Classic literary works are on the extracurricular menu at Trinity High School in Camp Hill, which is launching its Great Books Program for students
“A Farewell to Arms,” “The Odyssey,” “Madame Bovary,” “The Lord of the Rings” and “Siddhartha” are several among the more than 100 titles that make up the literary feast.
Presented with an impressive list of books spanning nearly 20 categories, students select which titles they want to read as part of the voluntary program.
But they don’t journey through the books alone. Each book is sponsored by a specific faculty member who offers students a personalized learning experience as they reflect on themes, ideas and values presented in the literary work.
The program allows students to explore the human experience through various works of literature in a number of categories; Christianity, the classics, thrillers and the Middle Ages among them. Others include books that reflect the African, African-American, Asian-American, Native American and Hispanic experiences.
“The Great Books Program allows us to talk about some of the deepest questions and subjects with our students. These books are no longer taught because they are sometimes thought to be beyond high school abilities – and we don’t really agree with that,” said Trinity’s principal, John Cominsky.
The literary works challenge students to develop their worldviews and critical-thinking skills as they share opinions and reflections about what they’re reading as part of the voluntary program.
The program also requires students to work as they go through the book, as is the case with Lucy Cooper-Silvis and Patrick Caffrey. The juniors are reading Dostoevsky’s “The Karamazov Brothers,” sponsored by Cominsky.
The 19th-century Russian novel, approaching 1,000 pages, delves into ethical debates about God, free will and morality. So intricate is its cast of characters – many of whom have a handful of nicknames – that the translated book includes a list of them.
Lucy said she opted to enter the Great Books Program because of the enjoyment she finds in reading, and because of Cominsky’s recommendation.
“Mr. C. talked to us in our class, and was talking a lot specifically about “The Brothers Karamazov.” Patrick and I sit next to each other in that class, and I looked at him and we knew we had to give it a try because we especially love reading. We wanted to give a classic a try with a teacher who knows what they’re doing.”
A would-be English major in college, Lucy said it’s unlikely she would have endeavored to read Dostoevsky’s classic without this program.
“I’ve tried to pick up classics before, and it was a challenge. The writing is just so different and the themes are so complex. You pick it up and try to read it, and it’s like hitting a wall. That’s why I’m happy to be doing it now in the program,” Lucy said during a recent video interview that included fellow program participant, Patrick.
While the Great Books Program will officially be underway at Trinity in the 2020-2021 academic year, 20 students are already participating.
Students in the program will read one book each semester or summer, for a total of three books each year. Students must complete six books for special recognition in the program, which includes a half credit and a special designation on their transcript.
But their book selections can’t come from the same category. The program requires them to delve into different areas each time they select a new read. This might require students to research unknown authors or titles, or converse with sponsoring teachers about the impact the book has made in their lives. Most importantly, it broadens their horizons.
“I wholeheartedly support the idea of encouraging our students to become directly familiar with some of the world’s greatest thinkers,” said Trish Bolster, who teaches freshman and sophomore English at Trinity.
She worked with Cominsky to help build the program at the school by researching books for the various categories, consulting with other schools that implemented a Great Books Program and introducing it to her fellow faculty members.
“The opportunity to learn and grow from reading the world’s greatest thinkers (with a faculty member to guide you) is open to everyone. I tried to stress to my students that the knowledge, wisdom, truth and character development that they gain can never be taken away from them,” Bolster said.
An intended offshoot of the Great Books Program is the further development of meaningful student-teacher connections, as faculty work with students through discussion of ideas, revelations and Christian values.
“When the students choose a book, they’re also choosing a teacher,” Cominsky said. “The teacher stays with the book. It’s been great because the faculty have also been thinking about the books that have made an impact in their lives.”
“And this is an investment for the teachers who are sponsoring the books,” he added. While working with students reading “The Karamazov Brothers,” he is reading the book again and developing study questions.
“You have to carve out time before school, after school or during a free period for book discussion,” he said. During these days of stay-at-home orders and the closing of schools statewide on March 13, Cominsky connects with Lucy and Patrick via videoconference.
Patrick said he selected “The Karamazov Brothers” because Cominsky recommended it.
“I trust his judgement with the Great Books Program, and he’s really been stressing this book, which is almost universally regarded as one of the great books of all time,” Patrick said.
“I think the biggest barrier to me reading it in my own time would probably be the fact that there are so many translations of it. Mr. C has recommended this translation specifically,” he said.
Bolster said a faculty member’s connection to each book allows for “meaningful faculty/student relationships.”
“I think a lot of the students will be excited about the opportunity to work with a favorite teacher again, or perhaps work with a teacher who they heard was great, but did not have the opportunity to have in class,” she said.
Bolster believes the program will be a success because of that relationship factor.
“The students are not reading these Great Books on their own; but rather, they are going to work closely with a faculty mentor,” she said.
Students like Lucy and Patrick, both of whom are planning to become English majors after they graduate next year, are already experiencing some of the rewards of the program – including a sense of accomplishment.
“I’ve been kind of joking with my parents about this because it has been the first book that I’ve read where I have three separate bookmarks in it. There is such a level of detail in it that I have one for the character list, one for where I am in the text, and then one for all of the footnotes,” Patrick said.
“Looking at the level of detail that there is, and realizing that I’m understanding it so far, is a great feeling to have. There’s absolutely a feeling of accomplishment with it,” he said.
Bolster applauded the students who have already sought out the program, and is eager to see the results that develop.
“Introducing teenagers to classic literature is a joy,” she said. “They have a steady dose of video games, movies, social media, and memes in their lives, but many of them have not devoted much time to reading classic literature.”
“We do not avoid dark or serious themes; but rather, we help students understand what they are reading through a Christian lens. When we discuss the deep themes in our stories, we are likely to touch on psychology, sociology, history, and theology,” she added.
“As well as learning about themselves, it invites them to understand others and to consider what they might do or how they would feel if placed in a similar position,” Bolster said. “Finally, it helps them to identify human emotions which they have felt but couldn’t put into words, recognize the commonality of humans across different time periods, races, etc., and broadens their perceptions of truth, goodness, and freedom.”
(For more information about Trinity High School, visit www.thsrocks.us.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness