Inside CLTL : The Instructor’s Role

photo by mikeschinkel on Flickr

Many individuals have contacted Changing Lives Through Literature and inquired about starting a program in their area. One of the first steps in starting a program is understanding the key roles involved in developing and sustaining successful sessions. The following essay, taken from the CLTL website, offers insight into one of these important roles–the CLTL instructor.

The instructor in Changing Lives Through Literature brings his or her love of literature to the table and, unlike many teachers in the regular classroom, acts as a facilitator. That is, he or she facilitates the discussion, makes it happen, provokes it, sometimes structures it, and at other times allows it to flow freely. The instructors leave at the door their need to impose an agenda on the classroom or to insist upon one meaning for a text. They are ready with questions and ways to stimulate conversation. The goal is to find practices that engage students in the literature, the characters, and the themes, and to uncover questions that come from the texts. While the methods and strategies vary from classroom to classroom and teacher to teacher, the emphasis is always on involving the student (see Why Reading?).


The instructor’s role includes deciding on the logistics and rules with other team members, such as how many weeks the course will meet, where best to hold the class, or how to deal with tardiness or absences (see Rules and Guidelines). Most instructors are affiliated with a college or university and arrange to have CLTL programs meet on campus. Instructors who are not affiliated with a college or university arrange to meet in libraries or other noncourt settings whenever possible. Some classes are held in community corrections centers and a few in prisons. But the important thing here is that the instructor should be involved in these decisions, if possible, because the more you, as instructor, function as part of a team, the more invested you will be in the program.

The instructor usually chooses the literature that will be read by the students. The number of sessions you plan will be crucial in determining the kind of reading material. Some groups prefer 6 meetings over 12 weeks; others meet 7 or 8 times over 14 or 16 weeks. Some meet every week for 10 or 12 sessions. In general, most groups meet every other week. If you meet frequently, you may want to assign short stories, but most groups meet weekly and use novels. The website offers a wide range of suggested instructional materials to help the instructor get started.


Choosing the books also means thinking about your goals for each class and choosing the kinds of ideas you will be focusing on during your meetings and the issues that will grab the students during their week away. Most instructors do not know the details of why their students have been assigned to the CLTL program, but knowing some of the more general characteristics of your group may help you make better reading selections.


What will make you a good CLTL instructor? First and foremost, choose texts that allow participants to reflect on their own experiences through the characters (see our List of Texts). This means you will pick texts that resonate with you and have allowed you to look inside and think more deeply about yourself and your surroundings. Unless you are engaged in the literature you choose, you most likely cannot engage others. We recognize that not all of our sample texts will be the best choices for your CLTL program (see Teaching Specific Texts). Your excitement about the pieces of literature that you have chosen will help you involve others.


A good instructor needs to be somewhat of an improviser. When comments take you in a direction you weren’t prepared for, or a student hasn’t understood the book at all, or the book you’ve chosen falls flat, you must make quick but thoughtful decisions on how to handle the situation. Your ability to bring ideas and feelings out of the group and to stimulate thinking is at the core of an effective CLTL session.


A CLTL instructor understands the piece he or she is teaching from one perspective, and maybe even from other perspectives, but realizes that other voices in the room are valid and bring their own way of seeing the text. A successful instructor draws out this diversity, learns over time how to capitalize on it, and allows the text to be the teacher. CLTL is a way of looking at literature and a way of listening to others’ insights. It is choosing literature with themes that resonate for a group, literature that speaks to students’ underlying issues. It is finding ways to engage the disengaged, to give voice to those who feel unheard, and to include those who have felt disenfranchised by our social system. 


Nothing takes the place of jumping in and learning from experience. We all bring our own personal experiences to a text and our own interpretations and methods of making that text come alive. We can all be good instructors and bring something unique to the program. This is one of the founding principles of Changing Lives Through Literature and a key to our success.


One thought on “Inside CLTL : The Instructor’s Role

  1. Yes, I think one important point here is that CLTL is very much a grassroots movement . Instructors, for example, choose books they enjoy, that they are often passionate about. Although we have lists of books that seem to have worked well, each group shapes the reading as much as the reading shapes the group.

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