Erin O’Connor on the great power of a simple idea:
Teaching high school for a year at a very interesting little Berkshire boarding school got me onto shared class reading projects–the kids I was teaching were very smart, but, like most kids these days, just didn’t have much experience reading. So we read and read out loud together, stopping from time to time to talk about the language and the ideas and so on. I have very fond memories of doing that with “Song of Myself” in winter time, the whole class clustered around the wood-burning stove in our otherwise unheated classroom. When spring rolled around, we lay on the grass and read Gatsby together. Part of me felt guilty about spending class time on such a pleasant and low key activity–but you really couldn’t argue with the results. Kids got turned on to the language, read closely, loved talking about what they were reading as they were reading it, and greatly improved their comprehension and their close reading skills along the way. When the most reading-averse kids in the class are spontaneously picking out “favorite” passages in Whitman, you know something cool is happening.
So when I returned to college teaching the next year, I imported this teaching model and adapted it to Ivy League undergrads–which actually didn’t take much adapting at all. Once every couple of weeks, we’d read something together in class, going around the room, taking turns, everyone reading as much as they felt like reading and then leaving off for the next person. I worried that Penn students might think this was “beneath” them–might find it a silly or infantilizing activity. But they never did, and in fact, I think the class dynamic benefited a great deal from the relaxed, shared, contemplative quality of those sessions. Certainly they brought the literature we were reading “to life” in a way that silent, solitary reading can never do.