The "classics" face stiff competition for young students' attention now?and that will only intensify. The implementation of Common Core, new state educational standards, brings with it a greater emphasis on students reading nonfiction. There is a great deal of research backing up the benefits of doing so. Respected scholars like E.D. Hirsch, a chief proponent of content-based curriculum, argue that nonfiction texts provide students with a wider range of vocabulary and general knowledge on which to build a stronger foundation for more sophisticated reading comprehension. Nothing in Common Core excludes the classics, but teachers can only cover so many books in a given class and standards will now emphasize nonfiction. Adding to the literary competition: I have observed an increase in required school reading with social justice and multicultural themes. For example, my daughter's sixth grade advanced literature class has Bless Me Ultima, Breaking Through, and Reaching Out among their required reading this year. Books like those provide greater cross-cultural understanding and focus on empathy at a time when many adolescent readers are entering a stage in life that can be most politely described as self-absorbed. My daughter attends a Catholic school. Compassion and empathy are themes that are right in line with values I want her to embrace.
Emphases on more nonfiction and social/ cultural themes are certainly worthy educational endeavors. What is my concern? Opportunity cost. The classics are deserving of study in their own right. There is incredible value in having a shared cultural reservoir among Americans of different ages, cultures, and socio-economic backgrounds that serves as an understanding of where we come from, as well as where we are. How can I make sure that the classics that I fell in love with are experiences shared with my children when there are so many other demands on their reading time? The answer for our family isn't either / or. The answer is MORE.
Developing a family culture in which reading and discussing literature is a priority for us. My children watch me participate in book clubs and pour myself into engrossing novels. Visiting children's librarian, Michelle Burnham, at the library has been a regular part of their lives since they were little. Now that they are older, my husband and I have begun making sure they are active participants in analyzing books themselves. I stumbled upon The Mother- Daughter Book Club: How Ten Busy Mothers and Daughters Came Together To Talk, Laugh and Learn Through Their Love of Reading by Shireen Dobson. This book gives step-by-step instructions for organizing a club, ideas for structuring dialogue, and discussion guides for great classics. (Mothers of boys should not be turned off by the title; I have two boys and there is nothing stopping mothers [or fathers from starting an all male or co-ed book club.) Parents wanting to augment their kids' school reading can also look to The Great Books Foundation, an educational nonprofit providing reading and discussion programs for Kindergartners through adults. Interested parents (and participants) can use their website to start a book group or find an existing local one (hint: Los Altos has one).
We owe our biggest debt of gratitude in helping to augment our children's literary education to a wonderful husband and wife team, Simon Pennington and Bryony Autumn, who offer summer camps and home schooling education programs in Palo Alto. They developed a classic literature book club aimed at middle schoolers that my daughter is enrolled in. The group, in which there are more far more boys than girls, meets twice a month on Sunday afternoons and carries a commitment that the participants read the assigned pages and do a reasonable amount of additional contextual research before each class. It is an added commitment to our already busy schedule?but one that we feel blessed to make. Professor Pennington has taught these young students how to deconstruct a text and to analyze the historical context in which the author wrote the book. As a group, they have examined and come to understand Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a book of its time. They followed the journey of a young King Arthur ("the Wart") as he grew to understand the relationship between strength and justice, or "might and right," in White's Sword In The Stone. They are currently deep into the familiar classic A Christmas Carol by Dickens, after which I am so happy to note they will explore the themes of judgment, class, reputation and prejudice surrounding the epic love affair between Mr. Darcy and Elisabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. Best of all, the journey Professor Pennington is taking these children on is outside of school. None of this is graded. That is the beauty of it; this is all purely for the love of literature.
Last December, Anthropologie had beautiful marbleized hard-bound editions of classics like Alice In Wonderland and Robinson Crusoe on sale. It struck me that we could be in danger of books like these becoming just decorative covers simply beautiful to the eye. My hope is that we're igniting a flame inside our three children to be more curious about the beauty that lies within the pages.