Toward a Life Well Read
Our high school Humanities II curriculum at Providence Prep concentrates on classic works of literature, poetry, and history—the Great Books canon of western civilization—contextualized by an outstanding history lecture series from Dr. George Grant. In general, our literature selections were written during the historical time period we are studying, although we reserve the right to stray from it a bit each year, most notably on two “Shakespeare Days”, during which the entire class period is devoted to one of the Bard’s masterpieces.
Our focus at Providence Prep this year was Modernity, from the Enlightenment to the present. Literary selections included novels by Austen, Dickens, Shelley, Dostoyevsky, Orwell, and Lewis. Poets from Alexander Pope to T. S. Eliot, with an emphasis on the Romantic poets, rounded out our literature studies. As teachers, we are often learning right alongside (or just barely ahead of) our students. In fact, we are not trying to “teach” these books at all. Rather, we believe that the authors do the teaching. We aim to equip ourselves and our students to enjoy a lifetime of learning from these and other classic works. We imitate the stated practice of a master teacher:
“. . . one of my main endeavours as a teacher is 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
Our Humanities II pedagogy at Providence Prep is summed up in the words of another master teacher, Francis Bacon: “Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.” The primary assignment for students and teachers alike is to read, and after reading, to write. Finally, in class each week we gather to confer (discuss). As we read, write, and discuss, we seek “wisdom and delight.” We look for threads of the Great Conversation which naturally rise out of these Great Books, as great minds in each age respond and refer to the thoughts of the great minds of previous ages, transcending the boundaries of time and place.
Although it may seem counterintuitive to those of us who received a very different kind of education, a Great Books curriculum is the very essence of scholé, embodying “contemplation,” “conversation,” and “reflection.” But it is a different paradigm from the prevailing methods of education, and it requires different priorities in the home. We advise parents that students must have adequate time in their schedules to do the required reading and writing.
The bulk of time devoted to literature each week is spent simply reading—ideally with a pen in hand. We encourage students to mark up their books with underlines, symbols, and notes. This marginalia becomes a physical record of each student’s personal growth as a reader, a thinker, and a child of God. It is a joy to come back to a book—as we certainly hope they will!—for the second or third time, see earlier comments and questions, and add new ones.
This means that students must own the books they study. We advise parents to invest in a set of books for each student if at all possible. If this is not financially feasible, a student may share books with siblings in the same class, or even with parents—but even this does not need to be a hindrance to marking in the book. Everyone could be assigned an ink color and the book could actually become a delightful three- or four-way conversation between the students, the family, and the author.
We advise parents to weight the reading as the largest percentage of their student’s grade for transcripts and other necessary reporting. Recognizing that this is primarily between the student and the author, and therefore difficult to quantify, we require students to turn in a statement of completion for each book on an honor system. Parents at home use these to appropriately assign credit for the primary assignment of reading.
Each Humanities II student keeps a reading journal and a commonplace book. Entries in these form the writing assignments for each week.
The first entry for each week is a half-page “Connections” entry:
Write a response to the reading and class discussion. What did you find most interesting, delightful, odd, troubling, etc.? How do the ideas you encountered relate to other things you have read or heard?
A parallel history “Reflection” entry is assigned each week:
Respond to the history lecture and discussion from last week. What did you find interesting, convicting, or inspiring? Is there something you would like to learn more about? Include quotations from Scripture and/or other sources that come to mind as you reflect on what you have read and heard.
The idea is to reflect on common themes and ideas from studies in all disciplines. Perhaps something came up that inspires further research. Perhaps a recent sermon or lecture comes to mind. The student 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? We ask students to always be on the lookout for references to earlier or contemporaneous authors, ideas, and events. The aim is wade into The Great Conversation: testing, comparing, challenging, and proving or disproving one idea in light of others.
Often, we assign a second more specifically focused Connections entry. For example, this year, one such entry was to pen a few thoughts on how Roskolnikov’s (Crime and Punishment) view of suffering compares with Syme’s (The Man Who Was Thursday). Another was to compare “The Second Coming” by Yeats with Romantic poems we read earlier.
Our co-op meets on Fridays, so we recommend that Connections entries be done on Monday if at all possible. Reading Journal entries are not meant to be formal essays—although they may provide inspiration for essay prompts and/or content—but they should be a more personal and casual style to just get thoughts on paper. As far as possible, we encourage proper grammar and punctuation, but this is a very flexible “rule.”
After, or along with, their reading and lecture(s) for the week, a few other Reading Journal entries—briefer and even less formal—are usually assigned as well. This year, students made lists and observations of the characters in Crime and Punishment. They retold the tale of Prometheus as we read Frankenstein. They researched the Arthurian cycle as we read That Hideous Strength. They identified the historical figures and events represented in Animal Farm. They cataloged figures of speech in poems, and identified rhyme and meter. They wrote reading comprehension questions for their fellow students to answer. They recorded any ideas that were new to them or contrary to things they have heard before, and questions or areas of confusion about historical information, or a plotline, or a character portrayal.
In terms of evaluation, we look for progress over time. Our co-op does not grade student work, but we tell parents who are evaluating their students’ work to look for more complex and thoughtful entries over time. Never penalize a student who is new to this way of learning for early attempts which are sparse and not very deep. Instead, evaluate improvement in content and eloquence over time. In this way, the Reading Journal also becomes a physical record of student achievement over the years, and it can provide real encouragement to student and teacher alike.
The Commonplace Book is the place for students to record beautiful passages that they encounter in their reading. Most often, we ask for passages that strike the student as intriguing, beautiful, wise, or humorous—something that inspired his or her delight. Sometimes we will ask for a specific category of commonplace entry, such as an example of distorted communication from That Hideous Strength, or a passage from The Man Who Was Thursday related to principles of revolution vs. reformation (a theme in this year’s history studies). Three or four entries per week is the minimum requirement, but more are welcome! The goal is to make commonplacing a lifelong habit, as so many great men and women of the past have done.
A new practice we have just instituted is a weekly Scriptorium, where our students gather on a separate day from our co-op day for the exclusive purpose of completing reading journals and commonplace entries. We meet for an hour and a half around my dining room table. Since we have geographically far-flung families and busy schedules, many students opt to join us from the comfort of their own homes via online conferencing software.
You can see that we have plenty to talk about on Fridays! In fact, we always wish we had more time. We begin our class time with a short contemplation of a painting or artwork (the same one that our younger students are studying that week in Picture Study). Often after this, one of our students will give a brief Commonplace Declamation—an idea borrowed from Jenny Rallens—where they present a favorite passage from their commonplace books, briefly explain why it is meaningful to them, and field any questions about the passage that their classmates may have. This is a great way to encourage commonplace book review.
Our class discussions draw heavily from Reading Journal and Commonplace entries. We ask several students to share a Connections entry and then we dive into discussion, which is generally very lively with all this preparation. Currently, we have three teachers leading different parts of the discussion. Our wonderful Patrick Henry College intern, Josiah DeGraaf, leads the literature discussion, Mrs. Curles leads our history discussion, and yours truly leads the poetry discussion. Two hours flies by as we discuss, argue, share, and laugh. We have even had tears (a teacher’s) when a student spoke forth a beautiful truth about suffering and God’s glory. Of course, we also have had weeks when we adults all look at one another and say, “That was a loser!” But the days when we come out energized and humbled by what our students are thinking and saying far outnumber the other.
So to sum up our pedagogy: read, write, discuss. We 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.
Kathy Weitz is a lifelong Virginian and a lifetime learner. She is the director of Providence Prep: A Scholé Community located in Purcellville, VA and also the founder of The Cottage Press Blog, where you can join her insightful conversations about classical education and the pursuit of a life well-read. Over the past twenty years, as she and her husband, Rick, have educated their six children at home, she has pursued a classical education for herself as well. In addition to her own children, she has taught a number of other students, both online and in the classroom. As the Lord grants years, she looks forward to the continued pursuit of a life well read. She particularly relishes the thought of sharing her love of books with her grandchildren. The desire of Kathy’s heart is truly to glorify and enjoy her Lord and Savior in her church, in her family, and in her writing. Among her chief pleasures are homemaking and hospitality.