Many, many years ago, I saw a first grader walk into a wall. The most interesting thing about this odd incident, however, was why she walked into the wall. She walked into the wall because she was trying her hardest to both walk to dismissal and read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Some of the words were beyond her reading level, but with a firm grasp on phonics and a bad grasp on wall avoidance, she moved forward…a bit too far forward. I thought to myself, “Watch out for that one!” She joined our faculty this year.
Challenging students to read books that above their ability level is something analogous to having an adventure or trying to do a task that most would think is beyond them. Teachers involved in classical education should be aiming to move kids to take on this sort of challenge consistently. Here are a few techniques to help you encourage your kids to reach high:
Way 1: Stir Up Interest
One critical element toward getting kids to reach toward challenging books is stirring interest. The students must be engaged. They must be convinced that the book is not only interesting—but that it is so interesting that they are missing something if they don’t read it.
This concept was a critical one for Veritas' creation of the Omnibus. This concept has its roots in the concept of Pre-Discussion from David Hick’s book Norms and Nobility. Students must be engaged and believe that they should, and it would be best if they felt that they must read this book.
As I taught through most of the books in Omnibus before the Veritas Press Omnibus textbooksexisted, one of my most memorable experiences with this was a reading of Plato’s Republic with an early class at Veritas. They initially thought it was “stupid”. Yikes! I spent a few classes looking at a tree in our courtyard talking with them about what the tree in the courtyard was. Was it atoms full of space, then why couldn’t my hand pass through it? Was the tree an idea in the mind of God? What was it? I remember watching them look at the tree and walk around the tree thinking about what it was. By the end of a couple of days, the students did not believe that Plato was “stupid”.
Way 2: Read Books to Them (Stoke the Fire)
If the first way is stirring interest, the second is stoking the fire. Stoking a fire means building it up and making it burn hotter. In the Seven Laws of Teaching, John Milton Gregory encourages teachers in this way. His second law states: A learner is one who attends with interest to the lesson. He tells teachers that they should aim to reach “secondary passive attention” which means that they are so fascinated that it takes no effort of the will to be engaged. This is why it is critical, especially with older students, to sell them on a book before you read it. Get them interested in the content of the book. Help them understand why it is so important to read. Tell them how to read the book enjoyably. My first read of Tolkien was not very enjoyable because I was getting hung up on understanding the details and connections instead of enjoying the story and I was not reading whole chapters at once—a critical part of comprehension that teachers sometimes fail to stress. (Also, I was reading it last night and I was very tired.)
With the most challenging books, this is done best by reading sections or the entirety of the book aloud to the class. I have found that many students struggle to understand political philosophy if they read it at home alone. When I teach De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, I pick sections that I want to read aloud. When I read it aloud with students, they understand it better and the interest of many students is stoked. If I hurry them through, they miss a lot and don’t love it.
Way 3: Find the Right Version or Supply Helps
Sometimes the right version of a text makes reading the book much more pleasurable and interesting. These versions are not often the least expensive version, but they make a gigantic difference in your students’ ability to handle challenging texts. Here are a few superb examples:
Why are these books (both recommended by Veritas Press) worth the price? They help students understand and engage with what they are reading. The Landmark Thucydides along with The Landmark Herodotus are masterpieces. They engage many senses. They contain maps that help you orient your mind around all parts of the Mediterranean and Persia. They contain section-by-section summaries to help students avoid getting lost. They are full of pictures that stir the imagination. They have copious appendices for students who want to know how triremes rammed and sunk other ships. Fierce Wars and Faithful Loves makes Spenser’s challenging story of the battle between St. George and the dragon accessible, enjoyable, and fun. Roy Maynard understands what kids need to fall in love with Spenser. He glosses the archaic words, has lavish footnotes and helpful asides, and he lets them know that the first lines which summarize each chapter can be sung to the tune of Gilligan’s Island.
Advanced Hack for Ambitious Students: Tell them they can’t do it
This trick works, especially with bright or competitive students, but you can’t use it too often or make the book seem too fearful or you will scare off the timid students and cause many to become hopeless.
My 2nd-grade teacher always starts her study of long division by pausing and saying something like, “I was going to teach you a fun way to divide today….but I am not sure that you are ready for it. It is really fun, and we will be able to do incredible stuff when you learned it but it is more for the 3rd or 4th graders. How many of you think you can handle it?” I was in the classroom observing once when she did it. I swear that if she would have said, “No, let’s not learn long division,” a few of the boys in class would have either burst into tears or tried to tackle her and make her teach them long division.
Again, you can’t use this too often or it loses its force, but it can be a fun way to get some of your brightest students reaching higher.
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