Montana State University

Prof provides a framework for studying violence in student reading

December 15, 2005 -- By Carol Flaherty

Judi Franzak   High-Res Available

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The portrayal of violence -- in movies, the evening news and literary classics -- should be studied just as plot, character and other elements of literature are studied, says a Montana State University education professor.

"Educators need to help young readers think through the issues surrounding violence," says Judi Franzak. "Society does high school students a disservice if it doesn't help them put literary violence into context."

Students "won't get the message automatically" about how to interpret violence, says Franzak. "They need to talk about it, and, as educators, we need to give them a framework that helps them understand."

Franzak helps design curricula for teachers. Recently, she and Elizabeth Noll of the University of New Mexico presented their work on violence in literature at a meeting of the National Reading Conference in Miami. It has also been accepted for publication in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy.

They note in their article that not talking about violence when violence is in study materials creates a "psychic dissonance." Franzak says, "If we don't talk about violence, it's as if we're saying that violence is not important. As teachers, we're used to talking about plot and characterization, but if we aren't talking about violence, the emotions aroused by the violence portrayed is left unresolved for students."

Franzak and Noll analyzed violence in eight books that have been suggested for high school students by librarians and educational critics. The books included characters from different social classes, races and genders. The authors defined violence as any act or situation in which an individual injures another, whether physically or psychologically, directly or indirectly. Their study also included a consideration of how the violence functioned, who was contributing to violence and who was interrupting it. The books analyzed were "True Believer" by Virginia Euwer Wolff, "When Dad Killed Mom" by Julius Lester, "Big Mouth and Ugly Girl" by Joyce Carol Oates, "Speak" by Laurie Halse Anderson, "Buried Onions" by Gary Soto, "Tangerine" by Edward Bloor, and "Who Will Tell My Brother?" by Marlene Carvell.

Franzak admits she would not assign some of the books she and Noll analyzed.

"I did like some of the books, though there are some that I did not like reading and some that aren't great reading. All of them have received praise by at least some educators who say the books can be useful to high school students." On the other hand, she says the genre of contemporary realistic fiction can be very helpful for some students, especially if they have faced violence themselves.

"If a student has experienced violence, discussions of violence in books can help them understand what they have experienced. Three times students have come up to me and said they could relate to the character and one of the violent incidents in the books because something similar had happened to them. Twice it was college students and once it was a middle school student. The middle school student said her friend had been date raped."

Franzak said one element she looks for in books with conflict and violence is whether the book has hope. She asks whether the people involved can escape the violence. She says some of the books were complex enough to offer hope, where the reader can imagine the characters going on to a better life. Others she termed "pretty bleak."

Unanswered by this analysis is whether violent books speak to young readers. Franzak says she'd like to find out by asking students whether the books are important to them. "I want to ask the students themselves whether these books actually speak to them. Maybe it's just critics who like them."

Franzak says one disconcerting aspect of the eight books analyzed is that most of them portrayed adults as either violent or allowing violence.

"Schools were often represented in the books as vehicles for violence, and almost all of the adults were complicit either in being violent or allowing violence," she says. Also troubling is that almost all of the female characters were more likely to be predominantly victims rather than violent themselves."

Speaking about violence, putting it into perspective, can actually "build a space for calmness," says Franzak. "The study of violence is an important and underdeveloped aspect of literary analysis."

Even though that is so, she says when teachers use controversial books, it is always important to give students alternatives. "Give kids the right to abandon a book to choose another." She suggests that students need a choice of both fiction and nonfiction that includes history, poetry, fantasy, romance and mythology.

Contact: Judi Franzak (406) 994-6890