I remember the first time I taught Aristotle’s Ethics to 10th graders. Usually I was able to stay a few days ahead of the students, but for this book I was starting the reading the same night as them. I assigned 50 pages of reading. Big mistake! (This experience was one of the things that caused the creation of the Omnibus textbooks.) I read the first paragraph. I remember thinking: “I got nothing out of that.” I read it again: nothing. I read it again: still nothing. Yikes. The next morning, my five students showed up to class. Three of them looked chipper. They had given up quickly; the other two were zombies. They had worked through the entire assignment. Aristotle’s Ethics is a challenging book. But as it has been taught at Veritas Academy, the teachers have learned a lot about how to teach these sorts of books and get students to love and (hopefully) enjoy the book.
Here are three ways to help your students enjoy very challenging books:
1.) Give them your own “SparkNotes” before they Read
Reading challenging books is hard. (That is why they call them “challenging”.) They are also often worth the effort and pain. Too often, in our day, students are tempted to avoid doing the reading. They can read summaries online. This summary (SparkNotes is the most popular) gives the student the information and they can save time by reading only a page or two rather than 25 or 50.
Teachers want to pull their hair out concerning this skimming. But if the book is challenging enough, the summary can sometimes give students a deeper understanding of the book than a frustrating reading of it.
As a teacher faced with this frustration, I thought about why students were doing this and what I was trying to protect. This is what I discovered: not all books are the same. For some of them, some of the most challenging, the point of reading the book is not plot driven, the point is the journey. For example, in many of the most challenging epics a seer or prophet tells us the outcome of the story before it happens. This, however, does not detract from the story at all because the point of the story is the beautiful language in which the story is told, not the story.
On the other hand, when something is plot driven, we try to hide what is the in reading so that students can have the joy of discovering it themselves. We don’t want to have any spoilers for our students. Many of the most challenging books have a plot but they are not plot driven. Some have no “plot” at all like Aristotle’s Ethics; others, like Dante’s Comedy, have a plot, but the plot is not the main reason that you are reading it. Dante is going to make it to God. It has a happy ending. The title (Comedy) gives it away! In these cases, I would encourage you as a teacher to give students your own (better) “SparkNotes” before they do their assigned reading. Give them a map to navigate through the reading. Give them things to look for as they read. They will miss some things as they read (the book is challenging), but they will catch more if you talk them through the reading before they read it.
2.) Use the Right Metaphor to Inspire Reading
Too often we don’t tell students why they are reading challenging books. We pretend that the reason is a data transfer, downloading the important information from the Great Books. We use these computer or machine metaphors all the time in our culture about literature. If these metaphors are true, why not read a summary? The language is often clearer. The best of them have good content distillations, and reading them saves time. Data transfer, however, is a completely wrong metaphor.
The right metaphor is weightlifting. Reading Aristotle, or Milton, or Dante is a workout, not for data transfer. It is to make you strong, to build up your literary muscles. Strong enough to read and to savor the truth, goodness, and beauty that is only in these works. As a 47-year-old, experienced weightlifter, I can find true joy and deep truth reading the challenging books that evaded me at the beginning of my metaphorical weightlifting journey. I can reflect on Dante’s opening to Inferno, “At life’s midpoint, I found myself in a dark wood.” These words mean so much to me because I have done the work, built up my muscles, and can know reap the benefit of my labor. The process is the point.
This will, of course, not fire up all students, but it will help you to discuss this issue in the right light. To fail to regularly do your reading is to choose to be weak, to reject virtue, and to take on the roll as a pretender. Embracing the work, day after day, month after month, year after year, forms you as a person—in our age you will quickly become mentally strong people, able to interact with the substantive persons of our age and, through books, past ages.
Because of this, I would encourage Omnibus teachers to test reading. You can do this simply by asking the students at the end of each book to calculate the amount of the book that they read and giving them a grade based on this. Some might lie, but many will be motivated and will read more.
3.) Allow the Use of Helps…But Only after the “Workout”
Often, however, you will find that students attempting to read very challenging books will do the reading but might still have an imperfect or even deficient understanding of the text. They went to the gym; they lifted the weight; they came home sore, discouraged, and worried that they really don’t know what you might discuss in class tomorrow. It is crucial to remember that the workout has happened. After the workout, however, I would encourage you not to be averse to students reading online summaries to make sure that they have the basic facts down. This will calm the hearts of the anxious, diligent students trying to please their teachers and earn good grades.
In conclusion, with very challenging works, tell them content before they read, make sure that they do read it, and give them the resources to make sure they have understood the content afterwards. This approach will help more students master and enjoy books that are very challenging.
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