Several years ago The Harvard Education Letter’s lead article was titled “The Power of Family Conversation.” (Vol. 24, No. 3, 2008) It began, “School matters, but literacy starts at home. Teachers armed with reading contracts and carefully worded missives have long urged parents to read aloud to their children. But now there is a second and perhaps more powerful message. Talk with your kids too.”
Mounting research proves that language rich families with great communication is linked to school achievement and overall success in life. Shouldn’t common sense tell us that? One interesting fact among many in the article is that children from three to five are “ripe” in rich language learning. And this prompts me to focus this month’s article on reading, and not just “reading to be reading,” but reading good stories, good books, that we remember a lifetime, and enjoy reading over and over again.
Those little ones – from ages two to five – are truly sponges. Read aloud every day to them…Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Hans Christian Anderson’s wonderful stories, and don’t neglect Mother Goose. Even amid the ridiculous and the hysterical, you find lessons in reality. Jack falls down and breaks his crown, and Jill comes tumbling after. Humpty Dumpty couldn’t be put together again. In the world of great children’s literature anything is possible, and the little minds learn from the stories that the “bad guy” never wins because darkness is overcome by light. There are always “good knights” ready to fight for what is right.
In nearly 48 years of teaching at home and at school, I believe that the best moral education is through wonderful and moral stories. The ideas of virtue have to be taught. We are all born with a sin nature, and no wonder that sin is natural to the natural man. William Bennett’s Book of Virtues is a book that should be in every home. His book provides stories, poems, and essays from the annals of human history and great literature. It is a book for every age – child and adult alike. It will minister to people of different religious faiths, and treat every reader as though he or she is a moral agent. This book speaks to the mind and heart. It addresses the inner man within us, teaching virtues including compassion, courage, honesty, friendship and faith.
Take time for humor, even for the ridiculous, or even the preposterous in good stories, for it can sometimes teach a lesson that is sublime. Cherish the evenings that you read Kipling’s “Just So Stories.” Read these to them before they can read themselves: “How the Camel Got His Hump,” “How the Whale Got His Throat,” “How the Leopard Got His Spot.” And of course, read Kipling’s “Jungle Tales.” Share the adventure, the hunger for courage, the examples of loyalty, the challenge of a dare. And Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows teaches the value of a friend and the absolute joy of life. George McDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind takes us to Scotland and expands our imagination. And there are so many more in the world of true literature and culture for the hungry hearts and the seeking souls. And in the short years to come, they can read the same stories to you that you have read over and over to them. Please build a home library with books that can be held.
Are these challenges for very young children? Of course they are, and just what they need to be challenged for the difficult - to absorb beauty, truth, and courage. There is an inner kingdom being fortified with adventure, with bravery. We call this kingdom the soul. And to strengthen both mind and heart, start very early with Bible stories, but don’t read and teach them as you do the fairy tales. From the opening of the pages, stress the difference in these stories from other stories. After all, our Heavenly Father is telling these stories to us, through the individuals that He chose to write them down. These are true stories and are life lessons. They are gifts to be unwrapped at special family times, hopefully at evening devotions.
For the elementary and middle school students Longfellow’s “Hiawatha,” and “The Sage of King Olaf,” Coleridge’s “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” “The Arabian Nights,” each one having the challenge of loyalty and courage and doing what is “right.” And there are so many from which to choose … Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, Lord Tennyson, Henry Louis Stevenson, Charles Dickens, Robert Frost, William Shakespeare, Robert Browning, Jack London, and so many others. We always had Thanksgiving at our grandparents’ home, about a sixty mile drive. We learned the meaning of “smorgasbord” – when two giant sideboards were filled with tantalizing dishes to serve over sixty people, all family. Stories for children should be that varied. The short stories should be well written, and great for character development of every age child, poems that tell a story, but have music and rhythm in the beat. Children love a mystery, providing that they can solve it. Excellent stories introduce the young child to imagery and figurative language. An example is Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken.” How wonderful for a teen to grasp the meaning of Frost’s poem …
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I ----
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
Another wonderful story that was a bestseller in the 1970s is Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach. Most seagulls don’t bother to learn anything but the simplest facts of flight … how to get to the food source and back. Flying is not all that important, only eating. Jonathan is a different seagull. More than anything Jonathan loved to fly and wanted to learn more about flying, and about the world, about different altitudes, about different creatures, and the techniques that would lead to excellence. Even his parents didn’t understand his desire to be the very best that he could be, his determination which led to his becoming the fastest seagull alive. Though he longed for the flock to benefit from his achievement, they did not choose to do so. His high speed dive brought him the rare and tasty fish that schooled ten feet below the surface of the ocean. Jonathan believed that gulls had short lives because they were bored and lived in fear. He lived in perfect liberty and “lived a long, fine life indeed.” Celebrate God’s principle of individuality, and your child’s uniqueness; build upon it.
In traditional schools, the middle and high school student study real History, and usually in the sequence of: History of the Ancient World, The Middle Ages, The Renaissance, and The Modern World. In a study of the Ancient World, there should be a strong emphasis on the Old Testament, and please, do not neglect the Psalms and Proverbs. The great Epics of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey deserve a careful study, these assumed to have been written about 850 B.C. It is a picture of Greek culture that is memorable – their pagan religion, but also their bravery and determination. Sea nymphs could marry mortals, and Zeus was one of many gods, but the most powerful of all. Reading Homer is a test for one’s imagination and hopefully well worth it. Most classes move to the Athenian Democracy and study the History of the Peloponnesian War with the aid of Thucydides. Writers across the centuries from 500 B.C. to Vergil (70-19 B.C.) are Sophocles, Euripides, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and others of note.
Jesus’ birth ushers in the New Testament period in History – His birth, ministry, death, and resurrection – the Early Epistles. This is also an opportunity to discover Augustine’s “Confessions,” “The Song of Roland,” “The Sage of Hrafnkel Priest of Frey,” Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” And especially Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” which brings us to the English Language. (1340-1400?) Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d Arthur still ranks high with every History student I ever taught. How could anyone not love chivalry? The challenge to every young man, and a thrill to every young maiden who dreams of her own Prince Charming.
This brings us to the period we know as the Renaissance in both History and Literature. Space will not permit us to talk through this period in Literature this month, but perhaps another time. The broad cultural and political characteristics of every age are mirrored in their literature. Most of the philosophers in this period and the moderns sadly concluded that reality is reduced to the world of matter. To them, man is the measure of all things.
However, let us not neglect the importance of the literature of Western Civilization, as that has, over centuries, formed our own culture. The English drama, as all western European drama, had its origin in religious observance and rituals. There is no evidence that the early English adapted the Roman theatre’s drama to their culture. But the Epic held high honor, and was often complex. Thankfully, John Dewey was not present in our formation to overrule these very complex narratives and expanding language usage. Though varied in form and content, English literature projects a strong, even fierce, masculinity. That is not an offense to me. In fact, man was created to be strong, to lead, to provide for his family. There are strong ethical principles woven into the stories. Sometimes there is the pessimism of the human condition. That is reality, and not an offense to acknowledge it. Select a variety of English literature over the past centuries and determine to read aloud at home. It will be a challenge, rewarding, edifying, and a connection with those in your family circle, but also a connection with those who have gone before us. Let it be an act of renewal of goodness and greatness within us.