Milton for Crying Out Loud

I’m a huge believer in reading out loud–and in having students read literature out loud, together, in real time. It creates a kind of shared, immediate experience that makes for remarkable class discussion–and it also helps hone reading skills and oral presentation skills in students who, almost universally, badly need them.

Teaching high school for a year at a very interesting little Berkshire boarding school got me onto shared class reading projects–the kids I was teaching were very smart, but, like most kids these days, just didn’t have much experience reading. So we read and read out loud together, stopping from time to time to talk about the language and the ideas and so on. I have very fond memories of doing that with “Song of Myself” in winter time, the whole class clustered around the wood-burning stove in our otherwise unheated classroom. When spring rolled around, we lay on the grass and read Gatsby together. Part of me felt guilty about spending class time on such a pleasant and low key activity–but you really couldn’t argue with the results. Kids got turned on to the language, read closely, loved talking about what they were reading as they were reading it, and greatly improved their comprehension and their close reading skills along the way. When the most reading-averse kids in the class are spontaneously picking out “favorite” passages in Whitman, you know something cool is happening.

So when I returned to college teaching the next year, I imported this teaching model and adapted it to Ivy League undergrads–which actually didn’t take much adapting at all. Once every couple of weeks, we’d read something together in class, going around the room, taking turns, everyone reading as much as they felt like reading and then leaving off for the next person. I worried that Penn students might think this was “beneath” them–might find it a silly or infantilizing activity. But they never did, and in fact, I think the class dynamic benefited a great deal from the relaxed, shared, contemplative quality of those sessions. Certainly they brought the literature we were reading “to life” in a way that silent, solitary reading can never do.

All of this is by way of saying I was thrilled by a piece in this morning’s Inside Higher Ed about how lit teachers across the country are holding marathon reading sessions for Milton, Tennyson, Joyce, Tolstoy, Homer, Melville, Dante, and more. The article describes one professor whose students spend twelve hours together reading all of Paradise Lost, another who held a twenty-four-hour group reading of War and Peace, and a performance-savvy classics professor who staged a twenty-one hour reading of the Iliad complete with lyre, torches, and the odd belly dancer.

Be still my pedagogical heart.

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5 Comments

  1. AB says:

    There are actually groups that meet just to read Shakespeare’s plays aloud. (Some can be found on Meetup.com)

    Also, prior to television, and even radio, people used to read to each other in the evenings: The Bible, Shakespeare, and poetry for example. It is one of the ancient pleasures and was a key form of education and entertainment.

    As for reading Homer aloud, his work was originally memorized and recited by bards. Speaking of which, Shakespeare’s work was presented as plays, not written works. Shakespeare really is dreadful and impossible to follow–unless you have seen the story in a movie or (rarely) a play. After that, it makes the characters and scenes make sense.

  2. Prof. Mondo says:

    During my days at Ball State, we did public marathon readings of Lord of the Rings, The Iliad and Odyssey, and a couple of Harry Potter books. We raised money for grad student travel, had sponsors, community participants, the whole bit. It was a blast — and pretty cool for the community.

  3. Erin O'Connor says:

    I never knew you were at Ball State! That makes you an honorary Hoosier! My favorite t-shirt in high school–which I attended in Indianapolis–was my red Ball U shirt.

  4. david foster says:

    We read Hamlet and Macbeth aloud in the 11th grade. The only downside is that the “real” voices of the characters for me are now forever those of the kids who read their parts…

  5. [...] on Kevin Kiley’s article “Long Reads” at Inside Higher Ed, Erin O’Connor writes: Teaching high school for a year at a very interesting little Berkshire boarding school got [...]

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