Let’s talk about “messy complexity” in English Literature at Surval

10 March 2023

In what ways can literature help students understand reality and the messy complexity of life? This winter term at Surval Montreux, I completed a unit of study with my grade 10 students in which they read the novel Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng and wrote an essay about the idea of “messy complexity” which Ng explores throughout the book. This story addresses important issues relating to class and race while adding layers of nuance to the storylines of the characters. I chose this particular novel for our students because of the dichotomy of characters and the important issues raised by it.  I believe that studying literature helps us to better understand the world around us - to learn about life. This book is current, rigorous and touches on current themes about race and class and what it means to be perfect and imperfect at the same time. Wrestling with these complexities sets our students up to become stronger critical thinkers and develop lines of reasoning which they can apply to their own lives.


The power of conversation to open minds

As the students progressed through the novel, I encouraged them to discuss their own perspectives and unpack the “grey areas” of the book during Socratic Seminars or student-led discussion sessions. I encouraged students to use not only their own perspectives but also specific quotes from the text which emphasized the complex nature of the situations each character faced. Lively debate ensued as they considered if each character’s actions were “right” or “justified”. In that process, it was interesting to hear students engage critically with the text as they built their arguments and analysed the evidence. Noticing how students understanding of the novel evolved with their peers was fascinating! Because Surval’s environment is international, and the girls come from very different cultures; these conversations between them often reveal a wide range of perspectives.


Learning to “Own Your Voice”, a skill for the future

Finally, I assessed students’ progress with a discursive essay assignment. The students crafted their own prompts based on the discussions we had in class. Then, starting with a thesis statement, I asked them to build a rigorous argument working with evidence from the novel, analysing and explaining it. This process  is an example of one Surval’s core values “Own Your Voice” being put into action. Finding what resonated with them in this story, understanding why it did, and being able to explain it is one way we prepare our students for success in university, careers, and beyond.



Students learn best when they are engaged by the content. For one student, Bryana, who is passionate about literature and art, this book was “gripping”. She spoke about it with excitement to her peers and mentioned not being able to put it down because the story was “so good”! I also use 20Q, an online tool to gather data about the students’ perceptions, following each unit. For this unit of study, 20Q data revealed that students were both highly challenged and highly engaged. Opening minds, understanding “messy complexity” and owning their voice all while having fun reading this book has made this literature unit successful and empowering.