Why We Read Great Books

Amy Harriton, Landmark Christian School Associate Head of School
We have the responsibility in our elementary, middle, and high schools to introduce our students to nutrient-dense literature in our curriculum. Among the most valuable aspects of a good education include the nourishment of the literature we are feeding our students. No matter their reading level, a beneficial, nourishing history of global, enduring stories waits to be served to our students.
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We have the responsibility in our elementary, middle, and high schools to introduce our students to nutrient-dense literature in our curriculum. Nutrient-dense literature is not necessarily going to be the innate palate of a student; students should be invited to choose books that delight them like dessert for personal pleasure reading, but they should also be hospitably brought to the table for a five-course meal of rich tales that challenge their comprehension and expand their minds. These texts might be a little more difficult for them to digest, but with an enthusiastic teacher preparing the selections and guiding the students through the readings, they are acquiring a taste for depth, in some cases overcoming an aversion of initially dense language or archaic text and instead finding an appreciation in the enduring story, heroic tale, universal questions and richness of language. 
Let us bring to the table the most nutritious of readings. Among the most valuable aspects of a good education include the nourishment of the literature we are feeding our students. No matter their reading level, a beneficial, nourishing history of global, enduring stories waits to be served to our students.

How We Engage with the Text
When we sit down to read with our students, they are not just reading words on the page; they are meeting the author and entering a world. “Have you met Shakespeare before?” we might ask our students to remind them that they are entering into a moment that transcends time and enters into an asynchronous conversation. It is our joy to introduce students to the great minds and influencers who have come before them so that they can grapple with those words and their worlds and the issues presented, and emerge from the reading transformed by the interaction—able to stand in ideas on the shoulders of giants. We approach the text as a practice of shared inquiry, journeying together as a community to walk each line of the piece, to comprehend, synthesize, question, respond, evaluate. We might begin a discussion with “What did you notice?” but we end the discussion with a higher-order synthesis or evaluation question. We never end a discussion with merely reader response with unfounded claims but continue to drive students to the language: “And where does it say that?”
   
How We Define Great Books
We define Great Books as the enduring works of our global human history and the contemporary pieces that reflect an elegance of language and complexity of ideas that contributes to the greater conversation that continues across time. We purposefully introduce our students to a heavy array of authors who have come before us, obligated to bring stories of inspiration, share a prior heritage, and broaden students’ understanding of reality not only geographically and culturally but also chronologically.  
While there arguably could be an entire school built around only contemporary Great Books, we understand that contemporary books are more readily accessible to our students due to the vernacular and so we are careful to embark on expeditions where our own expertise becomes especially valuable to the students—casting light on the moving stories of those before us that have contributed to those contemporaries and the culture that the students find themselves immersed in. We value these heavies in our curriculum because we know they provide students opportunities to practice decoding, using the context surrounding the vocabulary to comprehend, which will improve students’ overall reading comprehension. 

How We Encourage a Love of Reading
Our literary textbook choices don’t mean that we dismiss all other reading as a poor pursuit. We know the research that identifies how to grow a reluctant reader into an engaged reader—we encourage them to pick up with the level and genre of reading they last found joy in. How? We offer opportunities in class to talk about the books we are reading, and we share the contemporary or lighter reads that we might be enjoying with our students to model a lifestyle of reading across genre and for multiple purposes. We encourage extracurricular book clubs outside of our classroom canon and we ask thoughtful, interesting questions about the books our kids love to read. We recommend books; we loan books; we discuss books in addition to those we study in class.  

And when we transition to read our chosen textbooks in class from our Great Books curriculum, we model enthusiasm for each line; we relish the language—and draw attention to it: “How beautiful does this line sound!” we might exclaim—and then discuss the sound and syllables for the next minute. Or perhaps we anguish with the characters, showing disbelief and sadness for the moments of tragedy, helping our students develop empathy, entering the world of the novel and adopting the eyes of the characters. We model for our students a joy for the occupation of reading and an awe for the power of literature and the magic of language with every carefully chosen piece of literature we set before them. 
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Landmark Christian School

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