Bright Idea: Using Literature to Prevent Relationship Violence

Photograph of a young man reading a book.

Lessons about violence, power, hatred, love and respect are everywhere – from the classic Zora Neale Hurston novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God" (a staple of high-school English classrooms) to contemporary movies, music and television. That’s the premise of Lessons from Literature, a curriculum guide designed by the Family Violence Prevention Fund to empower teachers and others who work with youth to use literature, or virtually any medium of popular culture, to educate youth about relationship and family violence. 

“Teachers and other adult role models play a critical role in shaping youth’s awareness of what makes a healthy or unhealthy relationship and what constitutes family and relationship violence,” says Program Specialist Sara Fewer. 

But adults may be uncomfortable talking about topics like domestic violence and date rape. “Literature or popular culture discussions are a great ‘in’ to address these difficult subjects,” Fewer says. “They allow students to think critically about respect and relationship abuse and give them the tools to recognize unhealthy relationships in their lives and respond to them.”

We tapped Fewer and the Lessons from Literature classroom manual for tips on how to teach youth about the thorny subject of relationship violence. These recommendations apply whether you are running a semester-long course or a two-hour workshop:

Choose your material. The classroom manual includes sample lesson plans based on “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and “Lord of the Flies” and a template you can use to plan your own curriculum around other books, movies, songs, poems, articles, or plays. Search for choices in the Lessons from Literature resource library. Consider asking young people to help you choose.

Be clear. From the very beginning, tell participants abuse is unacceptable. In any situation where you have the opportunity to have serious conversations with youth, Fewer says, they should view you as a “role model of respect, nonviolence and self-confidence.”

Encourage discussion and respect. Ask students what they think about abuse, and encourage them to think critically about important real-life issues, including violence. Fewer recommends establishing clear ground rules for student interactions. For example, let young people “pass” if a question makes them feel uncomfortable and prohibit interruptions while someone is speaking.

Listen. Observe body language, too. Let young people know you care and are paying attention.

Be prepared. If you suspect a young person is in an abusive or violent situation, take the proper steps to address the issue. Be aware of your state’s mandatory reporting laws, and be prepared to refer the youth to a school counselor, local organization or emergency services hotline if needed. “Preventing domestic abuse is a community effort,” Fewer says.

Collaborate. Enlist other teachers, youth workers, and administrators in raising awareness of adolescent dating violence.


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