by Orian Greene
Some years ago, after I had facilitated my first Changing Lives Through Literature program, a friend asked me what it was like. I told him, “It’s the Club Med of teaching.” Though it sounds jocular, this response is accurate: CLTL involves everything I love about teaching and frees me from everything I dislike.
Thanks to the labors of the PO’s I have been fortunate to work with, I am spared all the grisly and nitty-gritty–though important–elements of running the program. Over the years, Dan Harrington at the Woburn Court and Judy Lawler and Debbie Cerundulo in the Chelsea Court chose probationers who committed to the program, they took attendance and followed up on absentees, they noted whether the participants were doing the reading, and they handled the only discipline problem that ever arose. They left me free to do what I love best: choose the literature and facilitate the discussions.
Each term, I agonize over what books we will read. As Bob Waxler noted in an earlier blog, deep reading is difficult and important work. Many CLTL participants have done poorly in school, some have never finished a book before, so a challenging and suitable choice is very important.
I work hard to develop questions that will open up the difficult parts. I attempt to facilitate—not lead—discussions that respect every opinion and interpretation. I strive to make the shyest feel comfortable enough to speak. I transcribe their in-class writing into books they take with them at graduation. I try to minimize the distance between the participants and the court personnel so that everyone at the table feels truly equal. When a probationer finds himself in a place where it is possible to disagree with a judge or PO, he gains a glimmer of self-worth that he may never have felt before. In this, I have been aided immeasurably by the humanity and humility of the judges and PO’s with whom I have worked.
For me, the best part of teaching has always been the classroom itself: the interplay of different ideas, the civilized disagreements, the progression deeper and deeper into a story, the insights that take everyone in the room completely by surprise, the epiphanies, the “aha” glint in someone’s eye. In CLTL, the probationers are there by choice, they have consented to try something new and difficult, and they are eager to succeed. It’s the ultimate classroom.
Unlike the academic classroom, however, there are even greater rewards for the facilitator in the CLTL program. There is no material that has to be covered for a test, no curriculum requirement. Yet because it starts with a particular book, each session has a built-in coherence, a gravitas that informs the discussion. Although focused on a particular reading, the participants can raise whatever ideas beguile them, and we are free to pursue them unfettered. Connections are made between the participants’ lives and the stories, between the different stories, and between the real and the fictional worlds they have come to know. I have never left a CLTL session without learning something new about the book, about the group, about myself.
Who could ask for anything more?
Orian Greene is Emerita Dean and Professor of Humanities at Middlesex Community College. She has been involved with CLTL since 2001.