How does CLTL Change Lives? An Interview with Dr. Robert P. Waxler

Kids reading in Brooke's classroom

Brooke Joseph is a graduate student in education at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. She has a bachelor’s degree in Humanities and Social Sciences with a concentration in Sociology and Elementary Education.

In a recent interview with Professor Robert P. Waxler, co-founder of the Changing Lives through Literature (CLTL) program, I focused on finding out how CLTL changes lives.  Three themes emerged from this interview: Putting Yourself in the Story, Becoming Friends with Characters, and Breaking Down Stereotypes.

Putting Yourself in the Story

Reading and writing can change people’s lives by helping individuals to focus and increase their awareness through self-reflection.  Waxler explained that when you are reading a good piece of literature, you often put yourself in the story and empathize with characters.  Even though during the CLTL sessions everyone is reading the same story, each individual will read the story in a different manner.  Therefore, when the story is discussed, the characters are seen from opposing angles and people “begin to understand that stories, like our lives, are richly textured possibilities.”

Although stories do not offer definitive solutions to people, they do “raise profound questions about our lives.  And as long as we continue to ask important questions, we are doing something worthwhile with our lives.” Waxler says reading the right stories helps us to “pursue our identity as if we are on a journey through life;” by “expanding our perceptions, offering new experiences and deepening our thinking, stories move us and they make us self-reflective. They offer us questions, and then the stories give us the opportunity to pursue answers to those questions.”

Becoming Friends with Characters

Dr. Waxler also gave an example of how a particular character can change people’s lives. When people are reading they allow the characters to become a part of their lives; characters in the stories “become our friends.  Their voices are embedded in our hearts.”  For example, take Santiago from Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea novel. Even though Santiago does not catch a fish for weeks, he continues to wake up every morning to “fight the good fight; his endurance is admirable.”

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"Speak Out" by Brendan Bieles on flickr Erin Royston Battat is a Lecturer in the History & Literature program at Harvard University.  She taught the CLTL women’s class in Dorchester in Spring 2009.

When reading literature, we expect change to happen.  Change is what drives the plot.  Literary terms we learn in high school teach us to look for change, and to appreciate its aesthetic value: a “dynamic” character, the “turning point,” an “epiphany.”  As teachers, however, only rarely do we witness a student’s dramatic intellectual or spiritual awakening in our classroom, before our very eyes.

Instead, we must trust that the seeds we plant today will bear fruit sometime in the future, coaxed and nurtured by other teachers, different texts, and new experiences.  Accustomed to seeing teaching this way, I was awestruck by the profound transformations experienced by several of my students in the Changing Lives class in Dorchester last spring.

One student came to the first class consumed by fear and anxiety, deeply ashamed of her poor literacy skills.  “When I first came to class I was nervous, and scared to read out loud,” she remembers.  “After the first class, I said, ‘I am not going back’…I cried and I cried.”  This student did come back, however, and she had the courage to ask for help. In doing so, she provided the first bit of gel that would bind the students into a community.

In her simple way, she describes this process of writing and community-building: “I felt shy when I read my poem out loud, but people laughed and I liked it.  I liked listening to the other women.  Sometimes I learned something from them.”

A dramatic moment on the last day of class—a moment that seems more the stuff of literature than real life—testifies to this student’s growth.  We were visited by the Chancellor of the University, whose imposing figure is surpassed only by his booming voice and larger-than-life personality.  He filled the room.  All of us held our collective breath as this woman, who refused to read aloud from the syllabus two months before, read an original poem to the highest ranking official at UMASS Boston.

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Instilling Hope with After-School Programs

photo by lori059871 on Flickr

LaVerne DaCosta is a Ph.D. student and faculty associate, teaching education and society courses at Arizona State University.  Her Master of Science research focused on youth services.  Her current research interest is in youth culture and technology.


From my brief profile above, I am sure you already know where my passion lies.  I believe in the creative potential of young people, and I believe strongly in the value of after-school programs as a resource to help foster and sustain that potential. 


The research on after-school recreation programs, which includes my own Master of Science research, has shown that after-school programs can be beneficial to students, particularly children from underserved communities and/or adolescents who are trying to form their individual identity and are particularly vulnerable to structural or environmental factors that leave them exposed to risk.  Such students tend to act out their aggressions, mistrust and hopelessness in a myriad of counter-productive ways. 


The public school classroom is the one place that such students seldom get the help they need.  The structure of schools and classroom discipline only serve to exacerbate the problem.  Regular participation by young people in after-school recreation programs, however, can have an impact on reducing their negative behaviors.


Additionally, the numerous literature indicate that because the factors that affect young people’s behaviors are inter-related, after-school recreation programs which help to reduce negative behavior, juvenile delinquency, and violent crime also help to build self-esteem, ego-resiliency and ultimately impact their academic achievement.  After-school recreation programs can help maltreated children and transitional foster-care children cope with a variety of issues in their lives and contribute to goals such as self-efficacy and positive development.  Practice is the key to building confidence and these programs provide this space through enrichment curriculum with the exclusion of any grand theory of success and failure.


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Book Groups and Prisoner Education

Have you read this Saturday’s essay? Click here to jump to director Ted Schillinger’s account of his new documentary, Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead. 



Gregory Cowles over at the NYT book blog Paper Cuts, asks his readers about the pleasures of personal reading versus discussing the book with one’s peers: 

“I’ve heard enough book-group horror stories to doubt the whole notion of communal reading. One of the undercelebrated joys of literature, after all, is precisely that it allows (or demands?) such solitude and intimacy: reading has more in common with the cloisters than it does with the congregation.” 

He concludes by asking: What do you think? Can reading really work as a group activity?  Tell him what you think over in the Paper Cuts comment section. 



bpi_grad_2-09_085The New Republic’s Leon Botstein  talks about the effectiveness and potential of prisoner education systems in his new article “Con Ed: Reading Lolita in the Big House.”  He highlights a commencement ceremony in the Eastern New York Correctional Facility, where prisoners receive higher education degrees through the Bard Prison Initiative.  Prisoners cited the joy of closely reading texts and learning how to express themselves in written arguments. Botstein argues this program can teach us a lot about human nature and the potential for change:      

We have become accustomed by conventions most eloquently expressed in literature, for example in Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead, to believe that it is in circumstances of complete unfreedom and deprivation, particularly in incarceration, that the character of human nature is revealed. If that is indeed the case, it was plain in this ceremony, in which the families of the graduates were gathered alongside fellow inmates, prison guards, the superintendent of the prison, and New York State’s Commissioner of Correctional Services, that the capacity for good is never erased. An incredible potential for good resides in all of us, for it is the consequence of the human ability to learn and speak. In no other circumstance in my experience has the connection between ethics and learning been so dramatically validated.

Check out the full article and share your thoughts with Botstein by clicking the “Con Ed” link above.