture in this study. The reasons I decided to journey back to Hong Kong in 2001 to interview international school teachers are embedded in my narrative of becoming.
After graduating with an M.A. in Irish literature in 1985, I accepted a position as a Literature and Language teacher at the Kildonan School in New York State. It was a beautifully isolated school, populated by all male students ranging in ages from 10 to 18. Most came to the quiet and elite setting with dire reading problems and diagnoses ranging from dyslexia to what is now known as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), conditions which had been masked by private school support systems. I was at a school with 275 non-reading male students living in basic and isolated conditions, miles from all supports, including their homes and families.
During my three years, I tutored four boys per term in decoding and phonetic sequencing skills. I also taught two sections of literature class every day. For those classes, the pedagogical mandate was to help the students learn to enjoy literature that was age-appropriate but, therefore, usually well beyond their capabilities. As a result, the main focus was reading aloud to the students each and every day and to choose books we thought could sustain an auditory-only treatment. Novels chosen included Animal Farm (Orwell, 1945), Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury, 1953), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Twain, 1885), Catcher in the Rye (Salinger, 1951), A Separate Peace (Knowles, 1959), and The Chronicles of Narnia (Lewis, 1940). We also read plays – the Greek dramas and modified versions of Shakespeare – as well as poetry and American short stories. I was amazed by these students’ responses to this daily activity. Their interest, enjoyment, and engagement with these texts encouraged me to begin to consider questions about the relationship between texts and readers. As I gained confidence, I learned to read more dramatically and to find ways to involve students effectively in the readings. The years of teaching at Kildonan shaped my practices, sensitizing me to the challenges faced by non-reading students and, more important, for this base study, prompting me to ask myself about the conditions needed for authentic engagement with literary texts.
In 1988, my husband and I accepted positions at the Beijing Second Foreign Languages Institute, a post-secondary setting where the most academically qualified Chinese students from all over the country were given the chance to study languages and tourism in the nation’s capitol. We were hired to teach American and British Literature. My husband was assigned mostly graduate seminars and I was given the larger undergraduate lecture sections along with a seminar on pedagogical practices for Chinese teachers of English. Fortunately, because we had been warned about the scarcity of books there, we came with as many texts as we could carry. Our classroom texts consisted largely of hand-mimeographed copies of Sense and Sensibility (Austen. 1811) and Wuthering Heights (Bronte, 1847), all smudgy with cheap ink, containing blacked out sections, and covered in flimsy cardboard. We observed our students’ voracious enthusiasm for reading and for discussing anything foreign in the open atmosphere that preceded the Tiananmen Square Massacre in June 1989.
We were forced to leave the country after that event but returned to fulfill our contracts in the repressive atmosphere of Beijing in January, 1990. We found students were more depressed and fearful than enthusiastic about their studies. In comparison with my students in New York, who had been so materially rich but so intensely needy in terms of their skills, the students in Beijing had the most limited material comforts I had ever witnessed. But what I observed was the same sort of authentic engagement with literary texts in English. Of course, my students in Beijing had certain learning strategies to help them cope with reading in English. For example, they all heavily annotated their texts and used dictionaries frequently. Their classroom orientation also tended towards the collective, though individual learning styles were evident. Some students asked questions frequently, volunteered to lead discussions, or expressed opinions different than those of their classmates or teachers. Like my students in New York, the lives and situations depicted in the novels studied were, at least on the surface, different in every way from their own. Yet my students in Beijing mined deep connections with literary texts in English and saw the details of their own lives mirrored within the pages of those works.
Between 1990 and 1995, our expanding family lived in the French and Hassidim neighborhood of Outremont in Montreal. I worked at the St. George’s School, anomalously named since the student body was drawn largely from the Anglo-Jewish community of Westmount. In some important ways, the school had a similar setting academically to the Chinese Canadian School in Hong Kong. There was the same sense of privilege and academic motivation; many of the graduates went on to American Ivy League or first tier universities in Canada. There are also parallels that can be drawn with other socio-cultural elements; namely, the complex relationship my students in Montreal had to language and identity. For example, while the students at St. George’s were functionally fluent in French, they lived and studied in both a diminishing and rapidly changing island of English hegemony in Montreal. Added to that unstable identity was the fact that their futures were most likely tied to places beyond the Montreal business community, unless their French was good enough, thanks to the success of the language laws and initiatives of the 1970s and 1980s. Culturally, these students were also part of a small but strong Anglo-Jewish minority. During the period I taught at the school, many of the students actively participated in religiously-based summer programs, including time spent in Israel. The complexities of Hong Kong’s linguistic environment and the unique environments of the international schools which are fostering new permutations of unstable, globalized identities have deep connections with the teaching environment in Montreal. The students were voracious readers, especially interested in American rather than Canadian literature, except of course for the Anglo-authors from Montreal. As well, I encouraged students to study the works of Atwood, Findley, Munro and Ondaatje. These students had been empowered from an early age to question everything from author intentionality to a work’s critical reception and were never afraid to express their opinions. Helping them to shape their occasionally boisterous opinions into well-supported arguments was by far my greatest challenge as a teacher. These students had agency, material advantage and expectations about achievement, all of which added up to full engagement with literary texts.
In 1995, my family and I moved to Peterborough, Ontario where we have maintained residency since. Of the last nine years, we have lived in Asia for three, all of them in Hong Kong. I also spent two years working at Fleming College as a Communications Instructor while studying at OISE/UT on a part-time basis. My children have experienced a linguistically diverse upbringing, having studied in French immersion, English and Mandarin programs. They regard themselves as global citizens, equally comfortable living in Asia as Southern Ontario. My observations of their development, both in terms of their language and their identities, serve to underscore my experiences teaching in a wide variety of cultural settings.
Data Collection and Analysis
I set up the first round of interviews (Appendix A) via letter and then by email correspondence. The five teachers who agreed to be interviewed were then sent a list of tentative questions in advance (Appendix B), which gave them a general indication of the direction the discussion might take over the course of the interview process. The interviews themselves took place through the fall, 2002, and ranged in length from 60 to 80 minutes. The interviews were only loosely structured in order to establish the necessary dialogical relationship between interviewer and subjects. This approach is supported by ethnographic and participant observation studies (Creswell, 1998) as well as principles governing research interviewing techniques (Bell, 1987; Drever, 1995).
The first interview began with an invitation to the subjects to share a teaching story that stood out in their experience: a story that reflected positively upon, for example, their selection of a studied text and their students’ responses to that selection, or an experience in the classroom that was particularly influenced by the environment in which they teach. The remaining portion of the first interview explored the implications of that teaching story in more depth. Following that, we discussed some of the more directed questions I had sent out in advance. I later transcribed the first set of interviews and then sent them to the subjects for their annotated comments.
In each one-to-one interview, I attempted to position myself as an “empathetic and engaged observer” (Morgan, 1993, p. 32). I maintained that same stance in the group interview but felt that more direction was needed in order to at least initially make the discussion more coherent. A group interview model was employed as part of the second phase of the study and participants were sent a letter inviting them to take part. The group interview provided an opportunity for triangulation or the “cross referencing of multiple opinions stemming from the group nature which is one of the desirable effects of using a group interview” (Morgan, 1993, p. 21, Frey and Fontana, 1991). Teachers also welcomed the opportunity for talk with other teachers (Connelly & Clandinin, 1990) and for the potential cross-pollinating effects of interacting with like-minded colleagues from different schools. Despite their busy schedules, I sensed that my subjects eagerly embraced such an opportunity because of the relative rarity of such a discussion.
I sent each subject a brief reading from the book referred to earlier, Hessler’s River Town (2001). Some of the ideas presented by Hessler in the excerpts paralleled or highlighted certain themes that emerged from the first set of interviews, including the teaching of canonical texts to Asian students and the impact of these texts on students’ conceptions of identity, culture, and language. Furthermore, giving the reading in advance helped crystallize some of the theoretical issues only alluded to in the first set of interviews. This was beneficial for my subjects who, I believe, did not conceive of their practices in such terms. Creswell (1992) confirms the need for a validation step in a phenomenological study and Hessler’s experience offered a mirror, quite similar to my own teaching experiences in Beijing, from which the subjects could view their own experiences.
At the time of the group interview, I gave each subject a typed out list of salient quotes from the excerpts (Appendix D). The idea was that the group could use the quotes as a guide for discussion if they wished. Therefore, the question format remained semi-structured and consistent with my approach during the first set of interviews.
I set the date via letter (Appendix C) for the group interview for early spring and suggested we gather in my small but centrally located flat in Aberdeen. However, the outbreak of SARS ended up not only altering the particulars of the setting but also the make-up of the participants, and their mind sets at a very challenging and stressful time. The group interview did take place in early April 2003. All schools in Hong Kong had been closed for one week at that stage. Both international and public schools stayed closed for a least another four weeks. I was forced to choose a very public location in Hong Kong’s Central District for the interview as a result of stern warnings given by health officials about the dangers that smaller, enclosed spaces posed for infection. The interview was recorded (with the help of a third party) which I transcribed. Because of the uncertain future of the school year at that point (none of the subjects knew if they would be finishing out the school year), I went forward with the group interview. One subject did not attend due to his temporary departure from the city.
Final one-on-one interviews, ranging in length from 35 to 60 minutes, were conducted in June 2003. I provided neither a set of questions nor a reading to prompt my subjects this time. Instead, I used an initial analysis of their responses in the first interview and group interview, therefore consciously moving them more closely towards an in-depth exploration of the original research questions while sticking as close to their experiences as possible.
These data are enriched by my own reflective practices in the classroom and my role as interviewer. To that end, I kept a regular journal over the course of the data collection. The year-long process of interviews and group discussions provided an opportunity for these teachers and for myself to “bring (our) intuitive knowledge to consciousness for critical evaluation” (Yonumera, 1982, p. 239) and to “find the congruence between espoused theories and beliefs about teaching and actual practice” (p. 241). Schon (1983) advocates reflection-in-action “when reflection and theory development [is] carried out in situ by practitioners” because of its “potential to increase the status and self-esteem of teachers” (in Beck & Kosnik, 2001, p. 217).
My transcription of the final interviews was completed directly after my return to Canada from Hong Kong. Before my departure, I also attempted to collect as much material about both the schools and my subjects, though both internet search engines and email have been exceedingly useful tools for filling in the information gaps.
While Reimen (in Creswell, 1998) concedes that there is not one phenomenological methodology, but “rather a variety of methods that all hold to the primacy of the subjective experience” (p. 276), it is the understanding of the essence of any one human experiences that is the goal. To that end, the following is a sample analysis of significant statements which will be referred to from now on in this study as “theme statements” made by my subjects at each stage of the interviewing process. These significant statements are “arrived at by reading, rereading, and reflecting upon the significant statements in the original transcriptions to get the meaning of the client’s statement in the original context” (Creswell, p. 281). The definition of ‘significant’ in the context of my study is not necessarily the meaning of an interaction but, rather, the general qualities, which can be expressed thematically, of teaching literature in the particulars of the Hong Kong international school context.
Initially, I compiled quotes from the interview transcripts, as well as the annotations made by the subjects on the first set of interview transcripts, into a narrative-style analysis which was used later to formulate response categories. Using Creswell’s (1998) approach of carefully rereading, reflecting upon, and finally, analyzing significant statements made by my subjects, I developed the following clusters or categories of response: pedagogy, curriculum choices, conceptions of literature, and, finally, identity. Though artificial in nature, these categories helped establish a way of sorting and making sense of the range of topics discussed during the interview process and “ representing themes that have emerged from and are common to all of the subject’s descriptions… referring back to the original descriptions in order to validate them” (Creswell, 1998, p. 281). Next, I created a set of tables which first listed the subjects’ responses temporally organize “clusters representing themes” (p. 281) or themes, first by the one-to-one interview, then the group interview, and finally, the last one-to-one interview.
Tables 1.1 – 1.6 (Appendix E) organize these themes by school and by response categories. By looking at the responses from different vantage points - in the case of this study, different international school systems in Hong Kong (ESF and non-ESF schools, for example) – “the formulations discover and bring out meanings hidden in the various contexts of the phenomenon that are present in the original descriptions” (Creswell, 1998, p. 280). Meaning statements (or themes) must refer back to the original descriptions in order for validation to occur. As well, “discrepancies, even flatly contradictory must be noted. The researcher (therefore) proceeds with the solid conviction that what was logically inexplicable might be existentially real and valid” (p. 280). All tables were coded for greater ease of analysis by the researcher, using the an letter symbol for the name of the participant (for example, M for Marie or Mk for Mark), followed by a number or letter code representing which interview the quote was from (for example, “2” for the second one-to-one interview or GI for the group interview), and finally, a alphabet code listing each quote from each participant (for example, a,b,c,d). Therefore, “M2a” stands for a statement made by Marie during the second one-to-one interview and is the first quote taken from her interview transcript.
My consideration of these embedded themes has been ongoing for nearly one year. It is my hope that over that time I have been able to effectively mimic Moustakas’ (1994) four-step phenomenological process and, in doing so, have reduced rich data to the essence of the shared experience, without losing focus on the essential complexity and diversity of these human experiences.
Findings of the Study
It is valuable to remember before looking at the findings of this base study in detail that all the respondents were committed practitioners who take their responsibility towards their students with great seriousness and energy. And yet they were quick to question the logic of their approaches, given the cultural context in which they were teaching. Contradictions and ambiguities embedded in my findings were as revealing and ultimately relevant as were the patterns and consistencies (Creswell, 1998). The goal of the following section is to provide an image of my subjects’ conceptions of their teaching practices. How they link to and potentially critique theoretical frameworks discussed in Chapter Two is explored in Chapter Five which outlines the implications of these findings.
Definitions of Literature and Conceptions of the Literary Transaction
Understanding how my subjects define literature and then go on to articulate their concept of the literary transaction was the first step towards gaining insight into what took place on a daily basis in their classrooms. The primary sources for these perceptions were the three sets of interviews but, in particular, the group interview. The responses to the excerpts from River Town (Hessler, 2001), used as a validating tool (Creswell, 1998), provided rich data. For this discussion, I chose to focus mostly on Mark and Jane’s responses. Mark had a strong academic background in critical literary theory while Jane had a wealth of practitioner experience with an orientation toward student voice in writing. Both reveal cogent and thoughtful definitions of what literature is and how they defined what occurred during the transaction with the text. They also spoke directly about theoretical frameworks which engaged similar issues.
Jane did not employ the language of theory when trying to describe what constituted good ‘literature’ for her. Neither did she define texts as canonical or non-canonical, western or multi-cultural works. She was not constrained by these definitions nor was she necessarily aware of these issues embedded, for example, in her curriculum choices. For instance, she freely employed ‘universality’ when talking about pieces of literature that, in her opinion, “work for her;” that is, where she felt that students were fully engaged with a text in the classroom. She rejected the notion that universality was potentially culturally biased. She maintained that “any piece of literature changes some piece of a person’s thinking,” and clarified her thinking through her own consideration of Hessler’s choice of reading Shakespeare to his Fuling students:
For me what was striking about the piece was that literature that endures has to be universal because there’s no point in reading a piece because someone thinks that it is academic or part of the canon. What matters is that the literature itself does the work because of its themes or because of its sounds…assuming kids whose language ability is perhaps less that grade level can’t be reached by good literature is a mistake.
Literature, in Jane’s opinion, was a tool for self-discovery and a way for students to understand their lives that afforded an opportunity for growth and development. It was not a historical artifact whose authorial intentions need full interrogation in order to be understood. For Jane, studying literature at the secondary level was about giving ownership to students and was not something “they have to know and get right. Literature, rather, it needs to be a part of the students’ lives, amplified.”
When the conversation in the group interview turned to how teachers can either support or replicate ‘personal’ engagement with literary texts in the classroom, Jane suggested that:
Transformation is a strange thing; a liberation. It requires a separation, a breaking down of that separation between art and life. That level of engagement that you’ve lost (in the classroom) and when we ask how is the writer creating his art, that question in a sense re-establishes that distance and therefore distances the engagement.
For Jane, the literary transaction was centred on concepts which include relevance to students’ lives, student ownership of the texts, and the need or desire of students to make sense of their own experiences through imaginary engagement with other worlds. She saw her role as a facilitator and believed that teachers should work to be dispensable to students’ learning. Repeatedly, Jane took the position that “something happens between the reader and the words…something in the middle that even the author wouldn’t know about” and that it was her job to encourage students to replicate that experience through their own learning. She recounted what one of her students wrote in their reading journal about reading literature as an illustration of her own teaching practices:
This is why I love literature so much…because I have a limited life span and it would be impossible for me to experience all the different things that life can offer and therefore I get my fulfillment from books, from the lives of characters.
She viewed the goal of universality - that is, students coming away from reading a book with a deeper understanding of their shared humanity - as a given as long as students can connect to literary texts and somehow see themselves in the experiences and situations explored in them. There were limitless possibilities, to her mind, for students to connect with texts that do not replicate or mirror their own experiences. Thinking about Hessler’s students in River Town (2001) and their engagement with Shakespeare, Jane recounted the following teaching story:
After a unit on metaphysical poetry, a group of students decided that the sensibilities in the poetry were similar to those found in heavy metal lyrics. They said its all love, death, and sex, and broken rhythms. But what was interesting to me is that they made the connection, not me. It wasn’t just the idea of something old being revered somehow but, instead, being relevant to their lives and revitalized.
In contrast to Jane, Mark manipulated critical and literary theory terminology with ease. He evinced awareness of the colonial implications of his role as a teacher of English literature in a British school and understood the potential dangers of the growing hegemony of English language instruction. That being said, he was also initially reluctant to engage in a discussion about the value of the canon during the first interview. Rather, he first maintained that what defines good literature is simply the ongoing process of critical judgment of texts by teachers, critics, and by the popular taste of any given age. The goal is always to get the student to become his or her own best judge of what constitutes good literature. The trick, of course, is to help expose them to enough variety to help hone those skills:
What I’m interested in is that issue of judgment about quality. For example, I have to tell them that a Scott Turow book isn’t going to cut it in terms of quality and it’s challenging for me to explain convincingly then why not. But then the students were able to do some free reading and successfully critique a Mills and Boone romance.
Later in the group interview, Mark defended his position in light of recent public forums on the value of teaching the canon and the rise of multiculturalism. Specifically, he focused on Bloom’s (1994) defense of the canon and for its continued use in the classroom:
Isn’t that what Harold Bloom is trying to do, not just being a reactionary and say, let’s get back to the canon but instead that post-modernism deconstructed any notion of quality of consistency. So people are saying here look here’s some great literature and it doesn’t matter if it was written by a dead white male, it’s still great literature. It doesn’t have to be politically correct.
Mark went on to express his belief in the ability of literature to transport students into what he called a “multiplicity of experience.” This multiplicity allowed students to explore and interrogate their values and experiences through other, imagined lives:
That’s the fun thing about teaching literature: you present things to students they recognize or that are crystallized for them that were vague before and invite them to experience something they may experience in the future. That’s the multiplicity of lives you can engage within fiction. You’ve only got one life and the mistakes you can make along with, say, King Lear when he dies, that’s how students can engage in depth with (an author's) characters and concerns.
Mark’s position was consistent with Hessler’s (2001) when he implied that part of the reason he was so successful teaching the western canon to his Chinese students was a result of studying “foreign material,” an argument which echoes Bloom’s assertion that originality was the seed for conferring canonical status. During the group interview, I asked my subjects what they thought Hessler really meant, considering that the phrase, ‘foreign material,’ is so open to interpretation. Mark responded as follows:
I took it in the sense of de-familiarization – that through a different perspective, there are familiar things presented in a new way. If the universality is there, then it is going to be relevant…it’s just presented in a different context. It is said that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were recognized among cadres in their own communities…that’s why Chekhov (and Shakespeare) work everywhere he’s taught.
Mark also expressed the concern of nearly all the subjects, except Jane, that it was increasingly challenging to successfully foster engagement with literary texts in the classroom. Firstly, he points out the obvious contradiction between internal or demonstrative transformation; in other words, the difference between being ‘lost in the book’ and, on the other hand, experiencing the ‘multiplicity of lives’ described earlier. Add to this Mark’s contention that visual media compete for student attention and limit opportunities to fully engage with texts in the classroom.
The issue of how to assess and value student’s engagement with texts also came up frequently. At some point during the interview process, all the subjects expressed some reservations about how they understand and foster engagement with texts. Consider Arthur’s comment in the final interview when he’s asked to articulate his definition of engagement with literary texts:
You enter through one door but what usually happens is that you end up emerging through another. That is what we’re trying to do. We make it accessible by looking at its construction and the lead them into layers of meaning and connection with themselves. That’s the resonance; the pleasure of the text is the shift from one moment [of engagement] into another.
During the course of the interview process, all of the subjects viewed the engagement with literary texts as a newly constructed interaction which depends equally on the reader, the text, and the context for meaning. Therefore, whether they were teaching canonical or non-canonical texts, there was, in their responses, the implicit belief that students can arrive at their own meanings. While the world of their teaching was universes and years away from Hessler’s and Shakespeare’s worlds, each subject understood exactly what a student in Hessler’s class meant when he said “I am Hamlet. I am Lao da.” For that student, Hamlet’s struggle for self-definition was his own. As Mark asserted: “Sotty engaged with Hamlet in a way you could think, well, how could they share an authority, how could the share a presence, how could he bring something from those fields in Denmark.” This is the resonance, the same deep sense of connection, which Arthur spoke of earlier.
Thomas provides the most poignant example of how the literary transaction can become complicated by cultural misreading. A group of his grade 10 students read and were asked to respond to the short story, Mr. SelfSame by Frigyes Karinthy found in the short story anthology titled The StoryTeller (1992), widely used in Canadian schools. This short, short story is a blunt, ironical attack on Communism; in fact its subtitle is, Or Psychophysics of the Friction between the Upper Strata of Society and The Common People (Being a Comprehensive Study of the Causes of Social Struggles in Two Volumes). Thomas thought that he had provided the necessary context clues but when it came time for the students to indicate their understanding through a choice of assignments, he realized there had been a grave misreading of the story. The students thought the author was writing in support of his government and simply criticizing the citizenry:
And I suppose, following the same line of thought if you don’t support the government, you leave. Their perception is that there is no room for dissidents or even any kind of underground protest. If you are in a country (i.e. China) then you get along with the government. Otherwise, you leave. There is no understanding for those who stay and actively dissent.
I responded to Thomas’ story by discussing the difficulty some of my Hong Kong students had with an essay by Twain titled Advice to Youth (1890), in which irony is once again employed to great and humorous effect. But Thomas believed that their misreading of Mr. SelfSame goes beyond the issue of irony and towards a more fundamental difference of cultural experience among his students. There was obvious value of such a misreading because it interrogated the students’ personal and, eventually, communal set of values. The effects of that subtle questioning process may not be easily quantified; rather, it should be viewed as an opportunity for fertile and safe exploration of the work with the imagination as their guide. The subjects believed that literature has the capacity to transform their students’ lives, their values, their self-definitions, their views and understanding of the world around them.
Conceptions of Identity
The concept of identity and identity construction is increasingly regarded as a dynamic entity. Even in homogeneous environments, identity may now be seen in a:
mosaic sense in which people identify themselves not only in relatively stable terms (on such dimensions as nationality, mother tongue, ethnic group, age, gender) but also in dynamic terms. In the latter, major aspects of identity framed negotiated, modified, confirmed, and challenged through communications and contact with others (Jin & Cortazzi, 1997, p. 117).
The teachers in this study grappled with the complex question of the identities of their students and how they might impact on their engagement with literature in English. However, the specific question: “how do you conceive of your students’ identities vis-Ó-vis studying literature in English?” was never asked directly; instead, my goal was to encourage respondents to create a composite picture of the identities of their students through their teaching stories. I have made clear in my previous descriptions that international schools in Hong Kong are no longer western-style monoliths servicing mainly children of expatriates but are, rather, rapidly evolving social institutions reflecting the enormous changes afoot in Hong Kong specifically and Southeast Asia generally. The identity of international school students is therefore also part of a rapidly evolving process of socialization taking place in Hong Kong and in other similarly situated post-colonial societies. As Choi (2002) pointed out:
Identity is a matter of boundaries and of a category system…And yet due to the shift from modernism to post-modernism…it is clear that the old (modern) categorization or classification system has lost a great deal of its relevance or, in other words, that the manner of socialization and this identity construction of the new middle class is different from that of the old one (p. 3).
Choi further argued that this new conception of identity is based less on the old transmitting agencies of family, work, education, peer groups, and leisure and more on the production and consumption of global media (2002, p. 3). That being said, the transmitting agent of socio-economic status played a more important part in my subjects’ conception of their students’ identities. Therefore, their conceptions reflected a certain unease about how hybrid identities develop as a result of the impact of global media. Though all tacitly agreed that literature studies can positively impact, even by complicating, the process of identity construction for their students, they also despaired that most young people do too little reading of literary texts for the reading of them to have enough impact on their emerging identities.
As an adoptive parent of three Chinese children, Marie was acutely aware of the ongoing process of identity construction in her own family. She brought that same awareness to her consideration of her students’ own development. In the first interview, Marie stated that there was a time in Hong Kong when “not everyone could watch or did watch TV here…the days before Cartoon Network.” She was aware that the identities of her students were impacted by access to global media products. However, she went on to argue that literature can play a fundamental role by “addressing key relationship in students’ lives”. In other words, the current complexity around identity can be answered in part by looking at the constants in our lives: parent/child relationships, love and loss, growing up, part of our socially constructed selves (Vygotsky, 1986). Marie recounted a class discussion of the poem Turkeys Observed by Heaney (1966) and a student’s moving story about a child’s concerns about who to trust when trust has been broken. The story, entitled Who’s Responsible?, is an example of this personal engagement. But in her mind, old/new conceptions of identity continued to rub up against one another when students must prepare for the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exam by studying a “style of language that has little to do with the context we live in.” She perceived her students as “a group of people not necessarily rooted in the community. They have that distance to mostly look at the society the school is situated in.” She maintained that this distance, this rootlessness and, one might argue, evolving alienation, frees students to make connections with both global and local issues. For instance, her students read and re-enacted Sophocles’ Antigone in a local context. “They came up with a kind of triad situation with the father of Creon. One son is a policeman, the other a triad leader. [Triads are organized crime networks in Hong Kong.] Both die and the father wants a military burial for one and nothing for the other.” There couldn’t be a better example of helping students see how literature can illuminate aspects of human behavior that are arguably also essential building blocks of identity construction. Finally, Marie’s complicated position on the question of her students’ identity was perhaps best illustrated by comments she made in the group interview:
I mean these kids at international schools tend to belong to a different social or cultural or historical context to the one they are living in. Yet the context for many of them comes from this society, this zip fast culture where what is old is not valued…They don’t belong to a culture. For example, they may have Canadian passports but they don’t know much about Canada. And they may be living here but don’t know much about Hong Kong. A kind of rootless society…There seems to be no sense of responsibility towards the society they live in, outside the family unit.
Marie was both confident of her students’ ability to cross cultural barriers when it comes to studying literature and at the same time wary of the competing forces which may negatively impact on their social and even moral development. In sharing these views, Marie revealed that, like many teachers of literature, she felt she was the keeper of a unique and essential learning opportunity for her students.
On the question of identity and its construction in his classroom, Thomas expressed more caution about his students’ ability to truly cross cultural boundaries through literature. This attitude was revealed through a teaching story Thomas recounted during the final interview. While teaching the highly ironical story Mr. SelfSame mentioned earlier, he asked students to demonstrate how language is used in the story to contribute to its major themes. One of the options was for the students to create a visual representation and Thomas provided what he believed was the necessary context for his students to complete the task successfully by bringing their own understanding of the story to the forefront. This proved not the case, though, as two students found the story impenetrable. These two students created a striking visual artifact in which the crowd holds up a Communist flag because they thought:
That if a Hungarian writer is writing about the Hungarian government, he must like the government and is supporting them. In their minds, if you don’t support the government you leave. There’s no room for open dissent or even underground protest. If you are in a country that must mean you get along with the government.
Thomas when on to argue that:
Our kids don’t quite understand criticism of the upper classes because, for the most part, they are they upper classes. I think they definitely see literature through class eyes. I don’t know if they see literature through cultural eyes – I think they do but it is harder to identify.
Thomas’ conception of identity as articulated during these interviews was more linked directly to privilege and class than that of my other subjects. This, in turn, impacted how he viewed literature’s role in the process of construction, as shown at the beginning of the first interview when he talked about occasions when he saw students deeply engaged with a work of literature. He told a moving story about his experiences teaching the Dene tribe in Black Lake, Saskatchewan. His group of young adult students rejected his choice of the more ‘representational’ text, In Search of April Rain Tree (Culleton,1983), and instead asked to study Shakespeare. Despite the enormous difficulties presented by Shakespeare’s language, they read King Lear together and then set about re-writing and performing it as a northern trapping story. The quote below indicates that Thomas believed a kind of cultural transference can occur while reading literature. The correct circumstances need to exist to make such an event happen in the classroom:
The idea is that a father must divide his trap line among his children. They took it to its inevitable conclusion. There has to be a connection to their worlds but it doesn’t have to be the literature per se. The literature can be modified, as it was in his case, to meet their world. And so as they read into King Lear’s world, they got transported out of Black Lake and then drawn back into the play through this activity.
Thomas also expressed on more than one occasion that he felt he was a less effective teacher of literature in Hong Kong than, for example, a teacher of history. At one point he said he felt reading literature was “just another piece of homework” and that students were more interested in “gaining some sort of practical knowledge from it or find a book useful. For example, a student said, ‘I’m glad we studied that because it helped me answer a question on my philosophy exam.’ They might manipulate it or use it for the next level.” Such an attitude may have resulted from the fact that Thomas, unlike the other subjects, was less sure about literature’s capacity to transform because it was not regarded that way during his own strict Lutheran education, where the Christian Bible was the only true source of inspiration. The fact that his partner is ethnically Chinese and speaks fairly fluent Cantonese may account for Thomas’ increased sensitivities to Chinese learning styles and his perceptions that they complicate the learning process for his students. Finally, Thomas was also a teacher of World and Canadian History, both subjects in which ‘objective’ knowledge tends to be privileged over subjective interpretation.
The responses of Marie and Thomas to the question of identity form a study in contrasts. Thomas regarded his and his students’ identities as bounded by socio-economic factors: religion, class background, and dominant cultural attitudes. Marie’s view of identity was more fluid than expressed by others, and therefore more closely aligned with a mosaic model, derived from a socio-cultural perspective (Jin & Cortazzi, 1997). She took into account a wider variety of influences including the impact of global media products and multiplicities embedded within each individual’s development. For Thomas, his conception of identity was less malleable and disconnected in deeper ways from his teaching project. Though Marie and the other ESF school teachers acknowledged that those disconnections exist, their school environments help support more fluid and open attitudes towards identity construction. The complexities and, in the end, contradictions embedded in my subjects’ views on identity construction are perhaps best illustrated by Thomas’ first story about the Hungarian short story and the failure of language – his students’, his own, and the author’s – to by-pass the roadblocks to meaning and, therefore, full engagement with literary texts. As well, Thomas’ unique position among my subjects as a speaker of Cantonese no doubt sensitized him to the particulars of the linguistic challenges faced by weaker students.
Of all the subjects, Arthur articulated certain realities about the international school population not expressed by the others. During the first set of interviews, Arthur asserted, in relation to his teaching of Brian Friel’s politically charged play, Translations (1981), that “there is not a political language in Hong Kong…these concerns are always obscured by issues of money.” He went on to say that “if you’re operating in a society where all they’re doing is giving the kids skills to go serve economic purposes, where there is much more pressure to succeed, to do the bidding of their parents,” what sort of independence of mind can one expect? However, Arthur believed that this situation was changing slowly, especially with the demonstrations against Article 23, an anti-sedition law the leadership in Beijing wanted to add to the Hong Kong constitution. At the same time as these interviews took place, a group of his students at Shousan College had organized a petition campaign to complain about the unfair treatment of domestic workers in Hong Kong. Arthur saw this as evidence that a more overtly politicized identity among his students may be emerging.
In Translations (1981), Friel explored the effects of language and cultural identity and difference on the realm of human relationships. Irish, English, Greek and Latin all vie for space in the lives of the characters as they attempt to adjust to a world changing too quickly around them. The play is set at a historical juncture when Irish hedge schools were passing out of existence and the hegemony of English and English-language culture was looming in the near future. Friel had little idea, of course, of how his play might resonate when read or performed in other locations but Arthur’s story about teaching it bears out how texts can be effectively engaged if local circumstances are brought forward for the students. Arthur’s enthusiasm for teaching the play was based on the fact that he was able to explore issues of important to him with the students:
I was trying to open that idea to them that the position of the Irish in the play was exactly their position as Chinese with a cultural master from a different teaching context, teaching them in a different language. For example, the way they choose their own English names and deny their Chineseness.
Arthur’s experiences bear out how transferable the dynamics of the play were to the dynamics of life in Hong Kong in 2002, where language is negotiated daily. This teaching experience is similar again to Mark’s teaching of Othello, when his students “understood Othello’s blackness and his relationship within the play in ways others cannot.” Marie expressed more than once how effective teaching Animal Farm (Orwell, 1945) was for her at Outer Island School. She believed that because Orwell “addresses fundamental concerns about how societies function and is sharp and critical about the way society operates through corruption, for example. It is very easy for students to connect locally.” She relates how one of her students produced a satirical cartoon about having to take part in a swimming class at school and the effects of the power relationship between teacher and students. “The final frame of the cartoon, you see that there are all fish up on the swimming blocks except for him.” Her students clearly engaged with Orwell’s plea for individual freedom against the power of group-state agendas by, in Jane’s words, “taking ownership.” Marie’s students had a similar experience with Antigone when, after watching the ESF drama teachers perform the play as a Hong Kong triad story, they went on to write their own scripts using the present political scene as material.
An interchange during the group interview revealed how the dynamics of such an exchange can be capable of producing conflicted views. As Creswell (1998) points out, validation of findings depends on the faithful description of these contradictions. The conflict explored here is how my subjects felt about their students’ socio-economic privilege, its impact on the relationship to learning, and the impact of a potentially impoverished literary environment at home. These home situations might lack reading resources or, more importantly, regular contact with parents during the school week. Mark spoke to this contradiction:
There may be an expectation around families but in reality, these kids might not be seeing their parents at all, might not be eating meals with them, the parents might not ever read in any language.
Jane agreed and went one step further when she asserted that privilege and high academic
expectations collide to produce a lack of passion for learning:
And they will do something because they think it will get them into university somewhere. I don’t think our students are hungry to learn necessarily…the regard and hunger for language, I just don’t see it in our kids.
Mark agreed with this line of thinking and expressed similar frustration with his
students’ lack of passion for reading:
We’ve got such privileged kids who don’t have a sense of their privilege. They take it for granted. They read because they are academically motivated not because their parents read.
Mark and Jane both struggled with what they saw as unchanging aspects of their teaching lives in Hong Kong. Below the surface of their frustration lay a shared belief that identity construction remains an opportunity for negotiation. My subjects clearly viewed identity, their students' as well as their own, as undefined by categories of ethnicity, language or nationality, while, at the same time, admitting that class status influenced the way in which their students perceived of themselves in relation to cultural products. Their awareness of what Abbas (1997) refers to as Hong Kong's "new subjectivity, constructed not narcissistically but in the very process of negotiating the mutations and permutations of colonialism, nationalism and capitalism …developing out a space of disappearance" (p. 11), helps to complicate the meaning of educational privilege and socio-economic status in these school settings. This is further complicated by my subjects’ understanding of their roles as experts in the English language in Hong Kong’s multi-lingual environment. Despite these subjects' reservations, the study of literature in English can allow for this complex contestation to play out in an imaginatively open space.
Having established how my interviewees view their students’ interactions with literary texts, I will now go on to discuss their views of their practices in the classroom. I define pedagogical practices as those approaches to literature shared among the subjects: what genres they focused on and felt were most effective with their students.
This section offers an account of which methods the teachers relied on for student response and what characterized their attitudes towards assessment practices. Because this section may reveal some of the most telling information about my subjects’ conceptions of their practices and what sorts of readers these practices are producing, I have included quotations from all subjects and have subdivided the section into commonly shared areas of pedagogy including response to poetry, emphasis on Shakespeare, orality and visualization, and assessment and evaluation practices.
Responses to Poetry
Throughout the interview process, but particularly in response to Hessler’s descriptions in Rivertown (2001), most of my subjects shared at least one teaching story where poetry was far more effective in eliciting responses from students than was prose. Of course, text length played a role in this preference, especially in light of some of the students’ lack of practice with reading long works in English. My subjects agreed that what really mattered were the musical qualities - the way words "rang off the page" - of poetic language. They felt that students were able to grasp the meaning of works and concepts in a poem that, in another genre, they may have found more difficult. Arthur argued that “English poetry is more difficult to teach because poetry generally is so much more condensed and coded linguistically compared to novels, which are painted in a much broader way.” But he admitted that some novels pose greater difficulty because of “the length of the text, the depth and detail, especially some novel choices in the ESL curriculum which is so Anglo-centric.” It is worth noting that Arthur was more aware of the cultural challenges embedded in ‘English poetry’ rather than, as my other subjects refer to it, poetry in English, though he stated that “the dynamics of poetry are always successful.” Mark described an assignment that illustrated how the coded and dense language of poetry can be used effectively. He asked students to write an entire epic in 100 words or less:
It really focuses the mind and they start to take out the function words and make the text more dense because the language allows you to include more stuff. So it’s not just cohesion, its selection, density, and development. There’s simply a greater openness to poetry.
My subjects agreed that they like offering the opportunity to students to create verse. Thomas stated it in this way: “I ask them to write poetry and they enjoy the task. I see the interest coming out of their language experience.” What Thomas meant was that the Chinese language is suited to the more impressionistic task of writing verse than prose because of greater visual dimension. Jane also found poetry more successful both as a genre to critique and as a springboard for writing. She stated that she:
Finds poetry is most accessible, in part because it is difficult for them, they are drawn to the words themselves and their literal meaning without any sense of what the words should be saying. This is refreshing. I don’t know why but certainly I found some incredible insights from weaker students with poetry.
During the group interview, Thomas recounted a story that underscores how he valued the power of poetry to create teaching moments which produce a kind of transformation:
I just remembered a story about a friend who taught English as a Second Language (ESL) in Winnipeg to adults. He had a Turkish or Kurdish immigrant in his class who didn’t speak a word of English and one day, the teacher got up and read a poem in class and the student started weeping and he said, through a translator: I don’t know a word of your language but I knew you were reading poetry and I started to cry because I could hear the poetry I loved.
Thomas’s story suggests poetry has a special capacity for connecting, even beyond the
constraints of any one language. As Probst (1988) argued:
One of the pleasures of poetry is that it allows us [that] freedom…a poem has a shape and design. It is not, however, always designed to show things directly; but leaves much for readers to infer and conclude. It gives us an experience, compressed, carried in few words, sustained by several images, but never fully disclosed (pp. 88-89).
As discussed earlier in another context, Marie shared a story about the reaction that her student had to Heaney’s (1966) “Turkeys Observed." The student immediately understood and connected with the poem’s subject: the meaning of childhood memories, the idea of trust and perils of growing up. She went on to use it in her writing to explore the meaning of a small but important incident from her childhood. Once again, these sorts of stories seem to illustrate how the poetic form can elicit student response. My subjects were convinced that poetry empowers their students to express themselves in ways that other genre forms do not. These teachers considered the value of teaching poetry to be greater in places where identity and language are both contested and negotiated.
Emphasis on Shakespeare
The amount of time devoted to the study of Shakespeare has steadily increased in all curricula in English worldwide. It is difficult to say exactly why this phenomenon has occurred, though one could point to the increased focus on Shakespeare’s work as a result, for instance, of the number of successful Hollywood-type productions including Shakespeare in Love (1998), Hamlet (1990), and Romeo and Juliet (1996). Also the recent founding of the New Globe Theatre in London, and the proliferation of Shakespeare-in-the-Park summer productions, point to the fact that English-speaking culture has renewed its love affair with the Bard. Rex Gibson (1998) in his introduction to Teaching Shakespeare stated that:
A powerful argument for studying Shakespeare exists in the extraordinariness, his strangeness, his familiarity. His appeal lies in the unique blend of the familiar, and the strange, his relevance and remoteness. (p. 6)
With this increased exposure has come the decreased attention to Shakespeare’s peers, which has created a peculiar de-contextualizing of his plays. Ben Johnson’s dramatic works, for example, are no longer taught at the secondary level and students learn relatively little about the Elizabethans in their world history course.
This trend towards teaching Shakespeare has been fueled by the loss of time given to literature studies in secondary English curriculums. For example, the most recent Course Profile published in Ontario for Grade 9 English (Ontario Ministry of Education and Training, 2000) suggested that 30 class hours should be devoted to “Information Forms” whereas “Dramatic Forms” should be allotted 15 hours (p. 7). Data from the interviews support the contention that teachers are teaching less drama generally and are more focused specifically on Shakespeare. This is very much in evidence in Hong Kong international school settings.
All the teachers teach at least one Shakespeare play per term, per class year. Younger students generally read Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream or 12th Night. Older students tackle Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and Hamlet. While reading Shakespeare with secondary students in Hong Kong may sound like recipe for disaster, surprisingly, all the subjects recounted how successful teaching Shakespeare was. As Thomas stated, teaching Shakespeare was like a “rite of passage for our students” while also being, of course, a profound learning opportunity. Mark said studying Shakespeare was “not so much academic point scoring as a point of contact,” meaning that his students actually engaged with the issues Shakespeare presented rather than only being concerned about understanding the material for the exam. Perhaps Jane put it best when she said that students “need to feel challenged (by Shakespeare) but also need to want to do it and feel that what they’ve got is of some value.” For my subjects' students in Hong Kong, Shakespeare seemed to be a mountain to be climbed, a shared experience that is “at once (for) no one, and everyone, nothing and everything” (Bloom, 1994, p. 75).
Shakespeare was taught by employing constructivist techniques. That is to say, in general the focus was on encouraging their students to create learning opportunities for themselves and as an extension of their own experiences and interests (Marlowe, 1998). For example, Jane asked students to find a scene from Hamlet and a location and, using video technology, present it ‘on the road’ – any place in Hong Kong. When making the decisions about their scenes Jane said:
For 10 or 15 minutes they can sit together and negotiate. The kind of talk they do during that time in invaluable. That’s the kind of thing that doesn’t show up on a standard evaluation. For example, when they are deciding what is important or not important in these lines, these sorts of decisions are very much a part of being fully engaged with literature.
Marie added that “we all have our Shakespeare to video stories; this is obviously an exciting medium for them.” Mark used the technique employed by a theatre company in London which involves reducing each Shakespeare play to a three-minute version. “Say you’re doing Romeo and Juliet and you’ve got to get it all in three minutes. Students have to think about what they are going to leave in and take out. They have to consult…” In an earlier interview with Mark, he recounted a recent experience when he took his students outside to re-enact Act IV, sc.vi from King Lear, where the blinded Gloucester, believing he is jumping to his death, is given a second chance at redemption with the help of his son, Edgar.
This is the challenge. I asked him to jump blindfolded knowing there would be people there if he staggered. I told him to land on his feet and he’d be ok. He was hesitating on the edge, uncertain, tittering, and then he jumped and then they read the section of the play. The student engaged with the experience of not being able to see. The class laughed but he didn’t because then there’s this beautiful language on top of that, which creates distance. I don’t remember the specifics of the lines but it’s…people like ants on the beach and huge ships…
Tackling Shakespeare was a meaningful learning experience for both these teachers and for their students. Marie argued that “Shakespeare allows for exploration of issues freely. Students are not caught up in or validating their world.” This returns to the potential for de-familiarized texts to offer a different and possibly deeper kind of engagement than those texts more directly related to students’ cultural context. It also proves that engaging with Shakespeare is a potent act of literacy: those who “scale the mountain” prove that they have the skills to understand the finest metaphorical language English has to offer.
Orality and Visualization
Another aspect of my subjects’ pedagogical practices involved their interest in students’ kinesthetic responses to literature. At one time or another during the interview process, all the subjects discussed the following shared constructivist approaches or methods used in the classroom: modeling; ‘in the style of’; summary; condensing; fill in the blank; thematic explorations across genres. Methods that involve visualizations include video, dramatic presentations, two-dimensional explorations, as well as graphic organizers. Oral activities included recitations, skits, group work, and annotations of texts. As she stated earlier, Marie was both a teacher of English and drama. She believed that the study of drama and literature “allows students to explore emotions in a safe environment.” Many of her pedagogical practices were geared towards oral and visual approaches to texts. She asked students to keep drama journals and was keenly interested in having students “find the character within themselves and within their emotional identity.”
Similarly, Mark and Thomas were both clear that when teaching poetry, they used oral and visual activities that sought to connect to their students kinesthetically. This was equally true for Jane whose focus professionally had been, in part, to help teachers understand how knowledge ‘learned through the senses’ constitutes better pedagogy. Jane described how she used graphic organizers in her approach to literature in order to help students first sort out meaning and then find connections with their own lives:
Graphic organizers force them to engage in a discovery of the literal meaning and not get lost in abstractions and generalizations. They were faithfully engaged with the poem and that was a really pivotal thing for me, watching the kids when they had to establish a close connection to literature. Giving ownership for the literature to the students…the student wouldn’t have had the same relationship to the poem had she not had this tactile aspect…if she hadn’t been holding it in her hands.
In Mark’s opinion, a sensory approach in the classroom helped establish student engagement, critical distancing, and appreciation for language and was more necessary today that ever because:
Language can still shock but the current poverty of language is caused in part by the fact that we don’t need it. We can now create the feelings transmitted by ‘out vile jelly’ through pictures.
In response to reading the Rivertown (2001) excerpts, Jane said,
There’s a lot of emphasis on reading, that what was important was just the sound of the text, that it reaches people and to assume kids whose language ability is perhaps less than grade level can’t be reached is a mistake.
Thomas added, “Whether they understood the exact words, they did understand their cadence and rhythm.” He recounted an experience teaching Adrienne Rich’s poem “You’re Wondering If…” (1972) and how it elicited some wonderfully weird and wacky responses by orally brainstorming emotions and having students fill in the blanks. Considering her own teaching practices, Jane felt that “If we just let them read aloud a lot and don’t do much else, something like aesthetic pleasure would come across. I suspect we don’t do enough of it.” All the participants agreed with Jane on this point. There was a shared desire among the participants to direct more of their practices towards the pleasure of the text and the oral dimension of engaging with literature. As the follow section illustrates, however, these teachers felt particularly constrained in their practices as a result of the pressures of assessment and evaluation.
Engagement versus Assessment
The subjects’ opinion about the value and meaning of assessment reflected a prevailing attitude in Hong Kong about the necessity of testing and examinations. While the schism between assessment and learning vexes teachers everywhere, the culturally and linguistically complex environment of the international school offers both specific challenges and opportunities for change. A traditional attitude towards the effectiveness of rigorous examinations is embedded in Confucian educational philosophy and a national examination system modeled on the British system. Not surprisingly, both affect the teaching practices in the local school system to an even greater degree than international schools. The official website of the Hong Kong Department of Education stated the following position on assessment and evaluation:
Children’s progress in Chinese, English, and mathematics is evaluated yearly with standardized Hong Kong Attainment Tests, while most of the students can enter the senior secondary school according to their internal school performance. After finishing secondary five, students will participate in the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination.
They will normally take part in three core subjects of English, Chinese, and mathematics. Upon completion of secondary seven, students will sit for the Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination. The AS-Level Use of English and Chinese Language and Culture examinations are usually taken. The admission to the tertiary institutions will be based on the result of HKALE under the Joint University Programmes Admission System. (www.emb.gov.hk)
Add to this the well-known competitive business environment that has dominated Hong Kong after the Communist Revolution in 1949, and it becomes very clear how much value all parties – students, parents, teachers and administrators – place on the frequency and weight of assessment.
Jane was the most direct about this issue during the first set of interviews when she suggested:
Personally I wouldn’t mind teaching without grades. I try not to grade too much. The kids know how they’re going to do but I do want them to self-assess. I value that hugely. The best way to test is to give the students something new and avoid the pitfall of attempted rote-memorization.
Later she expressed her feelings with a tinge of frustration:
In Hong Kong, we’ve got access to books, we’ve got the desire to do well and that desire can translate into engagement. Spontaneous conversation is hard to come by in class and takes time. We have to model that sort of engagement, and work at developing fluency. It takes time. But it’s hard. We have to model the idea that it’s okay not to know. Affirm risk taking.
Thomas admitted wanting to “tamper less,” an approach that the other respondent felt was valid, though, once again difficult to achieve in a classroom setting. In response to a direct question about the inherent contradictions of attempting to assess engagement with and enjoyment of literary texts, the following conversation during the group interview ensued:
Mark: It is difficult to measure and assess aesthetic enjoyment. Kids being moved, inspired, engaged, transformed, these are things you can’t give a percentage to and therefore that’s the problem with assessment and examinations – those elements are valued. You assess what you can. So you end up teaching in a way that you assess things and measure those things you might value and can’t be quantified, tend not to get taught.
Marie: Are we providing the tools, the way through so that personal engagement, that transformation can take place when they are ready, at some time in the future perhaps when they encounter Frankenstein (1818) and suddenly think, yes, this is why you wanted me to read this?
Thomas: We teach kids who are watching that percentage go up or down very closely and I imagine we all do but it is so often commented on at our school. I recently told my students we were just going to enjoy the book and not have any tests but you must be at Chapter Two by Friday and I guess that was my mistake because he thought I was slavishly trying to keep him to a schedule. It really is tough to raise these matters with the administration and the kids themselves. I feel like we’re interference to aesthetic pleasure sometimes.
Ultimately, for most of the subjects assessment was a short-term necessity. Reading and responding to literature, on the other hand, is considered a lifelong pleasure. At one point, Jane expressed this dichotomy in terms of hopefulness. “We don’t really know what students take away form these experiences; we can only hope they are changed.” Thomas and Marie, in separate interviews, evoked the image of planting seeds. These teachers felt their primary role is opening up students to new worlds and yet all of them made it clear that they maintained very high standards in the classroom, which, of course, in part continues to depend on regular testing and examination. This finding within the Hong Kong context seems to replicate current tensions around the issue of standardized testing in North American school systems and elsewhere. Certainly within the confines of the classroom, teachers have found creative and constructivist approaches to analyzing how their students have understood literary works.
My analysis of text choices revealed that those choices made by both the ESF and non-ESF teachers were determined by a variety of factors, the two most important being availability of texts and teacher preference. Some of the subjects didn’t mention any contemporary drama in their discussions, while others, like Marie, whose expertise is in that area, mentioned quite a number of plays. Mark, on the other hand, who has an M.A. in modern literature, puts more stress on the novel form. What is also interesting to note are some of the consistencies across the various schools and the process by which canonical status was conferred in those environments. Fifteen years ago, for instance, few secondary school students were reading the poetry of Seamus Heaney, the dramatic works of Brian Friel, or the novels of Amy Tan. They are contemporary authors who have recently reached the status of canonical author through an alchemic process which depends partly on the winds of popular taste, academic interest, and changing cultural values. Another example of this subtle change is the elevation of the novels of Graham Greene, who would rarely have been taught ten years ago. Today his work is no longer regarded as merely great genre writing. With his inclusion, both on secondary and post-secondary reading lists, there is clearly an effort to represent a more global perspective as many of Greene's novels are set in places beyond England’s shores. Yet there are limitations and restrictions to Greene’s vision of, for example, Vietnam in his novel The Quiet American (1952). What happens when students encounters these limitations through a vision of their identity, often popularized through mass media and pop culture, which they, in turn, reject? During the course of the interview process, Arthur chose and taught Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (1989) because of its recently accorded canonical status, as discussed earlier. The novel presented a view of China through the eyes of a westernized female in the form of a well-woven family saga. Arthur decided not to teach it again because its presentation of China as a nation both backward and yet full of ancient wisdom did not speak to his students in Hong Kong. This experience brings the question of text choice into sharp relief. Teachers must closely interrogate the criteria for choosing a class text and the potential value in selecting books or poems because they supposedly reflect a perceived group identity. In the final interview, Arthur attempted to explain what happened:
I wouldn’t do The Joy Luck Club again – that didn’t work very well. The girls liked the film but the book didn’t work at all. They said that Tan got the details all wrong. They were hypercritical. I never got the sense of them really enjoying it as I expected them to, you know, really good stories at the heart of the culture, especially since a number of students have North American backgrounds, so they’ve actually experienced the immigrant dimension.
Tan’s body of work is ‘conservative’ in nature; it celebrates Chinese culture as experienced in China as a historical relic, something to look back on for inspiration or for answers to a current family crisis. For all their cultural hybridity, Arthur’s students would still regard Chinese culture and history as a living construct. His students were naturally drawn towards critiquing Tan’s immigrant gaze. As a result, his students found that the only valuable way for them to read this text was to define their 'Chineseness' in contrast to Tan's vision.
My own choice of Ballard’s Empire of the Sun (1983) for my Grade 10 students in Hong Kong served as an interesting compromise selection. It is narrated by a British boy living in Shanghai during the years leading up and through WW II. His encounter with Chinese culture is full of strangeness, curiosity and, ultimately, of compassion and awe. Students generally responded well to Ballard’s vivid descriptions of the privations of war and to the authentic voice of the young narrator. For the most part, the novel educated my students about a part of history they knew little about and laid the groundwork for an interrogation of their beliefs about war, its costs and sometimes terrible necessity. On the other hand, Ballard's imaginary relationship with China was that of the interloper, the outsider, rather than Tan's which was of the insider looking back in from the outside. It may be that my students in Hong Kong related more easily to the distance Ballard created by his young British narrator. Put another way, perhaps one of the reasons In Search of April Rain Tree (1983) and The Joy Luck Club (1989) did not resonate as well with students was the fact that both Thomas’ and Arthur’s perspectives were those of the outsider looking into the culture shared by the students. My knowledge of, and relationship to, China has more in common with Ballard’s but perhaps it was the perspective of a young boy, even a western one, which captured the interest of the students and allowed them to engage more fully with the text. One wonders whether teacher orientation has much to do with creating an authentic understanding of multi-cultural texts. Would the students have been as critical of Tan’s perspective had Arthur been a Chinese immigrant himself? As Mark expressed about the lack of appropriate resources which might better reflect the multicultural dimensions of the Hong Kong teaching environment:
If you look at literature that’s successfully taught to teenagers and is engaging to them and deals with post-colonialism in an Asian context, there are few choices and there is very little Chinese literature in translation which works. There isn’t one volume that has that combination of substance and engagement that’s available as widely as western works of literature are.
Searching for answers to these questions may encourage a re-orientation of teacher practices away from essentialism and towards a better understanding of literature’s capacity for communal and individual transformation. It is clear that the socio-cultural lenses – those of the students, the author, and the teacher – must be considered when choosing texts, even in retrospect.
Program Goals and Overview of Practices
Though not explicitly asked as part of the interview process, strong opinions also emerged regarding what the subjects saw as the goal of the programs. Individual differences existed between teachers teaching in the same system and visa-versa but, that being said, some important commonalities emerged. One of the goals for all the subjects seemed to be to create a pleasurable and meaningful culture of reading among their students. The hope was that this culture of reading could then be taken from the classroom out into the home, the community, and into the realm of ongoing self-examination.
Another goal articulated by most of the subjects was the necessity for them to act as guides for students, to clarify and create context so that grounds for a truly personal engagement with the text was established. For example, Marie said, “Once they understand the context, the issues become clear and they can relate to them much more strongly.” Or, as Arthur stated during the final interview: “We make literature accessible by looking at its construction and then lead them into layers of meaning and connection with themselves.” Implicit in these goals are the views that the study of literature has value largely because it continues to enrich students’ lives, now and in the future. None of them saw their roles as gatekeepers of a particular tradition; on the whole, they rejected the notion that they are responsible for teaching a group of canonical texts. Each teacher actually resisted this through a variety of practices which focused on the response of the reader. For Marie, Thomas, Arthur, Jane and Mark studying literature in English must make sense as an essential part of the daily lives of their students in Hong Kong.
Earlier in the interview process, Marie made the point that the study of literature focused on key relationships in people’s lives. Her work was about helping students to uncover/connect with the emotional dimension of literature. As for specific approaches in the classroom, Marie used extracts or tools like The Reduced Complete Works of Shakespeare (Borgeson, Lang & Singer 1994) series which gave students a way to access the plots of the plays without the burden of reading and understanding an entire text. She maintained that the use of extracts allowed for transformation to occur more easily in the “zip fast” culture.
As a drama teacher, Marie no doubt agreed with Jane who said that knowledge gained though senses is always better. Jane tried to apply this approach in her classroom practices and used student writing as a way to achieve the goal. As she explained during the first interview, “Years ago I began to ask myself how can that deep connection that I see established between the students and their personal writing be replicated elsewhere when they write analytically or critically about literature.” Jane disliked the thematic approach which groups together pieces of literature around, for example, the theme of "freedom of the individual spirit." Instead, she tried to establish an atmosphere in her classroom where more value is placed on in-class reading and deep personal responses to texts. She endeavored to use texts as explicit models for student writing and in doing so focused on giving ownership of learning to the student, fostering faithful engagement with the material, and supporting the negotiation of meaning between the reader and the text. To her way of thinking, teachers need to encourage and value ‘student talk’ as well as decision-making in groups as important learning moments.
Like Marie, Mark also focused on key scenes rather than on full texts, especially when studying Shakespeare. For example, Mark employed teaching tools which encouraged students to make their own scripts from summaries of classic texts. He was also keenly interested in the dialogical study of literature as a means to develop critical judgment and interrogate values. As he pointed out, "Asian students should get the chance to read Conrad and Timothy Mo – both are articulations of experiences of their culture.” Mark valued the importance of helping students discover the existence of the “other” in literary works, whether that ‘otherness’ comes in the form of gender, cultural, or economic difference. His teaching of Othello (1604) was evidence of this. He believed his students understood Othello’s blackness in ways students in other contexts could not because of the reality of cross-cultural dating between his Eurasian and predominately white European students. Mark evinced an awareness of multicultural and post-structural theory and communicated this through his teaching practices. In particular, his recognition of dialogical approaches to the teaching of literature points the way towards how best to reconcile the complexities involved in continuing to teach canonical texts in multicultural classrooms (Johnston, 2003).
Through their teaching practices, both Arthur and Thomas were committed to developing keener social and political sensibilities, though both admitted this was sometimes hard to achieve. They regarded student identity, especially as it manifests itself in relation to achievement and success-oriented values in Hong Kong, as less fluid than did the other subjects. For Arthur, in particular, the study of literature was a site of struggle; the discussion around his use of Translations (1948) and The Joy Luck Club (1989) showed evidence of tension influenced by Marxist philosophy. Both Thomas and Arthur shared the belief that the representation of their experience does not “necessarily equal or assure engagement and, in fact, the opposite maybe be true.” Thomas explained more than once about his students’ enthusiastic response to "Songs of Myself" (1871) by Whitman and Rich’s "I was Wondering If " (1971) when he asked his students to write a poem either ‘filling in the blank’ or modeling. While Thomas remains conflicted about literature’s capacity to transform students’ lives, he was passionately engaged in reading and writing literature himself and thereby successfully communicated this passion for the written word to his students.
A clearer but not necessarily complete picture emerges from this discussion of the interview findings. First and foremost, all the subjects in this study at one time or another during the interview process expressed a firm belief in the necessity of teaching literature and literature’s capacity to transform, whenever or however that transformation takes place. The subjects in this study all opted to focus a great deal of their teaching time on verse, using either poetic forms or dramatic verse found in Shakespeare. They shared stories which pointed to the successful engagement of students with short stories and modern drama. There was less agreement about how their students connected with novels. I draw this conclusion not because the teachers talked directly about the difficulty of teaching novels but because fewer novels were mentioned during the year-long interview process. Mark was, by far, the teacher who mentioned the greatest range of novels, while Thomas, Jane, Marie and Arthur all briefly mentioned one or two. The subjects expressed concern about the role and range of assessment practices. They wanted to know more about how best to assess and struggled with how to conceive of evaluation in relation to their roles as teachers, particularly English teachers. All the teachers communicated an awareness of, and engagement with, questions of identity, language and culture as they manifested themselves in their respective international school settings. The very fact of their participation in the study was proof of their commitment to curriculum development and improving pedagogy at their institutions and for themselves.
Discussion: Implications for Practice and Limitations of the Study
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
(Whitman, 1871, p. 28)
Whitman published those lines over 130 years ago in Leaves of Grass. They serve as evidence of the poet’s desire to create the whole life of his nation and to “improve and transform life” through poetry (p. xxxi). Those opening lines are Whitman’s salvo to his readers, celebrating individuality and commonality at the same time. The elements that we all assume in his imaginative construct include birth, manifestations of the shared life force, spirituality, and death. Whitman wrote prolifically about individual difference – ethnicity, work, gender, race – but always as part of creating a “Body Electric” through a singing of the collective soul of our humanity.
Deconstructing those lines in the year 2005, we are likely to read them differently, perhaps more skeptically, than readers at the time who might have found them wonderfully incendiary. As mapped out in Chapter Two, the lens of multiculturalism, post-colonialism and feminism, to name but three recent theoretical frameworks, have encouraged more thinking about individual difference but, also possibly, less thinking about collective experiences across the lines of race, class or nationality. Whitman’s statement that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” sounds quaintly dated because conceptions of identity are conceived of, in certain arenas as more distinctly bound up with race, gender, age or nationality. Certainly, we understand identity in more complicated ways as a result of theories including multiculturalism. As a result, literature teachers today are thoughtfully engaged with questions of authority and voice. Literature in the classroom can play a role in positively shaping student identities if educators recognize, like the subjects in this study do and as Whitman clearly did, its capacity to transform lives. The data from this study demonstrated that “readers are truly transformed by their interactions with texts and with each other” (Sumara, 1996, p. 87) and the reading of literary texts in English wherever it takes places has the potential to be a powerful tool for communal, as well as individual, change. Herein lies a truly important piece of the argument for literature’s place in the curriculum.
As well, the data from this study revealed the influence of Confucian values in international school settings in Hong Kong, thereby underscoring the relationship between self-cultivation and harmonization of Confucianism (Tu, 1985). The results achieved this resonance with Confucian values in part because of the numerous connections established between my subjects' teaching stories and the communal stance implicit in Rosenblatt’s concept of literacy re-creation (1976). The following sections link the theoretical frameworks discussed in Chapter Two to the teacher practices revealed in Chapter Four. The essential structures of teaching of literature to English- speaking students in Hong Kong, infused through theory, provide new conceptualizations of practice, new paths to walk down, for teachers of literature in English world-wide.
Local Responses to Literature
Marie: I’m talking about the Liberator [Daniel O’Connell], Master, as you well know. And what he said was this: The old language is a barrier to modern progress. He said that last month. And he’s right. I don’t want Greek. I don’t want Latin. I want English. (Friel, 1981, p. 56)
This quote from Translations serves as a reminder of how English was as much of a threat to local languages 100 years ago as it is today. Instruction in English is on the rise around the globe. Efforts to encourage and promote indigenous languages must continue to be supported, especially in communities where those languages are under direct challenge. The quote also serves to highlight the fact that local, not global circumstances, are always on the front line, impacting most directly on daily lives of people within distinct communities. A shared goal of self-transformation, it may be achievable if those same educators consider ways to invest their presentation of literary works with local significance. Some of the most poignant teaching stories the subjects of this study offered were about the enlivening and deepening of students’ engagement with a text by bringing local or individual concerns forward in their interpretation and analysis of those works. These teaching stories shared at their core an engagement in a kind of literary re-creation, harnessing what Rosenblatt terms an “inner focus of attention” (1976, p. 35) or, in other words, “project[ing] a path of possibility” (Sumara, 1996, p. 206). Remember Marie’s story about her students staging Antigone as a triad conflict, Jane’s students taking Shakespeare ‘on the road’ in Hong Kong, Arthur’s students finding connections between their language experience and Translations or the students’ identification of rootlessness as a theme in the works of Graham Greene and J.G. Ballard. Northrop Frye (1963) identified these commonalities as archetypes:
All themes and characters and stories that you encounter in literature belong to one big interlocking family…You keep associating your literary experiences together: you’re always being reminded of some other story you read or movie you saw or character that impressed you (p. 18).
Literature teachers should consider looking to these archetypes, so richly translatable to local circumstances, rather than to uncomfortable and potentially exclusionary conceptions of universality. As well, Kooy (2000) argued that Frye's concept of the "alien structure of the imagination" helps guide teacher practices towards opening up spaces for exploration using the separate reality of the literary object (Soter, 1997) as their guide. The findings of this study reveal that student response to the literary object will be deepened through establishing links to the local environment.
Placing value on the local response to literature is also at the heart of Hessler’s (2001) description of his experiences teaching western texts to his Chinese students. His students embraced the experience of reading western books not entirely because of how new or foreign the texts were but because they ‘needed’ them. In other words, the students found ways to read Shakespeare as a mirror of their individual lives but, as well, of their collective cultural experiences. Readers drew on their own experiences to interpret characters’ own development as participants in text worlds (Beach & Galda, 2001) as did Hessler’s student, Sotty, when he so closely identified with Hamlet. Teachers of literature have the material at hand to help their students make this kind of imaginary leap, no matter where they are situated. Rosenblatt (1978) once again speaks directly to the potential for transference across cultural circumstances when she asserted that:
Readers point toward the set of symbols as they seek to compare what the words call forth for them…even within the same general cultural situation, differences in what the reader brings to the text and differences in criteria of adequacy will make possible different though equally acceptable readings (p. 129).
It is therefore up to educators to find approaches to any text by making local responses explicitly available to students. By doing so, the discomfort created by having to argue for universality can be extinguished and different though acceptable readings become possible. Ultimately, aesthetic judgment can be regarded not as something ‘universal’ but instead something shaped by the social, political and historical conditions of each reading experience (Lewis, 2000). As Cai argues, “while we emphasize the importance of aesthetic reading in literary study, we should illuminate it, enhance it, and ever transform it with various critical perspectives” (2001, p. 29). Consideration and support of local responses to texts can also better direct the choice of what literature to teach by focusing on the question of how to develop a kind of ‘transferable’ transcendence, where both aesthetic and critical engagement is made available to each and every reader.
New Meanings of Representation
She learned these things but I couldn’t teach her about Chinese character. How to obey parents and listen to your mother’s mind. How not to show your own thoughts, to put your feelings behind you face so you can take advantage of hidden opportunities. Why easy things are not worth pursuing. How to know your own worth and polish it, never flashing it around like a cheap ring. Why Chinese thinking is best. (Tan, 1989, p. 289)
During the course of the interview process, Thomas and I discussed similar experiences when our students in Hong Kong could not relate to Holden in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). We agreed that he was not only out of step with Hong Kong’s commercial vision of what it means to be successful, more obviously, but that Holden was no longer relevant as a model of teenage rebellion or as a meaningful anti-hero for any group of teenagers anywhere. The Catcher in the Rye (Salinger, 1951) may be an example of a text that at the time of its publication caught the winds of cultural concerns but may not endure beyond those circumstances. In other words, certain texts are constrained by time and space while student identities continue to evolve. It is then the teacher’s job to discover why one text continues to succeed and why others fail, after a point, to connect. It is this process, over time, which gives a text canonical status in the literature classroom. Today, however, other concerns have been added to the mix of text choice. Class novels, for example, are now often chosen, among many competing reasons, on the basis of their ‘representative’ properties, in other words, those of a socio-cultural nature (Banks, 1993). This in turn, causes the curricula to change in ways that reflect global consciousness. As a result, choosing which texts to teach in the classroom has become a prohibitively diffuse task (Smagnorinsky, 1992).
Therefore, new efforts need to be made to clarify the meaning of the terms ‘canonical’ and ‘representational.’ Results from this study, situated as it is in Hong Kong international schools, help to carve out a path which regards texts as neither one nor the other. Rather, like the open attitudes found regarding identity among the subjects, perhaps approaching the teaching of texts with the same openness could decrease the polarizing effects of representation and increase the possibility of conferring canonical status through successive transformative engagements. To bridge the gap between diversity of perspectives and essentialism, educators may wish to turn to Bakhtin’s concept of the dialogic imagination, “a vision requiring more than one pair of eyes, surveying the universe in a multilayered mirror designed for simultaneous reflections of both identity and difference” (Baraheni, 2004, D15). Dialogic teaching methods, including the reading of canonical and non-canonical texts in concert, will help foster greater plurality. None of my subjects spoke about dialogic teaching as part of their toolbox of approaches. But it is clear that richer possibilities exist if teachers approach Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (1989) in dialogue with Wang’s The Butterfly (1989). The teaching of The Catcher in the Rye (1958), then, might continue to transform students if it is read with a text from another cultural tradition which employs, for example, a similarly inventive narrative technique. On a practical note, this approach might also provide a reasonable solution to budgetary limitations and bookroom resources by re-invigorating old stock by dialogic pairings with other available texts.
A text which sits in most bookrooms, including those in Hong Kong international schools, is To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee, 1960). Johnston & Kapler's (1996) study of a classroom reading of the novel, along with a self-selected multicultural novel, revealed that when teachers had a commitment to create dialogic interactions, students felt safe to explore ambiguity, plurality and to challenge their own roles in the power structures of society (p. 21). The need to reinvigorate the approach to Lee's novel is acute considering its wide appeal so that "one student's mockingbird (does not become) another's albatross" (Ricker-Wilson, 1995, p. 71).
Data from this study also revealed absences in relation to the discussion of representation and text choice. Thomas, out of all the subjects, successfully taught The Feng Shui Detective (2002) series at the Grade 9 level. These books, are written by Nury Vittachi, a Hong Kong resident, and were set in the diverse and teeming neighborhoods of the city. Jane also mentioned having taught Chinese poetry while Marie taught novels set in Asia, like The Quiet American (Greene, 1956). Finally, Mark mentioned his use of the novel Sour Sweet (Mo, 1982). In general, though, there were too few text choices among the subjects written from a Pan-Asian perspective. Moreover, not a single subject mentioned the use of Chinese literature in translation, except to say that there are very few easy methods to access such material. Finally, in the texts chosen by my subjects, there was a noticeable lack of texts written by women.
There are ways to address these absences without, as Arthur did, falling into the trap of viewing his students’ identities in a totalizing manner when, for example, he chose The Joy Luck Club (1989) for its representative properties. Firstly, there should be an effort to choose at least some literary texts that are connected to the local environment. It is easier to achieve this with non-fiction, but teachers need to make special efforts to seek out examples of literary texts which can be invested with local concerns, either directly through subject matter or indirectly through potential multiple interpretations. Next, teachers everywhere can benefit from adopting a broader perspective on identity. Hong Kong’s hyphenated identity (Abbas, 1997) manifested as a post-colonial “field of instabilities” may offer a new model from which to build this broader perspective. International schools in Hong Kong do offer a barometer through by to measure the development of this and other manifestations of hybrid identities. Bringing forward local perspectives, while acknowledging the both open and potential qualities of identity, will guide teachers towards balanced approach in the face of an increasingly globalized cultural environment.
This study provided the opportunity for the group of subject-teachers to truly reflect-in-action (Schon, 1983). In doing so, they and their practices potentially shifted as a result of their participation. As Beck and Kosnik (2001) suggest, the subjects actually participated in generating theory which can positively and significantly impact the field of education. For example, findings from this study underline the fact that teachers need to increase their awareness of their own positioning in relationship to texts. As Sumara (1996) argued, “we, as teachers, must stop hiding behind talk about texts and start living through them with our students. That means re-discovering the self that stands behind the teacher” (p. 232). An increased focus on interrogating the social and political dimensions of any piece of literature together as readers, will help students feel that literary texts are potentially fertile grounds for contesting issues which impact lives everywhere. Teachers and students in Hong Kong may have a particularly rich opportunity for such resistance as their position in peripheral English language settings (Canagarajah, 1999) provides a context for constructing new forms of knowledge.
The Value of Cultural “Misreading”
Think of the civilized West, gentleman. In the name of society I call upon each of you, gentleman, peaceably to disengage his solar plexus from that of his neighbor and to wait for the next tram! Long live our conductor! Long live our beloved driver, who has shown such commendable wisdom in guiding our car in these days of hardship. Long live the government! (Mr. Selfsame, 1992).
During the course of the interview, the subjects shared a number of stories illustrating student’s misinterpretations of classroom texts. These gulfs of understanding sometimes came about as a result of initial linguistic difficulties but truly manifested themselves as full-blown cultural disparities seen through student response. Though these misreading constitute a thin slice of experience for the subjects, they represent an important element in my argument that engagements with literary texts are rich and essential experiences for students in the classroom, not matter what the outcome. A misreading of a text, while disappointing for teachers, may serve to move students towards an understanding that works of art are artificial and, therefore, not necessarily authoritative and truthful (Pike, 2002). It is another step in their sense of connection to their own cultural experiences and ultimately to the experiences of others.
If Thomas had taught Mr. Selfsame dialogically in concert with a similarly toned piece from China, for instance, he could have strengthened the potential for transformation to occur. The story chosen to ‘represent’ China in The StoryTeller (1998), titled Love Must Not be Forgotten (1982) by Zhang Jie, is frequently anthologized and explores how love can be vanquished by powers beyond human control. It has a strong narrative voice but, like the Hungarian story, requires significant contextualization in order to establish the grounds for full understanding. These same restrictions can be exploited to help guide students to move towards a position of multiple perspectives, however. If, for example, the editors had chosen the story by Karnithy and another by the Chinese author, Lu Xun, there would have been immediate parallels in terms of theme, style, and cultural context that would have helped deepen the students’ ability to understand and respond to both. Lu, like Karnithy, employs raw satire to criticize the government and human foibles generally. Reading the two stories dialogically would have provided better context for the students and strengthened their knowledge of, in the case of Karnithy and Lu Xun, what forms dissent can take, especially in societies in which dissent is not welcomed. As Johnston (2003) offered,
Perhaps the best we can do in contemporary classrooms is to offer students a variety of literary texts, written by authors from both Western and non-Western traditions, and to make room for both absorbed engagement with the text and for reflective deconstructive reading as well (p. 106).
In order to achieve transformation, students need to be given the opportunity to read and, yes, ‘misread’ literary texts from multiple traditions. For Thomas’ students in Hong Kong, it may have been one of the first times they were ever asked to consider the value and necessity of cultural satire. For some, maybe they were able to make the link right away to people in their own community like Arthur Lee, the outspoken former radio host who recently ran for a seat in the Hong Kong legislature, much to the chagrin of officials in Beijing. Maybe misreading Mr. SelfSame (1992) was another opportunity for them to even briefly consider their positions of privilege, both in Hong Kong and on the world stage. Perhaps acknowledging the value of this misreading encouraged students to take a more active and engaged role down the line in the creation of a more democratic and sustainable Hong Kong. Acknowledging both the existence and potential of misreading of text is one step down a path which recognizes the central role of power relationships in literary practices (Street, 1999), without simply asking students to read literary works multiculturally (Cai, 1998). Educators need to embrace these teaching moments as opportunities rather than as mistakes to be corrected. The potential catharsis resulting from textual misreading can be a “fertile matrix for the study of the social and historical processes” (Rosenblatt, 1978, p. 174) and provide the opportunity for honest scrutiny of ideologies which frame all reading practices (Street, 1999). As the writer, Josef Skvorecky, once commented about his initial reading of Twain's novels, "I went through them all, misunderstanding, often in the dark, but always sensing that thrilling magical power that gave me esthetic joy (1987, C10-11).
New Conceptions of Student Response and Assessment Practices
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. (Edgar, King Lear, Act V, ii)
One of the most powerful conclusions drawn from the findings of this study is that thoughtful and kinesthetically-oriented assessment practices can contribute to the self-transformation of each student through the engagement with literary texts. Each subject provided numerous teaching stories which illustrated that students were able to take ownership of a literary text through assignments that focused on oral and visual elements of language. Oral assessment tools included any form of dramatic interpretation, recitation, memorization, video recreation or group discussion. Visual tools mentioned were graphic interpretations and organizers, visual reading journals, and artwork of all variety and forms. These kinesthetic tools rely on the concept of authentic assessment embedded in a constructivist stance. Beyond drawing on the students’ own experiences, teachers in Hong Kong felt they were most effective when they linked student response to local concerns. They communicated these stories with pride, confirming for themselves the value of assessment practices which made use of local material and repeatedly achieved real engagement with texts.
The larger challenge remains what to do with the heavy emphasis on examination-type assessment practices that not only dominate Hong Kong educational systems, local and international, but are increasingly favored in North America as proof of student success or failure in grade advancement. The subjects of this study hinted at a ‘way through’ the obvious contradiction between the success of constructivist-oriented assessment practices in the classroom and the rigid conformity of asking students to write or speak ‘what they ought to’ in an exam setting. The answer may lie in adjusting the assessment outcomes and goals rather than eliminating examinations entirely. At one or more points in the interviews, Thomas, Jane, and I stated that examination practices which tested students only on new material, focusing on skills-based rather than a content memorization-based testing, went some way towards achieving the goal of undermining rote-style learning. But this reality of testing and evaluation remains as relevant today as it was in 1976 when Rosenblatt argued:
Few teachers of English would deny that the individual’s ability to read and enjoy literature is the primary aim of literary study. In practice, however, this tends to be overshadowed by preoccupations with whatever can be systematically taught and tested (p. 64).
Rosenblatt’s insistence on setting up circumstances where the spontaneous response of the students is valued and supported through thoughtful and authentic forms of assessment remains exceedingly relevant today. Tu (1976) similarly argued that during the Sung period Confucianism experienced a:
shift in emphasis from the acquisition of classical knowledge to the spiritual discipline of self-cultivation – in short, from information to transformation – [which] has far-reaching implications for virtually all aspects of the educational process. Especially noteworthy here is the prominence of the idea of the self as creative transformation (p. 149).
This creative, spontaneous transformation could be achieved through an exploration of human experience via five interrelated visions: poetic, political, social, historical, and metaphysical, all of which focus on the “commonality of human feelings” rather than on the art of argumentation (Tu, 1976, p. 142). While such a harmonious vision may not be achievable in the competitive atmosphere in which we live today, we can continue to strive for such a goal while looking for other ways in which to assess the learning and growth of our students. Banks (1993) and Probst (1988), among others, make a case for new conceptions of knowledge which define it as continually social constructed and reflective of human interests, values and actions. As Banks (1993) maintained:
Although the school should recognize, validate, and make effective use of student personal and cultural knowledge, an important goal of education is to free students from their cultural and ethnic boundaries and enable them to cross cultural borders freely (p. 5).
If examinations continue to be the predominant form of assessment for our students, objective knowledge need not be its endgame. Instead, teachers can look for ways to examine conceptions of knowledge focusing on “a plurality of experiences and open up to new spaces of possibility for democracy and citizenship” (Johnston, 2003, p. 3). Emphasis on the approaches and processes that impact assessment rather than the testing instrument itself (Clarke & Gipps, 2000) is one way to help teachers achieve such goals. Therefore, authentic assessment which is thoughtfully linked to the present day concerns in the local environment and to the lives of individual students would certainly constitute a major step forward.
Limitations of Study
As stated earlier, research frameworks are by definition limited in their scope. In the case of phenomenology, it is directed at revealing the philosophical dimensions of human experience through a “visible and manifest” (Thevenaz, 1962, p. 44) rendering of that experience using the techniques of exhaustive description and distillation. The limitations of this approach lie with the researcher's capacity to set aside philosophical prejudgments and to accurately and fully describe the phenomena in such a way that readers can easily connect to the essential truths located in shared experience (Moustakas, 1994).
I came to the underlying questions of this study through my own experiences teaching literature in English to students in disparate settings. Therefore, my perspective is clearly as a teacher-researcher (Clandinin & Connelly, 1990). I approached this project inductively, based on years of pedagogical experience which had suggested to me, over time, that there is an essential and meaningfully shared human experience at the heart of the reading process. Admittedly, as my doctoral studies advanced, so did my awareness of theoretical frameworks, in particular, reader response theory, which likely constitutes a form of bias. By choosing excerpts from Hessler’s (2001) Rivertown for my subjects to read and respond to during the group interview and which in many ways speaks indirectly to the value of reader response theory, I was also likely setting my subjects up to respond through a particular theoretical lens. However, I believe that by reading about Hessler’s experience teaching western works of literature to students in China, my subjects were better able to describe core elements of their own teaching practices. They could also better share teaching stories which are diverse as life itself (Connelly & Clandinin, 1980). The excerpts from Rivertown (2001) also served the purpose of validation, which Creswell (1998) suggests is the final step in the treatment of phenomenological data.
Selection of Participants and Interview Contexts
As discussed in the data collection section of this study, the choice of subjects was naturally restricted by their shared identities as white Anglo-Saxons who are, for the most part, viewed by both parents and students as ‘experts’ in the field of English language and literature. The subjects’ perspectives on their students and of their own practices are again limited by any number of factors, sufficient sensitivity to ESL concerns in their classrooms being but one. While entrance exams, like the CAT test given at CCS, are used to measure the level of English proficiency of each incoming student, there are other variables which can impact on a student’s ability to successfully interact in a classroom where literature in English is being discussed. While the two school systems do constitute what Creswell regarded as “various contexts of phenomena” (1998, p. 280), clearly investigating only two schools from each system (ESF and Non-ESF schools) limited the scope of the significance of the findings.
Likewise, it is also essential to acknowledge the role that privilege, both of my subjects and their students, plays in the maintenance and growth of the international school sector in Hong Kong. This privilege allows for easy access to a variety of teaching materials and a shared sense of socio-economic security which, in turn, promotes a sense of well-being and self-esteem among both teachers and students in these settings. An investigation of teacher practices in the local system where English literature is taught as part of an ESL-oriented program, for instance, would have produced quite different and, no doubt, revealing data. The value of this study’s focus on the international school schools in Hong Kong is what can be learned about similar environments which are, as I write, being replicated world-wide as these sorts of schools are increasingly established and, through competition, become increasingly affordable for the local population.
As stated at the outset, the potential implications for second language study were not the focus of this research project. This was a combined result of my own orientation as well as those of my subjects. None of the subjects’ students, for example, were pulled out of the regular English program for support; therefore, entrance examinations which eliminated students with weaker English skills provided an effective way to measure their competency in English. This, however, may be changing as I write. Nonetheless, the value of focusing on teacher practices is the focus on what can be learned from the two-way process of acculturation (Jin & Cortazzi, 1997) when the study of literature in English takes place in such settings.
In terms of the interviews themselves, limitations occurred as a result of occasional lapses in the direction, range and focus. Subjects were constrained by their energy level on the interview days, their often very busy schedules, as well as how they were feeling about their teaching, and later in the year, how they were coping with the impact of the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. SARS, a respiratory disease of unknown etiology, apparently originated in mainland China in 2003. It is characterized by fever, coughing, shortness of breath, and can prove fatal. Before subsiding in July, 2003, in part due to the effective efforts of the Hong Kong medical community, the SARS outbreak killed 299 persons in Hong Kong, 349 in China and 774 persons world-wide (http://www.who.int/csr/sars/country/table2004_04_21). The resulting chaos reduced the school year by about four weeks in the spring of 2003. For some of my subjects, including myself, the school year never really achieved a sense of normality after the crisis. Attempts to incorporate responses to the epidemic into the curriculum proved less than successful because the students continued to be profoundly frightened by both the reality of numerous deaths in Hong Kong and the media hype about further outbreaks and potential hygienic dangers. All of these factors played a role in how the subjects were able to engage in a fruitful and meaningful discussion with the other subjects.
The Road Ahead
Returning to the research questions which originally framed this study underscores some of the themes which emerged through integrating both the theory put forth in Chapter Two and teacher practices described in Chapter Four. It is challenging to provide a definitive answer to the question of how the participating teachers viewed the transaction between reader and the text. It is also not entirely clear cut for the participants of this study who has the greatest agency for meaning making in their classrooms – the teacher, the text, the author, or the students. What has been revealed is that the subjects shared the view that the relationship between reader and the text is an organic one with numerous permutations. The analysis of the interview data over time also clearly indicated that each subject believed that his/her students should take the lead as the maker of meaning in the reading process, whether that actually occurred in their classrooms or not. As for the important issue of identity and its impact on the teaching of canonical or representational texts, these international school teachers largely embraced the notion that identity is constructed out of multiple features which are knowable thought a creative process of self-transformation. No single factor predominates in that construction process. This inevitably frees them to teach any text, canonical or otherwise, with the understanding that knowledge is continually and socially constructed and those values, whether they emanate from dominant or minority perspectives can be interrogated by each and every student. Therefore, the goal of creating new definitions of community form a position of diversity (Willis, 1994) is possible. And, finally, subjects all embraced the belief that literature studies can play an important role in helping establish those new definitions.
Final questions remain about which practices participating teachers feel are most effective in teaching literature in English in a multicultural environment and which texts provide the best forum for those practices. The results of this study suggest that while teachers had a variety of creative and innovative ways to elicit student responses to texts, more work needs to be done to map out new directions in practice and selection. This means, for instance, reflecting on what the goal of assessment practices should be in an increasingly complex, globalized education environment with growing reliance on standardized testing. It also means that teacher conversations about best practices must continue and that current theory needs to form an explicit part of those discussions. Language and culture are both better conceptualized in dialogical rather than oppositional terms (Bakhtin, 1981). Practitioners should continually critique how reader response theory is employed in educational settings typified by Hong Kong international schools. Teachers can also engage other theories, like Neo-Confucianism, which argue for the effective knitting together of eastern concepts of self-transformation and western conceptions of personal freedom, with Dewey's thinking about connection between the development of democratic values and education. This connection can then be infused into discussions about the value of literature studies that Rosenblatt argued for with such clarity.
Teachers should continue the conversation about which texts work best in their classrooms. They must clearly understand why certain texts have greater transformative potential than others and how dialogic methods can re-invigorate the meaning of canonical status. As teachers of literature in English, wherever that experience is taking place, the goal of our practices must be to illuminate our shared humanity. Nothing else will do.