Cana Academy Highlights 1: Imaginative Literature

Note: The following blog entry comes to us from our colleague and friend, Betsy K. Brown, who teaches and chairs the humanities program at Cicero Preparatory Academy in Scottsdale, Arizona. A graduate of Seattle Pacific University’s MFA in Creative Writing program, with a focus on creative nonfiction, Betsy loves to share the goodness of words and stories with young people amid the beauty of the American Southwest

Last week during professional development, my humanities team had the great privilege of meeting for three days via Zoom with Andrew and Jeannette Zwerneman and Mary Frances Loughran of the Cana Academy.  The Cana team placed great emphasis on novels and short stories as “imaginative literature”—in other words, readers primarily access and appreciate stories by imagining the physical, psychological, and dramatic details in the text. Our job as educators is to coach students to notice those details, and to help bring the story to life.  

This coaching happens through the lively organism known as the seminar. The team suggested a number of tried-and-true ways to help stories come alive for students. Here are a few that stood out to me: 

  • Whether your students are around age five or sixty-five, never stop reading aloud to them. Students need to experience the unfolding drama of a story as a community as well as one-on-one. Additionally, the more you model a good read-aloud, the more you can turn it over to your students and get them involved in the drama: “Jonny, why don’t you play the voice of Mr. Bingley in our reading today and Suzie can play Miss Bennet?”  
  • Bring in anything sensory that is directly tied to the text. During Crime and Punishment, bring a map of St. Petersburg and map out Raskolnikov’s routes. During The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, bring in Turkish delight to share. During Shakespeare, have plenty of hats and wooden swords on hand for wearing and wielding.  
  • Beware of over-contextualizing the story within a historical or philosophical framework. Don’t begin A Tale of Two Cities with a PowerPoint presentation on the French Revolution. Instead, ask them to dive deep into the textual details—the muddy roads, the bloody streets, and the roars of the crowd in Paris. This war really happened. The seminar is the time to experience it through the words of Dickens, not to outline its causes and effects.  

My week with the Cana Academy was a delightful reminder of how we don’t merely work on knowing stories; stories work on us. In the words of teacher and Close Reads co-host Angelina Stanford, “good reading requires surrender. We must…fully enter into the book—with open minds and open hearts. It’s not that we abandon discernment or our duty to take every thought captive. Rather, we cannot judge a book before we have fully experienced it.” 


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