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by Claire Reeder, AmeriCorps Scholar Coach
“A book is a chance to try on a different life for size.” Marrion Garretty’s quote hangs over my desk as a caption on a postcard, below an image of a small boy, book open on his lap, and dream bubble above his head of a tall ship sailing the high seas. Whenever my eye catches this postcard, I feel filled with wonder – the wonder of reading to escape the mundane, and of finding myself in a new world.
It comes as no surprise, then, that I love my work as a reading tutor. Reading tutor is one of the many roles I play as an AmeriCorps Scholar Coach (SC) with the Schuler Scholar Program. Each Scholar Coach has a caseload of 10-15 underclassmen Scholars with whom we meet one-on-one, twice a week, to read many different kinds of texts: from short stories to novels, scholarly articles to poems. In fact, reading tutoring comprises the bulk of my daily work as an SC.
For a number of reasons, the Schuler Scholar Program emphasizes reading as core programming for all of its Scholars:
Reading is foundational to being a “Scholar.” We believe reading fosters and invigorates the intellectual curiosity and higher-level thinking that drives Scholars’ success in college and beyond. By reading and discussing texts, Scholar Coaches work closely with Scholars to develop their “ways of thinking”: making connections between texts and the world; challenging and supporting opinions with evidence; asking “how” and “why” questions; forming and revising predictions; and reflecting on a text’s deeper meaning. Within the 20-minute sessions, SCs also guide Scholars to branch out from reading and discussing to writing, drawing, and creating as ways to engage more deeply with texts. Therefore reading becomes a launchpad to building critical writing and creative thinking skills.
This is where the Garretty quotation inspires my work with Scholars. My biggest success in building deep, critical, and passionate readers comes when Scholars “imaginatively rehearse” for real life through novels. Reading immerses Scholars in situations where they can live, play, decide, question, and speak up vicariously.
Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Bean Trees follows Taylor, a smart, ambitious young woman from rural Kentucky on her cross-country road trip to Tucson. Like the heroes of many great literary quests, Taylor confronts many obstacles along the way, including the feelings of guilt she must navigate upon leaving home. One Scholar with whom I’m reading The Bean Trees rehearsed for her college departure, saying, "This book makes it okay for me to leave when I go to college, because I see that I can still be in touch with my family." Only a freshman, this Scholar already reveals fear about going away to college, but her reactions to this novel show that Taylor provides a road map to successfully transitioning, even in the face of struggle.
Robert Cormier’s classic young adult novel The Chocolate War is another example of a novel where Scholars, alongside the protagonist Jerry, consider future situations or choices they might confront. Centrally, Scholars ponder the novel’s essential question, which T.S. Eliot’s poem “Love Song for J. Alfred Prufrock” made famous: “do I dare disturb the universe?” The Scholars who have read The Chocolate War with me struggle with Jerry to stand up as one versus all in this David and Goliath story. But by the end of the novel, Scholars imagine what it would feel like to push against the status quo, even if theirs is the only voice doing so. Whether it’s in a reflective journal entry or a Project Soapbox speech, Scholars who’ve read The Chocolate War demonstrate that they dare to disturb the universe because they have already played out the experience in their minds.
Creating opportunities for imaginative rehearsal – “trying on a different life for size” – is the key to creating more passionate and thoughtful readers. More importantly, this creates better human beings, and building character is even more important than building reading skills.