by Katie Hassler, Class Five Teacher
When I taught in public high school before coming to Clapham, I was struck by how many of the programs and curricular decisions in public schools are driven by literacy alone. The goal was to get students to read—to read anything—in order to help them gain the literacy skills they need to function in the workforce. However, as a former English major and a lover of stories, I found this to be entirely insufficient. One of the things I appreciate most about Clapham and Charlotte Mason is the focus on literature as a humanities subject, a subject that is understood as not just teaching a skill but training children in what it means to be human.
Educators as early as Plato have seen literature as a means to teach students how to be properly human. We know this intuitively; this is why many of us use books like Honey for a Child’s Heart and The Book of Virtues to direct students’ reading. But why is literature such a powerful tool?
The more we’ve learned about the way the human brain works, the more we’ve been able to answer that question. Wayne C. Booth, in his book The Company We Keep, talks about how, at least for the duration of the reading, books take over our minds, and we never come away unaffected by them. We literally think the thoughts of the author while we are reading them. Other researchers have discovered that the same neurons that fire when we do an action fire when we read about the action being done. So, we are rehearsing actions and thoughts as we read them.
If reading is, in a very real sense, a mode of experience, we must put texts in front of students that broaden their experience well, that tell true things about what it means to be human. Interestingly, all of our texts this year deal with courage. In Where the Red Fern Grows, courage is motivated by love and loyalty between Billy and his dogs. In The Golden Goblet, Ranofer must display courage to conquer his fears and overcome his oppressive half-brother. Odysseus, in The Children’s Homer must demonstrate courage when he is unjustly mistreated in his own home. And Meg, in A Wrinkle in Time, who sees herself as weak and inadequate, must show courage in order to save her little brother. My hope is that the students have grown in courage this year, or at least have had their mental courage “muscles” exercised!