By Nathaniel Gee, Upper School English Teacher
Twenty-first century schools are busy, fascinating, and stimulating places to work and learn. School days are packed with dynamic, diverse experiences in academics, arts, and athletics. Often, it is difficult to find the time to solve complex issues in a focused way. We often move on too quickly. In Upper School English, we see this rush in our students’ struggle to find the time and the focus to read a complex text. Most adults in the modern world have this problem too. I spend a lot of time reading emails and tweets and posts on my phone, but it is difficult to find focused, quiet time to patiently read.
For some time, our Upper School English department has wanted to explain why reading a complex book slowly is more important than ever today. We wanted students and parents to understand how we choose the challenging, complex texts we teach. We needed to create a department-wide philosophy that re-affirms the need for more literature in student lives and that celebrates the deep concentration reading a tough book nurtures. We’ve discussed this need regularly in department meetings, in one-on-one conversations in each other's classrooms, and even at the school lunch table. Yet, ironically, we’ve never been able to find focused time to sit together in a room and compose our philosophy of reading.
So, in 2019, we applied for a Randolph summer grant that would allow us to gather at a colleague's house during the summer months to discuss this single issue. In two days of marathon discussions, we produced a “Philosophy of Reading” guide that describes how we choose diverse, rich texts to help students comprehend culture, human nature, and their noisy modern world. Instead of a meeting packed with agendas, we focused on this single goal. We did not run out of things to say—we are English teachers after all! Nor did the meetings drag on. We followed the same analytical process that we teach in the classroom: brainstorming ideas, taking notes, finding patterns in our notes, and then synthesizing those patterns into main points. Our work over the summer helped us create a powerful vocabulary to communicate with our students. By eliminating the noise and distractions of a busy school day, we gained the gift of time.
Our summer work is a model for how faculty can work together to create a philosophy statement that guides us and also provides us flexibility. Quickly adapting to the current challenges of hybrid teaching and distance learning models, we have referenced our Philosophy of Reading in order to choose innovative texts that will engage students in the classroom and virtually. Furthermore, our philosophy statement reminds us of the power of patient, challenging reading in chaotic times. It helps us design lessons that will empower our students to intellectually engage with tough conversations in literature and in their ever-changing world.
The summer grant experience inspired and challenged me to create more patient lessons. I am challenging myself to spend a single class dissecting one poem, one paragraph, or a single page. I am challenging myself to have my students write one paper for several weeks, planning, drafting, revising, and editing—then perfect those steps again. I am challenging myself as a teacher to not move on to the next task or goal in my lesson plan if my students are still engaging with the complex task still in front of them.
There is an anxiety that comes with this approach. Shouldn't we be reading as many books as possible? Shouldn't we be writing as many papers as possible? Shouldn't as many skills as possible be taught? But the progress of this experience over the summer has reminded me of what it means to truly be a reader. It's not merely about being exposed to as many imaginary, fanciful, or gripping worlds as possible, although I love reading independently for the sheer joy of it. But patient reading is not like binging on the newest Netflix series. Patient readers interpret complex, nuanced issues while the pages slowly turn.
Patient reading is patient thinking, and it is exactly the kind of skill that the modern student needs. Colleges, businesses, and communities need students who can quickly multi-task, but they are also seeking innovative leaders who can patiently analyze, research, troubleshoot, and follow through with solutions to discrete, complex problems. This intensive reading, researching, and analytical thinking process is exactly what occurs when we read long, multi-layered texts in English class. We push our students to patiently, even arduously, dissect the work. We challenge them to make relevant, insightful connections to their modern lives. We teach them to discuss, analyze, and repeatedly revise their spoken and written interpretations. We make them slow down, focus, and follow-through. We give them the gift of time.