"Just You and Me and Socrates"

Nov 15, 2021 | Posted by Jennifer

One of my most treasured experiences as an educator is discussing literature with my students. When I have the opportunity to sit down with a single student to talk about books, well, I consider that to be some of the best stuff in life. Unfortunately, though, I have found over the years and especially more recently that a large number of students do not read for pleasure. Instead many, but not all, prefer to engage in other activities and hobbies and eschew literature altogether unless it is a novel they are compelled to read for a class. Social media, video games, and other activities such as sports and volunteer work seem to instead claim the lion’s share of middle school and high school students’ free time.

Furthering my frustration, I have even had students admit that they don’t LIKE to read! I find that truly tragic. The renowned Christian apologist and author C.S. Lewis wrote in his book An Experiment in Criticism his own thoughts about the value of reading literature, stating, “But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.” When students don’t read literature, they are unknowingly denying themselves the opportunity to experience other lives, locations, and situations. Additionally, they are denying themselves the opportunity to learn more about who they are as an individual.

I decided to do my utmost to help my students learn how enjoyable reading great literature can be. Fortunately, I had a great teacher when I was in high school, who charted a path for me to follow that served as my model. She required her students to choose their own novels to read, which she would then sit down to discuss with them one-on-one. It was in this way that I encountered books such as Rebecca, As I Lay Dying, The Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, Slaughterhouse Five, and Moby Dick. And these were just for a start! As I read each book, I excitedly anticipated spending time with my teacher talking about it.

Over the years I have refined my approach to these book discussions, and I believe I’ve got a system down that works really well for pretty much any academic environment, whether that be in a school (as I first encountered it), in a hybrid school, at a co-op, or within the home. I hope that the ideas I share in this blog post may inspire you to create your own Socratic book discussions with your students.

I begin in the summer before classes launch by planning out dedicated time for personal reading selections to be completed. In a co-op environment, two periods, one in the first semester and one in the second, work well. Blocking out four weeks to get the reading and discussion done seems to be about the right amount of time. Because I want the students and their families to be very clear about the timing of everything, I hand out the schedule most typically on the very first day of classes. That way students have the time to decide upon and acquire their chosen selection. As to the actual book selection, I have three rules:

  1. It cannot be a novel that they have previously read. It must be brand new to them.

  2. It cannot be a novel where they have watched the movie version prior to reading.

  3. The novel selected must be submitted ahead of time and be approved by the parent as well as by me. I’ve created a document that the parent signs off on for the novel selected.

Doing things in this manner, I find that students have the opportunity to select novels they are personally interested in and that match their reading level. I’ve had students select biographies and autobiographies. Others have preferred dystopian novels. Still others have enjoyed classic British authors, such as works by Jane Austen or Charles Dickens.

In addition to these rules, I have some other guidelines I follow. First and foremost, I do not assign a paper to be written on the novel. This is important! Unfortunately, many students who have reached middle school or later have come to associate reading books with writing book reports. Always having a writing requirement tied to a reading assignment can kill the joy of reading. While I agree that it is important to be able to write about literature, sometimes it is equally important to simply read, enjoy, and discuss it.

Discussing literature together is enjoyable for both the teacher and the student.

I schedule fifteen to twenty-minute chunks of time to meet with each student individually outside of class. While I try to read every book that will be discussed, sometimes I just don’t have the time to get them all done. I reached out to my high school teacher to ask her how she handled that situation, and she shared that in those circumstances she would read through a book’s summary and use that to help guide the discussion. As I have held more and more discussions over the years, I have gradually come to read more and more books, so that challenge is not as acute as it once was.

Once a student finishes a novel, he or she contacts me, and we schedule time for a sit-down discussion. Sometimes it happens face to face in a coffee shop near class; other times it happens on Zoom. I block out fifteen minutes, but sometimes we go a bit long because we are having so much fun talking about the novel. While I typically don’t run out of questions to ask, I know that I can always use the Socratic questions list in the appendix of Teaching the Classics to provide inspiration.

I have learned so much from these discussions. Some of the books my students have selected include the following: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice, The Grapes of Wrath, Little Women, Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Pearl, Up from Slavery, and The Scarlet Letter. All of these books would likely not have been encountered by my students without me prioritizing space for them.

Have I managed to convert all of my students into passionate readers? Well, no, not all. Or perhaps the more accurate phrase would be, “Not yet.” I have, however, managed to convert a few. Last year at one of my end-of-year teacher/student conferences, I sat down with one young man in particular. He shared that prior to being in my class, he had never read a book that he’d chosen on his own. He had preemptively decided that he didn’t enjoy reading. That is, he didn’t like it until he was “required” to choose his own novel for my class. As our conversation began, he admitted his initial reluctance to read but then told me this: “I could hardly put the book down! It was so good!” He went on to share with me that he’d even inspired his sister to begin reading literature as well.

I was blessed to have this young man in my class again this year, and when I saw him, his first question to me was, “Are we going to be able to have personal book discussions again this year? I really love them!” I met with him last week for our first semester book discussion. His choice this time was Animal Farm. We had a great time talking about his selection, and he told me he’s very much looking forward to next semester’s discussion.

Making ripples and planting seeds. That’s what I’ve been doing with my little reading requirement. Students are reading books they choose. They are talking about them with each other and their siblings. And they’re coming back for more. That’s really good stuff!

I plan to continue holding my Socratic book discussions in the future. They do require time and effort, but the benefits massively outweigh the efforts. Would you like to join me? Schedule some free time in your class reading schedule, at least one or two slots throughout the year. Then invite your students to choose a novel, and tell them that it’s a book discussion only, not a paper, and that you will discuss it together—“just you and me and Socrates.” Afterwards sit back and enjoy watching those ripples and seeds do their thing.

Jennifer Mauser has always loved reading and writing and received a B.A. in English from the University of Kansas in 1991. Once she and her husband had children, they decided to homeschool, and she put all her training to use in the home. In addition to homeschooling her children, Jennifer teaches IEW classes out of her home, coaches budding writers via email, and tutors students who struggle with dyslexia.

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