"Here is what you can learn from a novel," Turkish writer and Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk told more than 500 Wisconsin high school students gathered for the Great World Texts student conference at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Union South on Monday. "You learn to understand the complexity of the world's problems. The novelist does not make policies or offer solutions. The novelist explores the lives of those who suffer."
The room erupted in applause for Pamuk, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in literature, whose most recent novel, Snow, was the focus of this year's Great World Texts program, an outreach initiative of UW-Madison's Center for the Humanities.
Cheering was not the reaction English teacher Denise Beasley got when she first assigned Snow to her seniors at Osseo-Fairchild High School earlier this year.
"They hated it at first," she admits, of the novel rich in political and historical themes. "We are a small school in a very rural district. My students rarely read anything from other cultures. I have to build connections and empathy. And it is not easy."
Every year, Beasley plunges her advanced seniors into a different work of world literature through the Great World Texts program. Drawing on critical resources provided by the program — from teaching guides to workshops with UW-Madison faculty — she strives to make the works exciting and memorable through close reading and discussion. Students also create projects — poems, paintings, dioramas, travel guides — that bring the text to life.
A five-year veteran of Great World Texts, Beasley is committed to it for several reasons: she doesn't want her students, all from small towns and farms in Wisconsin's rural Trempeauleau and Jackson Counties, to be "shell-shocked" when they get to college. She wants to shore up their confidence in their own intelligence and abilities (a problem in small rural schools like hers, she says). And she wants to meet the requirements for the Common Core State Standards Initiative — a mandate adopted by Wisconsin and 45 other states.
View a slideshow of student projects displayed at Monday's conference:
High school teachers involved in UW-Madison's Great World Texts program say their students end up ahead of the curve when it comes to bringing a variety of perspectives — social, political, cultural — to a work of literature.
Take Beasley's students. In September, Beasley traveled to Madison to attend a Great World Texts teacher workshop on Snow, taught by faculty specialists in world literature, Islamic traditions, and Turkish history.
"One presenter talked about veiling," says Beasley. "This is a crucial part of the book. [Teachers] had lots of questions. When do women wear veils? Why is it a big deal when they don’t? How does it affect education? We knew our students would have the same questions."
Back in her classroom in Osseo, the veiling conversation — and the central question it raised: would you be willing to sacrifice your education for religious beliefs? — consumed students for days, Beasley says. Once their curiosity was aroused, "it was epiphany after epiphany."
While some of the Great World Texts over the program's nine years have been ancient classics (Antigone, Dante's Inferno), others have reflected contemporary issues (Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, and Pamuk's Snow).
"We try to help teachers generate meaningful discussions tied to real events in society, the state, the world," says Heather DuBois Bourenane, Great World Texts coordinator.
Great World Texts also turns out to be an ideal way for teachers and students to meet rigorous Common Core goals in a creative way. Recently Beasley was one of several teachers invited to meet with the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to develop "exemplar models" based on Great World Texts curricula that DPI will make available online.
Overall, Bourenane says, the program nails this stated Common Core goal: "Students … readily undertake the close attentive reading that… builds knowledge, enlarges experience, and broadens worldviews."
The student conference brings this home. For many students, this is their first opportunity to hear an author speak. They also get to mingle and talk with their peers around the state, who have brought many different perspectives to the same work of literature.
"There is a great variety of creative thinking involved," says Erika May, a teacher from Southern Door High School. "With their projects, students get to play to their own individual strengths. They take it as far as they want to go."
Often that can be all the way to a four-year college. May has heard from several former students that the Great World Texts program was critical to their academic development.
"They write me when they get to college and thank me for the opportunity," she says.