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Stop Assigning Reading Homework

1. Homework is not “reading time,” and class time is not “lecture time.” No more than twenty percent of a book should be assigned for homework. If possible, try to assign the boring and unimportant chapters for homework. If there are no boring or unimportant chapters, read as much of the book in class as possible.

2. Classicism isn’t terribly concerned with covering curriculum. You can cover more curriculum if you assign reading at home, but so what? What does “covering curriculum” mean? The only teacher who should designate homework as “reading time” is the teacher who is anxiously concerned with “covering curriculum,” and covering curriculum is not a goal of classical education. Covering curriculum is an accident of real learning. Don’t put the cart before the horse.

3. Most of your reading should take place in the classroom. Most writing should be done at home. A student can write at home just as easily as they write in the classroom. A student cannot read at home just as well as they can read in the classroom.

4. The teacher should do the reading. A basketball game is not the place to get the players good at dribbling; a literature class is not the place to get students good at reading out loud.

5. The teacher should not simply do the reading, the teacher should perform the reading.

6. The teacher should stand to read. They teacher should pace around the room to read. The classroom is a stage. Harkness tables are apt to make teachers forget this. The sitting teacher is confusing to students. They need someone to follow. They need someone to lead them. Jesus taught from mountain tops. The teacher is a performer. The teacher is a fictional character. If the teacher is not a natural showman, he will need to pretend. A mild mannered, demure, quiet, thoughtful, sitting, hands folded “So, tell me what you think?” kind of teacher is going to put sophomores to sleep.

7. Half a class period can be devoted to the teacher reading out loud. Hearing good literature read powerfully will change a man. There should be a great difference (an unbridgeable chasm) between a student reading Boethius on his own and the student hearing a teacher thunder Boethius with great authority. It is remarkable to me how underused classical texts are in classical classrooms. The good teacher should be very familiar with the preaching of Southern Baptist ministers. Even the Orthodox teacher, the Catholic teacher, and the mild Anglican teacher should study the homiletic, dramatic authority of the Southern Baptist minister at the pulpit. Speaking as an Orthodox Christian who prefers the Sunday homily to be chaste and brief, yet I would happily confess: the impassioned Protestant sermon is a didactic and sublime art form which is no less venerable, necessary, and humane as the Gothic cathedral, the French wine, or the Negro spiritual.

8. Literature can be performed just as music can be performed. You’ve all heard a beginning violinist squeak out Mozart. It did not change your life. I did not find poetry very interesting until I heard an old Vietnam vet in college perform Edward Hirsch’s “At Sixteen” and he was screaming by the end of it and I walked out of the classroom transformed and I’ve loved poetry ever since.

9. Discussion is not good for its own sake. If the students enthusiastically say ridiculous, ignorant things at each other for half an hour, who cares? The Christ says, “You must give an account on judgment day for every idle word you speak.”

10. The average teacher is simply not a strong enough lecturer or a strong enough discussion guide to lead a class in lecture or discussion for sixty minutes. Consider staff meetings for a moment. Do you want to hear your peers discuss the dress code for sixty minutes? These people saying it should be more strictly enforced, those people saying it should be less strictly enforced, the others complaining they’re the only ones who actually enforce it… The teacher’s thoughts should be more interesting than the student’s thoughts, but even the teacher’s thoughts will, if dispensed for a solid hour, become quite dull. Lean on your books more heavily. Think how many lousy sermons you’ve heard wherein you’d thought the whole time, “I would have gladly taken a man simply reading the Sermon on the Mount with a little verve and expression for half an hour over this joker’s limp deductive reasoning.”

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