YA Literature and Study Abroad: Making Learning a Lived Experience
by Erinn Bently and Jessina Anderson
I anticipated that the students would be enthralled with the texts and entranced by the places we visited. The challenge for me as an instructor, though, was how to connect these two course components: literary study and study of the host country and culture. I wondered, How do I help students use the YA novels as “lenses” for viewing their study abroad experiences? In this blog, I will describe a few activities I developed in the hopes of fostering these learning goals.
- Who doesn’t love tea time? Take a selfie as you enjoy afternoon tea.
- At various times, Alice feels “too big” or feels “too small” compared with her surroundings. Take a photo of a place that makes you feel “big” or “small” in some way.
- Alice is often lost, which leads her to new adventures. Take a selfie of a time when you feel “lost” either physically or metaphorically.
- Find the Dodo bird and take a selfie.
During the scavenger hunt, students were able to explore their surroundings through Alice’s point of view. By sharing their selfies, we all discovered new and interesting ways to view ourselves, the text, and Oxford.
Interestingly, most students sorted the “touristy” sights in Oxford and elsewhere (e.g., Platform 9 ¾ , the London Eye, and Picadilly Circus) as Made-Up or Muggleish. The Magical experiences were the everyday ones, such as eating fish and chips at a local pub, or the experiences they encountered outside of our required field trips (e.g., visiting local museums, going to live performances, and venturing to favorite authors’ birthplaces). Through this activity, I was able to read students’ cards and literally see their study abroad perceptions, their impressions of their host country, and their moments of culture shock posted there on our wall.
Her response reminded me that my carefully crafted lesson plans and instructional activities may facilitate students’ comprehension of literary works; however, the most powerful learning experiences are often ones students design themselves. I thank Jess (and her peers) for showing me the importance of allowing students opportunities to “go off the syllabus” and make learning a personal and lived experience.
In June of 2017 I was given the opportunity to study Young Adult Literature in Oxford, England. I recall the meetings about culture shock, and I remember thinking to myself that it’s an English speaking country with similar customs to ours. I didn’t expect much culture shock at all. However, I soon learned how wrong I was. I remember walking into downtown Oxford the day after arriving in England. I finally understood the meaning of the term culture ‘shock.’ It was as if the new world and the old lived in perfect harmony. There were smartly-dressed business people on cell-phones, and there were stores lining the streets with all the modern merchandise. On the other hand, time seemed to have frozen hundreds of years ago.
The buildings in the United States are just that, buildings. In Oxford the buildings are a storyline. Even without someone there to interpret the story for you, which we were very lucky to have, you can look at the details and they spoke for themselves. The carvings in the walls were full of characters and personality. One of the prominent buildings in Oxford, the Radcliffe Camera, had giant stone busts surrounding its perimeter. The detail in each man’s face was so distinct it was almost as if you could see what they were thinking at the time. There was careful consideration put into every centimeter of the statues. They were awe-inspiring. Furthermore, the whole city was full of them. Oxford streets were lined with men from the ages looking down at you. Nothing in my life has ever made me feel more connected to the past than admiring the way the British preserved their history.
The architecture was just the surface of that admiration though. The love of classic literature is what really took my breath away. Where Americans line the streets with football team logos, British line them with Alice in Wonderland, Jane Austen, and museum artifacts. The posters were of plays and museum displays. The entire atmosphere was an appreciation for the past happily married to the present. For people, like me, that have a passion for classic literature it was emotionally overwhelming. Every street that we walked down was full of historical preservation. It was an experience unlike any other, and I will forever have a deeper appreciation for the contrast between classic and modern through the eyes of the British.