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KL Pereira describes herself as "a teaching artist who lives mostly in her head; I'm interested in the creaky, creepy underbelly of life and whatever is beyond." Indeed, Pereira is a poet with a fanciful and brilliant approach to teaching writing. This Rhode Island native who makes her home in Boston has led workshops with an unusually diverse collection of writers, sharpening her ability to approach the literary arts in surprising and engaging ways. Her teaching has taken her from Grub Street to Brookline Adult & Community Education to Roxbury Community College to Emmanuel College to the University of Massachusetts-Boston, and beyond. Her own writing has been published in numerous magazines, anthologies, chapbooks, and journals. Two of her poems appear in the current issue of The Medulla Review.
Pereira holds a BA in languages and literatures from Bard College, an MA in gender and cultural studies from Simmons College, and an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College. She blogs at dead disciples, chronicles her eclectic reading at Goodreads, and offers glimpses of her ongoing adventures on Twitter. Pereira is currently working on a collection of flash fiction fairy tales, as well as "some zombie apocalyptica."
In our conversation, we discuss how reading plays into Pereira's writing classes, reading comprehension as an art form, The Bell Jar, the uneasy notion that critical reading "ruins" good books, and the fiction anthology that is making Pereira swoon. In fairness, I should disclose that Pereira and I worked together as editors of the Boston-based street magazine What's Up, at which time I learned that she is awesome.
See for yourself:
When you teach writing classes, how does reading play into it? Is teaching writing a way of teaching reading, or do they have some other way of intersecting?
When I teach creative writing classes (or really any kind of more creatively focused course that is based in the written word, like fairy tale literature or poetry performance), reading, and the ability to read is huge. What I mean by the ability to read isn't simply being able to recognize a word but to have the skills to analyze it in and out of and related to ever-changing contexts. I feel like what I actually do when I teach writing is giving students the tools to convey, and the best way (I think) to do that is to have them read pieces that have successfully conveyed something, discuss how each person reads/understands it, discuss how the writer has accomplished this, and then give students prompts based on successfully conveying their own meaning.
In my community college and freshman writing courses, the emphasis is the same but we spend a lot more time on reading comprehension. It seems basic but if you don't understand something you read, how can you respond to it? I think writers, as voracious lovers of the written word, don't often consider the fact that many people have difficulty with reading. It's a whole realm of life that doesn't exist for some people because it was never introduced as an art form or an extracurricular activity outside of the classroom.
Writing and reading are (and should be) hugely interconnected, whether you're in the community classroom or the fancy private institution.
Is it unusual for reading--and reading comprehension--to be taught as an art form in the classroom? If I think back to English classes I had in high school and college, I remember them often using a novel to "illustrate" history or social themes. Like, To Kill a Mockingbird was About Racism, rather than a work of art exactly...
In my experience, reading and reading comprehension aren't taught enough as an art form or as subjects in themselves unless students have a documented issue with these. For example, I've taught Pre-College Reading at the college level, which focuses on teaching students how to actively read, engaging with the text in a way that is interesting to them. This sort of class isn't taught in the college/high school forum unless it is to students who have learning difficulties like dyslexia. What's interesting is the exception to this rule: outside of courses for students with learning challenges, reading as an art form is taught to burgeoning writers at the local writing center (there's a wonderful course called "Reading Like a Writer"). These are people that are already highly literate and consider themselves writers. These courses are immensely popular but you don't see anything like them between the developmental level and the literati level.
How do you teach reading like a writer? What do lessons look like?
Reading like a writer is a salon-type course that takes a novel or series of short stories (it's often done with The Best American Short Stories series) and takes a class of folks (who are not necessarily writers) through a series of discussions on the work led by writers. I've never taught it myself but the idea is that writers will point out things like structure, plot, conflict, etcetera...things that you won't necessarily get in a book club. It's not just a discussion of story but of how a particular work is created, hopefully with the end that the reader has both a greater appreciation for craft and can think about how to apply the things they've discovered/discussed in class to their own work.
It's interesting because I forget that many people don't already "read like a writer"...I recently asked a friend what she thought of a book that I loved and she said she loathed it but couldn't really discuss why in any concrete or critical terms.
When a classroom can discuss fiction in these concrete terms, how does it change the conversation about story? If it does at all, that is. I'm thinking of a lot of people who come away from standard English classes feeling that talking about books in these terms "ruins" the story, or the fun of reading. What do you think of that?
It's really interesting because as a teenager I was obsessed with The Bell Jar (as I imagine many punky, misunderstood, pre-emo, dark and twisty teen grrls were and still are) and one of my friends got to read it in her English class. She ended up hating the book because they analyzed every bit to death (I think the teacher really hated Plath...not sure why s/he was teaching her ). I was mortified. It felt like they were picking apart a living body (and in essence, I guess they were) that I held too dear. After that, I never wanted to look at anything I loved beyond reason too critically because I was afraid I'd find things I didn't like. At that point I didn't understand that you could love a piece of writing and look at it in a critical way.
Of course, I ended up going for a literature degree and then a Gender/Cultural Studies degree (and then, of course, the MFA...kids, don't try this at home unless you want Sallie Mae coming after you for the rest of your life!), so my background became heavily analytical. I learned to love this process of analysis that goes with reading like a writer and last spring taught The Bell Jar for the first time. Even almost 20 years after my admonishment that I'd never pick it apart, I was nervous about having my students pick it apart. I always encourage them to be critical thinkers and readers but I found myself feeling defensive of the book (this is even before I got into the classroom, which is funny because I hadn't read this book since I was a teenager). Oddly enough, we all ended up being critical of the book, but I found that I loved it just as much as I always had.
So...yeah. That was a tangent. I am teaching reading like a writer next session at Grub Street. I'm focusing on Kate Bernheimer's new anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales. Some of these stories make me SWOON, Anna. I'll have to send you a few.. *Fans self...*