It was an English teacher’s dream. Maggie and Lexie, two highly motivated and successful rising seniors at a local public high school, had taken all the English courses their school offers, and they were hungry for me. Would I be willing, their moms wanted to know, to teach them privately? “Sort of a ‘Great Books’ course, Maggie’s mom explained. The girls have heard us talk about some of the books we loved from high school days, and they feel they’ve missed out.” Indeed, they had: somehow they’d managed to get through twelve years of compulsory education—including two years of AP English—without having touched the Odyssey, The Great Gatsby, anything by Dickens. Just grabbing some of the low hanging fruit was going to be an adventure worth having.
The school was willing to accommodate, providing a room off the library for 3rd Period every day, a period dedicated to their independent reading and writing about Great Books, and I would come in one day a week to offer discussion, guidance, and feedback.
As their junior year came to a close, we met for the first time to flesh out a plan. I brought an enormous sack full of classics, which I arranged in a few piles on the library table between us, props for an enchanting discussion about the possibilities. Propping upright on the table in front of them my marked up copy of Fagles’s translation of The Odyssey, the gorgeous mustard-colored edition with the deckled edges, as if the pages had been freshly cut with a sharp letter opener, I issued a challenge: “You can’t consider yourself a well-read person if you’ve not read The Odyssey, right?” They nodded as if I’d just asked if they were ready to open their presents on Christmas morning. This was going to be fun!
Recently, six months and a full semester of “great books” later, I sent Maggie and Lexie a pair of marvelous essays by Daniel Mendelssohn, a classics professor at Bard College who brings his classics background to bear in consistently wonderful ways in essays about contemporary issues, novels, films, TV series, etc. The first essay “Unburied,” uses Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone as a mirror for understanding the refusal by Massachusetts to bury the body of Tamarlan Tsarnaev, the Boston marathon bomber who was killed by police during the manhunt following the attack. The other weighed the modernity of Virgil’s Aeneid, its relevance for our time, given its being torn between celebration of and problematization of “imperium.” The essays, which appeared in The New Yorker over the past six years, are challenging essays, essays that expect their readers to bring more to the table than can the average 6th grader we are told is the target audience of most newspapers and general interest magazines. Essays, which, frankly, would bore the hell out of a lot high school seniors. I was fully confident that Maggie and Lexie would understand these essays, would find them not only interesting to read but also good models for the long essays they were working to finish at semester’s end. These kids are strong readers, passionate readers. More importantly, as a result of our semester together, having read The Odyssey and Antigone and having dipped their ladles into The Iliad and The Aeneid, these students were perfectly prepared to get deep meaning from these New Yorker essays.
I hadn’t planned to assign this pair of essays—I only just discovered Mendelssohn’s collection Ecstasy and Terror a week or two prior in a New York Times book review and was reading the essays for my own nerdy pleasure. But as I read, I couldn’t help feeling that it was somehow meant to be. It was as though these essays had appeared in my life at this very moment as affirmation that the texts we had chosen for the first semester of this Great Books course had been exactly the right ones. It was delightful to imagine the girls’ reading experience, to anticipate key moments of recognition, to know that, in their own individual ways, they would experience a great measure of the same pleasure I had experienced while reading. Imagining their pleasure, I can’t help but contrast it in my mind with the great difficulty reading that another very bright student of mine has been having this semester.
Amy came to Cleveland from Beijing 18 months ago, in time for the beginning of 8th grade. Came here not because her parents wanted to live in the US or because one of them had been transferred here, but because she wanted to go to school in the US. She got in touch with me this November because she’s been struggling desperately in her World History course at the demanding private girls school she attends, struggling mostly with all the reading and writing that is part of studying history. When we met for the first time, at the same library where I’d wowed Maggie and Lexie with my pile of books, Amy was distressed. She’d been spending three hours on a lot of school nights on her history assignments alone and still doing very poorly on tests. She has studied English for most of her life, and her English is quite good. Her vocabulary is strong, and I found her to be quite capable of communicating, of articulating the struggles she’s been having.
After chatting for a while, we opened her textbook to a chapter about Byzantine Empire. With the exception of a few words, she understood all the “English” in the passage, all of the verbs and the common nouns. But the chapter contained myriad proper nouns which meant nothing to her: Christendom. Attacks from Germanic tribes. Constantine’s moving the seat of government West to East and the subsequent collapse of the Roman Empire in the West. Compounding Amy’s struggle, her knowledge of European geography was almost non-existent. Consider the following sentence “After moving the seat of government from Rome to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), the invasions of Germanic tribes from Gaul and the Iberian Peninsula led to the final collapse of Roman government on the Italian peninsula. Later Constantine was able to expand to much of North Africa across the Southern Mediterranean.” Imagine making any sense of that sentence if you’ve never heard of any of those people or places. At best you might come away being confident that someone named Constantine moved east, lost the land he left behind, but over time stole some new land somewhere else. Fair enough, but not good enough to do well on the detailed multiple choice and essay test next Tuesday. Amy’s lack of background knowledge was crippling her comprehension.
There’s a maxim among elementary educators that “Before 3rd Grade you learn to read, and after 3rd Grade you read to learn.” It’s long been understood that kids who hit 3rd grade as poor readers tend to struggle in school, struggle as a direct result of those reading difficulties. What hasn’t always been clear is that it’s not just decoding issues or limited vocabulary that causes so many readers to fall behind—a lack of sufficient background knowledge is an independent risk factor for reading and therefore for academic struggles. “Background knowledge plays a key role in students’ reading comprehension — our findings show that if students don’t have sufficient related knowledge, they’ll probably have difficulties understanding text,” says researcher Tenaha O’Reilly in a research article published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. “Previous research has shown that students who lack sufficient reading skills, including decoding and vocabulary, fare poorly relative to their peers,” but new research suggests “that a knowledge threshold may also be an essential component of reading comprehension.”
Given how important “background knowledge”—what a reader brings to a text—is to the meaning that reader will make of/with a text, this pair of interactions with students last semester has got me wondering about what it means to be an “informed reader” today.
[To be continued].