While a good piece of literature should stir us up and get us thinking, often we do not assess the consequences of the emotional heft that may be associated with it. In a recent article in The Atlantic, writer Andrew Simmons explores the emotional impact literature has had on his high school students. For example, he tells of teaching William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and the adverse reaction one student experienced. His basic premise is that “English teachers, it seems, are in a unique position to impose some degree of emotional and moral rigor on the curriculum.” Yes, this is absolutely true, but many instructors may not feel adequately prepared for that task.
The problem is that students are human beings and they react in different ways to things. Ask 100 people if they cried after watching the last scene of James Cameron’s Titanic, and many will say they did, but many others will say they did not. Obviously, emotions are not at all an easy thing to gauge or predict, but even so educators must have the tools at their disposal in order to deal with them effectively.
I first knew that there should be something more to my teaching English classes than knowing the technical aspects of an essay when discussing George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” with a group of college freshman. Chosen because it was a great example of a narrative essay, I had not thought about the “emotional” impact the story would have on my students; I only cared about the academic goal of showing them a great example of one kind of essay that they were expected to generate in the course.
“Shooting an Elephant” definitely got some of my students emotional, while others became indignantly unhappy with the piece. While a few felt sad when talking about it, others were furious that the police officer shot the animal. “How could he?” they screamed. If ever a moment called for stopping the process and dealing with my students’ emotions, this was the time.
While I had not been trained beyond a mandated psychology class in my doctoral coursework, I knew I had to facilitate a session with these students about their reactions to Orwell’s work. Taking the time to sit on the edge of my desk and let the students vent their anger and frustration did way more to teach the story than anything I could have said or done. All these years later, I believe that the death of one poor misunderstood animal in Burma had a real (and dare I say lasting) impact on these young people because I took the time to let them share their emotions.
Shortly after this experience I would learn about Claude Steiner’s book Emotional Literacy: Intelligence with a Heart. His guide for training people to become emotionally literate did not just make sense for in the classroom but in life. So much happens to us, so many ups and downs occur in 24 hours, and being able to negotiate the emotional roller coaster of everyday life is a necessary and compelling skill for everyone.
Steiner emphasizes three things that we need to do to become emotionally literate: “1. Knowing what feelings we have, how strongly, and why. 2. Caringly recognizing other people’s emotions, their strength, and reasons. 3. Developing the love-centered ability to express or hold back feelings so as to enhance the quality of our lives and the quality of life of those around us.” Admittedly, these concepts are not simple to teach, and the idea that something “love-centered” could be taught in a sometimes austere academic environment was in some ways a seemingly insurmountable challenge.
Fortunately, later in my career as an administrator I encountered the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence that promoted an Emotional Literacy Program in one of my schools. Having had long discussions with the instructors before the implementation of the program, I came to see that this was not just a one-shot visit to promote something but a serious weeks-long program that attempted to create a culture of emotionally literate students who could one day evolve into young people who could handle a variety of situations including a range of daily emotions, bullying, and eventually difficult situations as adults.
While programs like this do cost money (we got ours through a generous grant), there are other ways to approach achieving emotional literacy. Educators have to be trained differently, especially those who are going to one day be teaching literature and writing classes. If their training could include an emotional literacy component, it would help to prepare them to deal with eventually wide ranging student reactions to what they are going to teach.
Educators who are not familiar with emotional literacy should research it to help them deal with students proactively when they are discussing works of literature that will have an impact on them. Parents and students could also learn from this exploration of self and reactions to how books, poems, films, and television shows make them feel.
My seven year old was deeply affected when we watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens and witnessed the death of Han Solo. The loss of a beloved character caused him sadness and to note “how unfair life is.” He saw the film in December and now, four months later, he still keeps asking questions about it that indicate how deeply and emotionally affected he was by what he saw, and we have discussed it on a level that we have never reached when dealing with the other books and movies that he likes. My background with emotional literacy has helped me deal with his ongoing reaction to the film.
It’s safe to say we could all use some kind of emotional literacy training. As adults we face many different aspects of emotions over the years that can cause a plethora of feelings and challenge us as we try to move forward in life. A course we should all take is some kind of Emotions 101 – it could help us learn to cope, to handle the ups and downs, and be respectful of how others are feeling as well.
With the way things are in the world we live in today, a course like this should not be an elective but a mandatory one to help us to assist ourselves and offer support to others; but, since many of us are done with our school days, it would do everyone well to research this topic and apply the acquired knowledge to situations in their daily lives.
Steiner says “’Opening the heart’ is the first phase of emotional literacy training,” and, while I would agree with him, I think the essential first step for all of us is opening our minds; if we do so, understanding our emotions with open hearts will make perfect sense and be the logical next step for us all.
Photo credits: emotional literacy.com, yale.edu, amazon