It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire . . . C. S. Lewis, Introduction to On the Incarnation
I teach literature to high school students at our local classical education co-op as part of a larger Humanities Curriculum. We follow the four year rotation of historical time periods suggested by King’s Meadow:
- Year 1: Christendom
- Year 2: American Culture
- Year 3: Antiquity
- Year 4: Modernity
In general, our literature selections are books written during the time period we are studying, although we reserve the right to stray from it a bit each year, most notably on two Shakespeare Days each year, where spend the entire class period focusing on one of the Bard’s masterpieces. This year’s Antiquity list included The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Aeneid, Herodotus’ Histories, Greek plays by Sophocles and Aeschylus, selections from Plutarch’s Lives, Livy’s Early History of Rome, and selections from Plato and Aristotle. Our Shakespeare selections were A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Julius Caesar.
I am sharing this list as an encouragement to other reading mothers. I did not read many books like this in high school. I did not study much literature in college — although I’d surely love to go back and have a re-do! In fact, I do not presume to “teach” these books at all. Rather, I am a firm believer that the authors DO the teaching. Instead, I aim to equip myself AND my students to enjoy lifetime of learning from these and other classic works.
Very often, I am learning right alongside (or just barely ahead of) my students. My role is that of a fellow hiker just a little ahead on the trail up the mountain, calling back to the rest, “Come on, you can do it!” and convincing them that the view at the top is worth the time and effort. “You’ll thank me someday” is my mantra. As I have been teaching for a good number of years, I’ve collected on quite a few of those thank yous already, starting with my own kids. In fact, it is not at all uncommon to collect on it before the end of any given school year.
The main assignment for each week is then, of course, to read, ideally with a pen in hand. And after reading, to write. Simple, yet powerful. Reading and then writing about what you have read are the key habits that move students and teachers alike towards a life well-read.
I advise parents to invest in a set of books for each student if at all possible. When one of our own kids ventures forth from home, a set of his or her, preferably well-worn and well-annotated accompanies him or her as the beginnings of a personal library. Of course, there are those—even among my beloved and otherwise brilliant students—who think that writing in a book is sacrilege, but alas, they are wrong. These scribbles actually have a name, marginalia. So those scribbles may be worth big bucks someday if fame should come knocking.
Each student in my class is to keep a Reading Journal and a Commonplace Book. As I mentioned in Virgil’s Aeneid Via Roman Roads – Week 1, they complete three sorts of written responses each week. These assignments are also meant to become lifetime habits — for any subject area — which will produce a lifetime of learning.
Students write a paragraph or two in their Reading Journals (simple inexpensive 100 leaf sewn composition books) at least twice per week. Sometimes I assign questions or topics; other times, students may choose their own topics from a list of general possibilities.
- Which do you like best? Least? Why?
- What do the characters teach you about the nature of man?
- Compare them to characters in some other (good) book you have read.
- What virtues/vices are portrayed by these characters?
- How do the themes of this book reflect the time period in which it was written?
- How do the themes of this book square with Scripture?
- Summary – summarize or précis what you read today – all or part
- Response – talk back to the author or poet
- Argue – if you disagree with something he said
- Commend – if you agree with something he said
Students should aim for half a page per entry. Younger students, or those new to the study of the Great Books, will typically write less; older, seasoned students should be expected to write more. For each entry, they should include a header with the date, the name of the book or poem, and the author or poet. In general, these entries should be complete paragraphs. Occasionally, they may make a list of some kind.
On the day before class each week, students should write at least a half page in their composition books reflecting on common themes, ideas, etc, from their studies in all disciplines, including any pleasure reading. Perhaps something came up that they would like to research a little further. They should consider recent sermons or lectures they may have heard. They should ask: what does Scripture have to say about these themes and ideas? What do other authors have to say? What have I read or heard in the past that speaks about these things? I ask students to always be on the lookout for references to earlier or contemporaneous authors, ideas, and events. The goal is to encourage students to wade into The Great Conversation: testing, comparing, challenging, proving or disproving one idea in light of others.
A Commonplace Book is a book in which ‘commonplaces’ or passages important for reference were collected, usually under general headings; a book in which one records passages or matters to be especially remembered or referred to.” ~ Oxford English Dictionary, 1971
The Commonplace Book is the place to copy and/or record beautiful passages of interesting turns of phrases that you come across in your reading. In addition, I ask my students to records figures of speech and other literary devices from their reading here. Two entries per week is the minimum requirement, but they certainly do not have to limit themselves! The goal is to make commonplacing a lifelong habit, as many great men and women of the past have done.
So then, what do we do with all this? First of all, I generally begin class each week by sharing from our Commonplace Books—teachers too! At the end of our discussion of the reading, I ask students to share some thoughts based on their Reading Journal entries. Finally, I take up the Reading Journals every six weeks or so and check that entries are complete, and I comment on a few. Our co-op does not grade student work, but I tell parents who are evaluating their students’ work to look for more complex and thoughtful entries over time. I would never penalize a student who is new to this way of learning for early attempts which are sparse and not very deep. Instead, I would evaluate improvement in content and eloquence over time.
Coupled with our classroom discussion, I have seen these simple habits bear fruit over time. Of course, a lifetime is not long enough for most of us to master even one classic work, let alone an entire canon. But developing these habits in ourselves and our students will certainly start us on the the way toward a life well-read.