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Cana Academy Highlights 3: Expository Literature (by Betsy Brown)

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. 

This past summer, 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.

Loughran led a plenary session on how to guide high school students through great expository texts. While fiction primarily engages a student via the imagination, expository works often focus on propositions and conclusions; thus many students find it more daunting and dry to read. Loughran emphasized that teaching these texts requires a different approach than fiction.

Why read philosophy? It is in our nature as human beings. Expository writers, from Plato to Martin Luther King Jr., are grappling with the questions people—especially the young—naturally ask: what is justice? Who should rule? What is the role of religion? Dialogues, essays, and speeches help us recognize what we hold in common as human beings.

Loughran gave words of advice on how to invite students to deeply engage with philosophical writing. Below are a few points that have particularly aided me in my seminars this year:

  • Provide a moderate amount of historical context, especially when reading political philosophy. For instance, before even introducing John Locke, I spend several days with my students studying the English rulers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This provides students with a “bank” of relevant historical examples from which to draw when discussing the general principles of Locke’s work.
  • Before opening the text, “prime the pump” by asking a big-picture question, and let the students wrestle with it in a seminar. For instance, before reading Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government, Jeannette Zwerneman suggests asking, “What do you think gives other individuals the right or the authority to tell you how to live or not live your life?” Give no background on the text before asking this question. The goal is to remind students that the questions in the text to come are questions that already should matter to them.
  • Create a simple, ongoing outline on the board that the students write in one location, like a half sheet of paper. Shorter is better—stay focused. The outline should include the central question, defined terms, and flow of argument. Keeping the big picture in mind keeps scholars from getting lost in the details.
  • When reading the text, understand the argument thoroughly before attempting to evaluate It is tempting to begin evaluation right away, but if it begins too soon, a student may miss part of what the writer is communicating. Thus, go slowly through a difficult text, especially for the first few sections. Then, as students become more familiar with the writing style, speed up a bit.
  • Finally, do take time to evaluate the writer’s argument. Reflect together. Take the author seriously. Neither dismiss the argument nor passively accept it. Work and play with it, and remember that it is inexhaustible, so there will always be more to uncover.

As my colleagues and I continue to apply these principles in the classroom, I hope to hear more and more students react with a resounding “yes!” when I tell them our next text is a work of philosophy. The big questions are worth asking. It is a joy to see students begin to realize this truth.

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