Monday, April 4, 2016

Catharsis: How Do Stories Help Us Express Emotion and Heal Our Souls? #A2ZChallenge Letter C

Two moments with students recently reminded me of the ways literature offers catharsis for readers. But first a brief explanation of catharsis

In literature, catharsis describes the ways characters cleanse their emotions. This concept originated with the Greeks who believed catharsis, an emotional "discharge," offered moral and spiritual renewal resulting in stress and anxiety reduction.  

First Madison, as she prepares to compose the analytical essay for her senior project on The Color Purple, and I discussed the approach she's taking. Her plan is to analyze the ways art, songs, and letters inform our understanding of the women in The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Madison and I talked about Celie's sexuality as an umbrella for the analysis she'll offer in her essay. 

Although we have not discussed specific support from the novel she'll use, I can see Maddie identifying with this passage: 

I am an expression of the divine, just like a peach is, just like a fish is. I have a right to be this way...I can't apologize for that, nor can I change it, nor do I want to...We will never have to be other than who we are in order to be successful...We realize that we are as ourselves unlimited and our experiences valid. It is for the rest of the world to recognize this, if they choose.

Madison and I have had numerous discussions about the ways girls in our community are taught and expected to diminish themselves, to make themselves less than, to silence themselves, to pander to patriarchal expectations and power structures. Literature that presents strong women who refuse to pander, who refuse to be less than anyone or thing appeals to Madison. Indeed, it speaks to all the young women in the class, many of whom have grown weary of the lack of egalitarianism in our culture. 

As we experience catharsis in literature through characters, we learn to cope with our own emotions, with our own pain. 

Sam spoke about the way YA literature offers moments of identification for readers during his speech about YA author Laurie Halse Anderson. Through Halse-Anderson's personal story, Sam sees himself. During his speech, he showed the class one of her high school report cards! Sam knows he's not alone in the struggles he faces as a teen. Two of the books that mean the most to Sam are Speak and Twisted
Sam right after his speech w/ one of his Visual Aides.
Sam and Madison both know the truth of Laurie Halse Anderson's words that "when people don't express themselves, they die one piece at a time." (Speak) This is the cathartic power of stories. They offer us and our students a way to express ourselves, and that's the first step in healing.


  1. It is so important to know as a student that they are not the only one to "think those thoughts", "feel that way", "be that way" and as you rightly say books can let them know this and allow them to identify with characters and authors. I have seen this happen with even young children and being able to open up and own those emotions is so good for them.
    A Stormy’s Sidekick
    Special Teaching at Pempi’s Palace

    1. Indeed. That's the power of literature. Something, sadly, happens to that love of literature.

  2. It's good that you are helping students understand their emotions through literature.

    I have a different thought, I wanted to ask you about. I had two boys and they got very tired of reading only "girl" books in school--meaning books very heavy on the emotion and very light on action. I heard many other boys express the same thing. I realize that as a teacher, you like/need to have books that are good for analysis, but those books have turned some young men away from reading. How do you balance these two generally conflicting styles?

    Oh, I remember that "Ender's Game" was a good exception to this.

    1. I think the key to getting "reluctant" readers to read and enjoy books is choice. Teaching AP Lit and Comp doesn't present much of a problem in terms of kids being willing to read. I can, however, tell you that I have students in AP who claimed to "hate" poetry at the beginning of the year but who now "like" and "love" poetry.

      I taught seniors (regular) until this year, and we had a balance between student choice of books and me choosing. There are some curricular requirements. One boy from last year had not read a book since seventh grade, and his mom told me at back to school night that he wouldn't read. He had a full-time job, too, but he read several novels. He liked dystopian books, regardless of author. Most boys like that genre.

      If you haven't read Kelly Gallagher's "Readicide," grab a copy. I think most books offer something for analysis. A book review is a form of analysis. I'm not much for splicing and dicing to identify lit devices. Thomas Newkirk calls that "extrapolative reading." Also, if you get a chance, check out "The Nerdy Book Club" blog. It's a community blog of authors and teachers.

      My first obligation is to help students find a love of reading. I want them to leave my room wanting to read. Book clubs can also offer a way to give students choice in reading. I set them up in English, generally at the end of the year, and present options to students. Also, boys tend to like true stories. Check out the Guys Read website.

      I hope this helps. Let me know. I have a complete course w/ a unit on book clubs on the Better Lesson website. There are 113 lesson plans w/ resources there.

      Foster a love of reading. Nothing else matters if a kid won't read. He can't analyze a book he won't read.

  3. You have listed some very good resources. Luckily, my kids were readers before and after English/Reading classes they didn't like. But I work in a library and I see a lot of reluctant readers with their parents searching for books for school. Those will be good resources for that also.

  4. Reading is indeed a great way to help express and heal yourself and others.

    – Joy Brigade Minion