Thoughts on How Best to Read Literature with the Modern High School Student

The following are my own meditations on reading literature in our modern setting with high school students.  I have struggled with this idea for some time.  I find very few who truly love reading.  Some view it as a means toward the education they believe will lead to big paycheck.  Others view reading as an antiquated form of entertainment that has been long since been replaced by other more engaging screens and images.  So if my job is to engage students in a study of literature, it would seem I must convince them of its being worthwhile, then leading them toward a delight in and felicity with great literature.  This would include heightening their taste, training their abilities, and directing them toward self-motivated reading.

Why are we even doing this?  Literature is a part of the Humanities.  It is how we prepare young people to pursue the moral maturity that adult humans must have to be happy.  Fictional stories cultivate a moral imagination in young people.  Poetry brings them to feel sublime.  Truth is posited, Goodness exemplified, and Beauty is loved in the great works of literature.

So my first task is to present to their minds an apologetic for reading, and for reading great literature so as to develop a moral imagination.  Hence my first “lesson” must be the construction of the idea of a moral imagination, using mimetic teaching to birth this notion in their own hearts.  Vigen Guroian has written most helpfully on this subject in many places, including here.

I believe that the experience of a good literature class will do more than a single lecture to convince students of their need for a moral imagination, but that is where is should start.  Moving beyond simply saying they should pursue a moral imagination through great literature, the class should delight itself in that literature.  I currently teach two literature classes:  American and British.  Delighting in these things includes a good understanding of the context of these works, having some knowledge of the authors, but mostly would include the following key components:  having the time to delight (no break neck speed or firehose velocity here), allowing students to find what they like rather than telling them what to like, and open discussion that hears the students more than the teacher.

So how does one teach a student to read with delight?  I think there are three levels to this delight:  simple apprehension, connections, and reflections.  In simple apprehension, the student skims over the story looking for hints as to the characters, places, and such.  In short, finding the nouns.  It amuses me that for many literature classes, this is all that is expected, is converted to objective questions on a test, and every one claps their hands.  But that is only very surface enjoyment.  Going deeper, the student seeks to find the connections, how the plot is developed by the characters, places, “things” of the story.  Here he is in essence seeking the verbs.  What led to what?  What are the causes and effects?  But the best is kept for a final reading of the text, this time with the heart.  Given my knowledge of the text, having skimmed it over twice now, what passages move me?  What do I like about this text?  What is meaningful to me and why?

An easy way to teach this reading, and it can be done independently in this manner, is teach the student to mark the text in each reading with a differing color.  Having the student mark the important nouns in pink, the connecting verbs in green, and the really good stuff in blue allows them to return with the teacher to the text in class and discuss it well.  Yes this means they have to own the books, but this is a small price to pay for truly great reading and discussion.  If highlighter is not your thing, give them alternative ways to mark these three layers of reading.

This leads to a pedagogy something like the following for most texts (any form of text):

  1. Preparation – saying just enough about the text to gain the student’s interest, give them a context for the book, and guide their mind toward the one or two great ideas of the work. The key here is brevity with engagement.  Wow, I really want to read this book now.
  2. Direct Interaction with the text – whether alone or in the classroom, the student should read the text twice quickly and then a third time slowly, following the pursuits and markings mentioned above.
  3. Discussion – the great texts are above everyone’s head. This is why we read them.  Thus they are best when discussed with others.  Students have to be taught dialectic to do this well.  Some success can come from a teacher presenting them with key passages to be discussed, but often a simple “playing the blues” or discussion of those things they have highlighted in blue will suffice.  The key is to focus on the moral aspects of the story.  What was true, good, and beautiful?
  4. Fastening – I don’t like the term assessment in relation to good reading. Schooling demands feedback, but this is much more mentoring, discipleship, and apprenticeship than mastering a discreet set of information.  The content, skills, and understanding can be assessed, but one should always remember this is much more a start than an end.  The best form of assessing one’s interaction with great literature is writing.    While the essay or paper is certainly good and legit, more is gained by guided journaling.  Here is a great blog on that issue.

All this to say that great literature classes are an art form.  At the heart of it is the teacher’s own passion and enjoyment of great literature.  Beyond that, we are trying to see ice to Eskimos, but when we really passionately love the ice, it sells itself.

And if any of this needs more, I have written on these things before: here, here, and here are some that come readily to mind.

More on the Modes of Teaching: Mimesis

It has been awhile since I wrote directly on the two modes of teaching.  I still hold to what I said in my previous writing, but I wish to add to it.  I believe that of the two modes, dialectic and mimetic, one allows itself to be “planned” and the other must (to be effective) be extemporaneous (out of the moment).

The mimetic mode of teaching is a closer approximation to what most would call “teaching” in our modern day of knowledge transfer.  The Bible seems to favor the process of knowledge (the basic facts) leading us to understanding (a connecting of facts into a meaningful idea) and finally arriving through that understanding at what is called wisdom (not just knowing how things are, but living in a manner that reflects that understanding) [see Exodus 31:3; 35:31; Prov. 2:6; 9:10; and even Daniel 1:17].  Mimetic teaching focuses on being a bridge between knowledge and wisdom by helping bring the student to a place of  “understanding.”

3steps

There are three movements in the mode of mimesis.  The first movement depends heavily on the teacher.  This is where the student is led to the necessary knowledge they must “have on the table” in order to pursue understanding.  Let us say for illustration’s sake that the course is a U.S. History course and the current period of study is World War 2.  In this first movement the student would hear the teacher lecture on important names, dates, places, and events of that war, as well as being assigned reading in the time period, and perhaps even sent to research other avenues of such information (eyewitnesses, video, artifacts, maps, etc.).  The teacher is very active in this movement, steering and assigning the student the most engaging manner of gaining this needed information.

But then the teacher takes a step back and begins engaging the student in the second movement of mimesis.  Here the teacher begins asking questions of comparison, contrast, and conflict.  “How is WW2 related to WW1?”  “What caused the war?”  “What causes war to occur?”  “What are the classic positions on war-making and which do I hold to?”  This necessarily brings out much class discussion and debate, with students pulling from their knowledge and intelligence to bring the facts into a more organized form that takes on properly the label of “understanding.” Note as well that in this movement the point is not to simply “learn about WW2” but also to learn how such past events inform the life of the student here and now.  In this movement teacher and student share an almost equal amount of the activity or work of the movement.

The third movement is almost entirely the work of the student.  In it the ideas or understanding gained is restated by the student as clearly as he can so as to demonstrate to his teacher that he truly understands it, and to clarify yet more in his own mind the understanding achieved.  It is also the mode in which the student, by the aid of the teacher, will think through the necessary changes in his future life that such understanding should and will bring about.

I have used history as an example, but this mode applies to every subject in the curriculum in which the student is seeking to learn content or ideas.  We can never cease to draw the proper distinction between arts and sciences, as they must be learned differently.  But any science can be taught in this mode with these three movements.  This chart may be of help to you in considering any science being considered.

This mode can be to some extent planned and considered in advance of the classroom moment.  The first movement will probably fail miserably if there is not some advanced thought on the part of both the teacher and the student (at least thinking about what was assigned to him to read or do).  The beauty of where we are in educational theory at the moment is that because many define this first movement as the entirety of education, there are a ton of engaging, useful, and ready-to-go materials available to the teacher.  With a modicum of knowledge about your students, you should be able to quickly find a great way to bring them this knowledge.  The second and third movements can at the least be considered in advance as to the proper questions to be asked, and the most fitting way for the student re-express the ideas: oral, written, or some third alternative.

Much of this theory is derived from others to be sure, especially the work of the Circe Institute, but it has come as well through especially the writings of Plato.  His work in refuting the Sophists seems especially pertinent in our day.  In this post I have developed a skeleton for mimesis.  Next I will work on dialectic teaching, or what might be called controlled chaos.