Waking up in MSLW by Christina Wassell
Recently I was asked by a parent why I thought taking a group literature course like the one I teach at New Hope is “worth it” for homeschoolers, who can clearly read great books on their own at home. It’s a great question. Most parents feel qualified to read a book alongside their children and discuss it. I certainly did this past year when I attempted to “do literature” with my eldest son, who had just finished up his two years of Middle School Literature and Writing (MSLW) and was now ready to move on. “No problem,” I thought, “I’m a literature teacher. This should be fun!” Alas, it was not fun for either of us, and needless to say it resulted in a less-than-dynamic year of literature study for my child. (He’ll be back to New Hope this fall for British Literature, God be praised.)
So what happened? Or what didn’t? It’s clear to me now that something different occurs around our MSLW table. There is a dynamism that begins to move, an outpouring of thought and language that is tough to replicate at home. As the tutor of roughly ten students in MSLW, I have an opportunity in front of me that is far different than sitting with my own child in the kitchen on a regular homeschool day. When enough parties are present to have a robust conversation, suddenly my role as the adult shifts. I no longer have to supply roughly half of the energy and ideas pertaining to the book at hand. I can present the text, putting the young people in conversation with the great minds of our western tradition, and largely get out of the way. Surely, there is an element of midwifery here, especially early in the year, as the students are reaching out for a new vocabulary of exploration to work with. But what a joy to supply questions in this way! What a joy to help bring to birth the insights these young minds are capable of! Somehow I wasn’t able to do that in a one-on-one conversation at my kitchen table.
Why? Why couldn’t there be a similar ebb and flow of ideas and conversation with my own boy? As I’ve continued to think on this, at least a part of my answer seems to center on a certain ‘waking up’ that is happening for my middle schoolers. There is a process beginning in all of them when they arrive, a simple developmental shift. They are newly able to read a story and not simply to get lost in it. They are newly able, by virtue of being 11 or 12 or 13, to pull back one level and see the authors writing the stories. They can see and hear the authors wondering about what they will write, and how, and why, and to what end. Picturing the authors in these moments of decision cracks open a treasure chest for the students, a new, metacognitive expanse.
This unfolding awareness of thought, or of thinking about thought, looms over our MSLW table as an invitation to dig in. The dynamism lies in the acceptance of the invitation. I see it dawn in the eyes of one student, who asks a thrilling question. Another responds with a new insight, and soon each student around the table realizes that something is happening here. We are noticing something together. We are teasing out meaning together. We are chasing down a piece of truth as it darts through the pages, and in and out of each mind around the table, including the author’s. We are, the whole lot of us, waking up.
I describe it this way because there is a sense as it is happening (even for me, every time!) of newness of seeing that is akin to waking. These children have been moving through the world for just over a decade, living the story, saturated in the spaces they dwell in. But somehow, as we read these stories together, and picture and wonder at the author crafting them, a beam of light breaks through our heavy eyelids. The light illumines not only why Jim Hawkins has the courage to face the pirates on Treasure Island, or why Bilbo hides the Arkenstone, or why Odysseus shouts his true name back to Polyphemus over the roaring sea. The light suddenly doubles back and illumines...us. We are suddenly awake in our own skin seeing everything differently for the first time. There is a collective sigh of “wait...but that means...” as we pin down the flitting truth and do our best to wrap words around it.
It’s true that I could have a polite conversation about courage, or justice, or pride with my boy at our kitchen table. But, somehow this chasing down the truth with others whose eyes are opening wider for the first time is far more satisfying. Following Jim and Bilbo and Odysseus together is different. Somehow this is the way to know courage and justice and pride in our bones.
Anthony Esolen, great modern day defender of the Liberal Arts, takes us directly to the point of why reading literature together matters. He speaks to “the whole aim of an intellectual life—even of a human life” and postulates “That aim is to behold the truth, and to love it for its beauty.” I have come to believe this is our task here on this earth, and that this path of truth and beauty leads us directly to our Lord. I have never been more convinced that reading great books is a rich and fruitful way to chase down truth and beauty together. There is a thrill and a deep joy in doing this alongside of those at a similar stage of waking as we find ourselves in. The great books and their authors become fellow pilgrims on the way, hanging signposts to point out the light.
This is what we do in MSLW. We read, we write, we wake. We chase down the light. We seem to become more fully human as we do it. I trust there are some that can manage this on their own, with no guidance at all. Perhaps there are even more that could do it together, parent and child, at the kitchen table. But for me, it happens most easily, pleasurably, naturally, around the MSLW table.
I want to extend that invitation to your middle schooler. I hope this epistle explains at least a bit of why I think a group literature and writing class is “worth it.” Let me leave you with another thought from Mr. Esolen, who can say all of this far more eloquently than I can: “You do not read good books so that you can scramble up some tricks, so that you can write clever things about them, so that you can do well on a test and secure a prestigious job and then die. You learn about the language and about what writers do, so that you can read good books and learn to love them, because they are companions who will tell you what they have seen of the truth, and they tell you it in a way you will not soon forget.” Our privilege in MSLW is to behold and love these things together.
* Anthony Esolen. “Read Literature to Learn and Love the Truth,” Crisis Magazine, April 9, 2014.