Mindful Pleasures: Developing Lifelong Readers in the Catlin Gabel Upper School

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By Tony Stocks

From the Fall 2010 Caller

“Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.” —Lemony Snicket 
If you read at all— newspapers, periodicals, that purported destroyer of the art of reading known as the internet—you’ve probably come across accounts lamenting the decline of reading in America. A much-quoted 2004 report from the National Endowment for the Arts claimed that less than half of American adults read any literature at all, and the decline was said to be even more precipitous among young people. News like this hits English teachers especially hard. Reading is not only the central focus of our profession—it’s also our passion, and often the only factor that allowed us to survive adolescence. Yet as you may realize when confronted with huge, intractable social problems like the specter of global warming or the rise of Justin Bieber, the only practical response is local. We can’t stuff the internet genie back in the bottle (nor, I suspect, would most of us want to), but we can keep working to develop skillful, enthusiastic, lifelong readers, giving our students in the Upper School the tools to read incisively and professionally, with the maximum of enjoyment and understanding. Here are four major strategies that we use to accomplish that goal.
Diverse, Challenging Reading Lists
We challenge our students by assigning them rich, multifaceted texts, drawn from both the traditional Western canon and from those alternative traditions that contemporary academia is thankfully taking more notice of lately. There’s nothing simplified or dumbed-down about the pieces we ask students to read. At all levels of the program, we ask them to read adult texts, almost always in their entirety. And our students tend to rise to this challenge with a maturity and enthusiasm born of being treated like grownups. According to my colleague Nichole Tassoni, our ninth graders remark, at several points in the year, “We read the whole Odyssey” (the epic poem by Homer), at first in disbelief at the task before them, but later with a growing pride as they tackle the book. Last year’s junior class spent part of the spring working their way through Toni Morrison’s Sula, a challenging novel that offers visceral and sometimes disturbing perspectives on race, sexuality, and social class. Despite the book’s difficulty, it emerged as one of the most popular pieces of the year; in large part, I suspect, because it confirmed our students’ feeling that they’re ready to tackle mature subject matter.
Active Reading
In order for students to get the most out of their reading, we insist that they always read with a pen or pencil in their hand, and record in the margins of their texts those elements worthy of remark that they encounter. Such a strategy not only ensures that students will retain key points of their reading for the future, but has the larger advantage of shifting the act of reading from passive absorption to active engagement with the text. As American philosopher Mortimer Adler writes in the essay “How to Mark a Book,” which all Catlin Gabel students encounter at the start of their sophomore year, active reading assumes that “learning doesn’t consist of being an empty receptacle . . . and marking a book is literally an expression of differences, or agreements of opinion, with the author.” It’s always gratifying to note instances where students have scribbled “neat,” “beautiful,” “huh???,” or even “WTF?” in their books, as these indicate that students are engaging emotionally with the text.
Early in their Upper School careers, many students resist the demand that they read actively. They argue that active reading slows them down too much, or that it spoils their pleasure in reading. But as they move through the program, most come to see active reading as a necessary weapon in their academic arsenal. They realize that the reduction in speed required by active reading is usually compensated for by a greater centering of attention that tunes out distractions and allows them to complete assignments more quickly. They also discover that there is no single formula for active reading, and that students need to develop individualized strategies to match their own mental habits: some will scribble notes in the margins as they read, others will wait to summarize a crucial point or two at the bottom of the page, some will write a short outline or paragraph at the end of a chapter. Most will also come to redefine the pleasure of reading, preferring a harder-won understanding to a facile breezing through the text. At the very least, all will realize that actively reading a text at the time it’s assigned eliminates the need to reread it when exam time rolls around.
Reading Through the Lens of Literary Terms
Just as physicists, attorneys, and skateboarders all employ a special terminology that both maps the conceptual territory of their respective fields and marks off the professional from the layperson, so literary critics have developed a jargon for the domains of poetry, narrative, and drama. We certainly want our students to be able to toss around fifty-cent words like “allegory,” “epithet,” and “anagnorisis” in order to impress their future college professors, but our insistence that they learn and wield this vocabulary goes beyond our desire to make them big noises on campus. For in mapping the terrain of literary study, these terms allow us to formulate fruitful questions that might not be possible without them.
For instance, for many readers the terms “story” and “plot” are more or less interchangeable. But Catlin Gabel students learn early in their careers that, for professional literary critics, a story is defined as any sequence of events in chronological order, whereas plot refers to the manner in which the author manipulates that sequence to create certain artistic and emotional effects. Armed with that distinction, our students can begin to ask why works like the Odyssey or Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane begin in medias res (“in the middle of things”) and then flash back to earlier actions. Similarly, a student reading Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar familiar with the concept of “caesura,” a break or pause in a line of poetry, may begin to notice how the poet uses that device as a subtle means of characterization. While the headstrong Cassius tends to speak in lines with few internal pauses (“Now in the names of all the gods at once/Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed,/That he is grown so great?”), Brutus’s caution is marked by frequent caesurae that break the forward motion of his speeches (“That you do love me, I am nothing jealous;/What you would work me to, I have some aim.”)
Reading as Active Response
Finally, reading is actively integrated with the other elements of the English program. If, as Adler suggests, every encounter with a text is ideally a dynamic conversation with its author, then every text our students read becomes part of a larger dialogue with their classroom community. Whether students are debating the question of racism in Heart of Darkness, or teaching the first act of Waiting for Godot to their peers, they are compelled to become active caretakers of the text, to explore its implications, to take a stand on its meaning and significance, and to convey their interpretation to their teachers and fellow students.
There’s nothing particularly innovative or trendy about any of these approaches to reading (in fact, Adler’s article dates from the early ’40s). But graduates still return to campus eager to talk about their recent reading, librarian Sue Phillips reports that non-required books fly off the shelves before winter or summer vacation, and we often overhear the finer points of The Great Gatsby, or Beowulf, or the latest masterwork featuring Northwest teenage vampires, being debated in the student lounges—suggesting that at least at Catlin Gabel, the future of reading may not be so bleak after all.
Tony Stocks has been teaching English in Catlin Gabel’s Upper School since 1999. He is the proud father of Clarissa ’16 and Charlotte ’19 Speyer-Stocks.