A Literary Conversation

If the discussion has begun in the hall before the students walk into Room 1, I already know the meeting of the Advanced Reading Group will be a success. What more could any English teacher ask than students who can not even wait to sit down before they delve into ideas about great texts? Even better: what about students who read, not because a book is assigned, but for the pleasure of the work and the conversation inspired by it? The Advanced Reading Group at Chelsea has welcomed inspired (and inspiring) readers for the past four and a half years, providing one more source for students to encounter the difficult questions that teach us what
it is to be human.

Chelsea students read many of the seminal texts of Western culture during their tenure at the school. From Shakespeare and Austen to Milton and Homer, the curriculum is carefully crafted to put the foundations of our literary heritage in the hands of the students under the guidance of their teachers. As one of those teachers, I have been thrilled to greet Achilles at the trench with fresh eyes each November and to ache with sadness and horror in May as Lady Macbeth walks the halls of Dunsinane. To read and study great texts demands time, however, and the English teachers over the year have bemoaned the reading list, not because it lacked quality but because shelves of other great works awaited our students, and we were eager to pull them down and share. The Advanced Reading Group was formed to provide sophomores, juniors, and seniors the opportunity to read and discuss a few of those great books with their peers and interested faculty.

In September of 2014, a small group of Upper School students met for the first time to talk about O Pioneers! by Willa Cather. Since that first meeting, the Advanced Reading Group has met monthly. The three-year cycle is specifically designed to include important works of fiction in a variety of genres. Because many of our school texts were written before the twentieth
century, modern plays and novels tend to dominate. Only a week before this writing, a vociferous group of students and a few faculty members explored the role of religion and science in A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller, a modern science fiction classic. Between O Pioneers and Leibowitz we have wandered through Our Town and over the Bridge of San Luis Rey, shared laughter with Three Men in a Boat and tears with and Old Man and the Sea, to name just a few.

Questions about the nature of man and his place on earth flow from the students. These questions are a continuation of the conversations already begun in the classroom. The depth of the issues we plumb in the reading group would not be possible without the serious literary pursuits of our everyday classes – English, history, religion, science, and more. Certainly, this same sort of engagement is happening in many ways in the halls of Chelsea: rockets are launched, math students puzzle over competitions, and short stories or poems are written by students equally passionate about rocketry, calculus, and creative writing. The Advanced Reading Group is only one more manifestation of our students’ desire to explore the world. One regular participant puts it quite well: “I enjoy the Advanced Reading Group because it allows [us] to branch out from assigned school readings and delve into more challenging an often thought-provoking literature. After reading the month’s book, we can gather together and discuss it with peers and faculty, where others can voice their insights and opinions. I find
that many of the books we read become long-term favorites of mine.” 

So, when I step into the locker room a few days before an Advanced Reading Group discussion and hear two students debating familial love, duty, and its manifestation in Fences, I am thrilled. The discussion has already begun in the hall. In fact, the discussion began in the classroom with Scout and Atticus, years before; it continued when Antigone refused to obey civil law that violated her conscience, and it will flourish, we hope, as students move on to college and to life fully lived in a family, a community, and the world. The success of the monthly meetings originates in challenging works of literature, but it would be impossible without impassioned, humorous, eager readers and the dedicated examination of the canon of Western literature that Chelsea nurtures in the classroom.

Post by: Shari Schäffer, Chelsea Academy English Teacher

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