CCE Corner – Reading, Part II

January 7th, 2021

We recently began a series on the three R’s of education. In this Classical Christian Education Corner, we continue our discussion of Reading. In our last post, we looked briefly at Who should read, and Why, When, Where, and What to read. Now we turn to the question of How we should read. A classical answer to this question is: thoughtfully, deeply, and widely.

The idea can be illustrated with a contrast. When we started Trinitas, Accelerated Reader (AR) was a popular reading program in many schools. Students read from AR’s library of pre-classified or ranked books. They choose books in their “zone of proximal development,” i.e., books that are not too hard nor too easy. When they finish reading, they take short multiple-choice quizzes to earn points and rewards. It is an efficient and simple system. Its name, Accelerated Reader, is revealing of its goal. Trinitas began our Thoughtful Reader Book Club (TR) with intentional contrast to AR. We felt that racing through books to earn points and rewards may produce accelerated readers, but we worried it would not produce thoughtful readers. So, our book club encourages students to read from a list of classic good and great books on their own and with their families. Together, we dive into one of the books for activities and discussions of deeper themes. (We sent home information about this year’s Thoughtful Reader Book Club just before Christmas. It’s not too late to join!)

Thoughtful reading is not just an extracurricular at Trinitas, it is built into the curriculum as well. The way AR classifies and ranks books, The Hunger Games is considered a fifth-grade level book and is worth 15 points, while Macbeth is considered a tenth-grade level book and is worth only 4 points.* At Trinitas, our 7th and 8th graders read, listen to, and watch Shakespeare, including Macbeth. They do not earn points or prizes, but they are masterfully guided by their teacher in understanding not only the plot, setting, character, and language but deeper themes as well. All our students read classic good books, and the 5th-8th graders are challenged to engage them through “active reading,” making notes in their books as they discover historical and literary and scriptural connections, decipher the author’s meaning and intent, and discern larger themes and answers to “ultimate questions” such as: Who is God? What is Nature? Who is Man? And, what is his purpose? What are his problems? And, what are the solutions? A successful result of these classes will be, as our language arts teacher expresses it, “that our students can not only read literature with a compassionate soul, but that they will recognize worldview, in their music and movies and media, and no longer be entertained by the sins that sent Christ to the cross.”

Students are encouraged to read not only thoughtfully and deeply, but also widely. A popular game in the 3rd and 4th grade class is Reading Bingo–reading from a variety of different genres. To avoid the sort of “nearsightedness” mentioned in our previous post, we read from different periods of history. We read Scripture and philosophy, poetry and prose. We read works from different worldview perspectives. We read works that are sometimes “above” us, and ones that are sometimes “below.” All of these different kinds of reading help to expand our worlds.

Such expansive reading is not without boundaries, however. Most of the reading we require and recommend are “Whole Stories” where good is good and evil is evil and good wins (e.g., Cinderella) or “Healing Stories” where good is good and evil is evil and good wins, but the character experiences a disappointment that causes growth (e.g., Where the Red Fern Grows). For older students, we add some “Broken Stories” where good is good and evil is evil but the character is a mixture of both forces, losing his fight against evil. The character accepts his moral failings and accepts responsibility for his mistakes, but still ends in a worse position than he began, having learned a true important moral lesson (e.g., Jekyll and Hyde or Macbeth). We intentionally avoid “Twisted Stories” where good is not always good and evil is not always evil, or good characters use evil means to obtain good. Twisted stories may also have the reader sympathize or cheer for evil characters to continue in their evil ways and to escape justice.

The Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke once remarked that “To read without reflecting is like eating without digesting.” We want our students to be well-fed. And, just as there is joy in sharing a good meal, there is joy in sharing good reading. References to shared stories produce a spark, a delight in the recognition. They can also function as elegant short-hand for deeper truths. When a teacher says, “There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for,” vivid images of loyalty, sacrifice, courage, and perseverance come to mind and heart that could never be described without having experienced Frodo’s and Samwise’s quest. There is a special understanding and appreciation that passes between readers of shared material. We encourage our students and their families to read thoughtfully, deeply, and widely from lists of classic books not only for their own enjoyment and edification, but also to build this kind of community. Share a good book with someone you love!

*The way AR classifies books is another reason to prefer a more thoughtful approach to reading. While the reading level for a book like The Hunger Games is relatively easy, the themes make it more appropriate for older students. We would classify it for late middle school or even high school and stress the importance of guided discussion of the worldview and difficult topics presented in the story.