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On Wrecking Books To Bring Them To Life

This guest post is by Renee Mathis, a CiRCE Certified Master Teacher and expert in The Lost Tools of Writing.


Teachers love their books. Homeschooling moms love their books. English majors, pastors, and writers all love their books. Who among us hasn’t at one time secretly believed that “the one who dies with the most books wins” or perhaps harbored a hidden hope that bookshelf-lined walls might, at the least, add an extra layer of insulation to our homes?

Sometimes, unfortunately, there is a disconnect. A parent’s or teacher’s love of reading doesn’t necessarily transfer to the student. Sometimes we forget that a skill we have taken years to perfect doesn’t always come easily to those whom we teach.

Does this scenario sound familiar? Your teenager flops on the couch, overwhelmed by the seventy-five pages assigned and reluctantly opens his book. Eyes glaze over. Snoring commences. The book falls to the floor. So much for this study session. Or what about this? You settle in for a reading session on your sofa, ready to infect your progeny with your love of all things literary. Eyes glaze over. Frustration ensues. The book sits unread. What’s wrong with this picture? Aren’t we as classical educators supposed to be centered around words? Then why aren’t our kids “getting it”?

Agreed, words are wonderful. No one doubts that the ability to read, decode, comprehend, interpret, analyze this wonderful thing called language should be at the center of any education – classical or otherwise. How then do we inculcate not only a love for reading but an ability to do it well? Some argue that “readicide”, that is any attempt to interpret and analyze will “kill” the book (and probably take the reader down with it.) Others contend that it is sufficient to expose children to a print-rich environment, that somehow the light of language will cause the fruit of knowledge to bloom and grow. Since we agree that reading skills are crucial, let us consider a method that promotes comprehension, interaction, and ownership. It’s time to wreck our books, not read them.

Wreck This Journal, part of a best-selling series by Keri Smith, advocates a unique, if slightly unorthodox, approach to writing. Owners of a blank journal are instructed to scribble, jot, muse and even take the book out for dinner. Mightn’t we do the same thing with our beloved copy of Homer? Take a simple colored highlighter (or five) and use it to begin the quest for comprehension.

How do we begin to learn? We ask questions.

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Good readers automatically keep a running dialogue going in their head while they read. Beginning readers don’t know how to do this and this is where the encouraging teacher comes in. Ask: What is going on here? Where is it taking place? Who is doing the action? Are there words that we need to learn? How is the author getting the point across? Which part is a favorite? Simple questions can unlock the treasures waiting between any two covers. A color-coded highlighting system is the key. Use a different color for each kind of question. For example, answers to the question, who is doing the action?, might be highlighted in pink (names) and answers to the question, “which parts are your favorite?”, might be highlighted in blue.

Additional advantages await. In this digital age, how many times has the word “interactive” been used to tout the latest and greatest educational gizmo? Instead of thinking that interaction must involve electricity or pixels, think of it as an “action” between (“inter”) at least 2 parties: the reader and the book. The act of asking questions and marking a text involves movement and objects. A kinesthetic learner suddenly finds that reading is literally a hands-on experience. A visual learner instantly categorizes the content by means of the colors used to draw attention to words or sentences. An auditory learner is free to talk back to the author and becomes an active participant. All benefit by the ease of reviewing the material, which in turn reinforces the material for easier retention.

The best benefit? It’s hard to fall asleep while wielding a handful of highlighters.

Lastly, this kind of participatory reading brings with it a level of ownership lacking in more traditional (i.e. passive) reading sessions. The active reader doesn’t say “Here am I, I dare you to entertain me”, rather he approaches a text with the intention of making it his own. Two students won’t necessarily be captivated by the same brilliant sentence. Everyone will bring his own background and knowledge with him which will in turn inform their questions and notes. When a book is read, it may well become a favorite, filled with markings and notes of favorite passages. For some it might occupy a space on the shelf reserved for reference material, material which will be easier to find later thanks to careful annotations. It may be loaned, beginning a journey marked by a map of notations, penned by subsequent readers. No matter the end result, the experience of truly understanding a book lasts forever.

Understandably, some may be a little concerned by the idea of permanently marking in a book. Trained by years of “don’t touch” and “don’t bend”, we bristle at this unorthodox method. To take a repository of words and thoughts of those who have gone before and…and….color on them…. seems the height of sacrilege! Consider these alternative views instead. Might not the original author have wanted his or her audience to actively engage in learning from these carefully orchestrated thoughts? Does any writer pour his soul onto paper with the goal of having it rest on a dusty shelf? Likewise, think of a hammer or nails, tools meant to be used for a further purpose. Books are tools to grow human beings. They are a step on the path, not the destination. Mortimer Adler says that “…marking up a book is not an act of mutilation, but of love.”

This destination will cost a fortune! Yes, it can be argued that this is not the most cost effective way to read and learn, but all is not lost. First, many inexpensive editions of classic works are readily available. No painter begins with the expensive oils, neither should a beginning reader go to town on Great-grandfather’s leather bound antique edition. Start small. Stop thinking of books as a one-time purchase and begin to look at them as a lifetime investment. What a joy to send your child or your student on his way into the world armed with a collection of well-loved, used books.

No one embarks upon a decision to become a classical educator without counting the cost, so be forewarned. This is not the cheapest way to read a book nor is it the quickest. That impressive reading list you have built might have to be shortened. Building those reading muscles takes hard work. Thankfully, the first step is an easy one and doesn’t take much muscle power at all: Open a book, grab a highlighter, and make your mark.

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