What Happens at a CLTL Meeting

by Rachel Wicks

This past Wednesday, I got the exciting privilege of being able to sit in on one of the CLTL program’s meeting. Ever since I received this internship, I’ve been curious as to what actually happens at these biweekly events, so when I learned that one of the branches of the program met at UMass Dartmouth, I knew I had to check it out.

Arriving an hour late due to my evening class, I was quickly ushered in and allowed to sit between the two men running that night’s meeting: Chuck Zalewski, a defense attorney from Fall River who has been with the program for over twenty years, and Wayne St. Pierre, a recently retired probation officer who continues to volunteer with the CLTL because of how strongly he believes the program can, as the program’s title says, change lives.

Both men were running Wednesday’s meeting because the usual facilitator, Dr. Robert Waxler, was unfortunately in the hospital. We wish him a speedy recovery and our thoughts are with him always.

The first thing I noticed at the meeting, however, was that it was by no means a classroom setting. When I had first heard that the program was based off of literary discussions, I immediately imagined the experiences I had had in my own college career, in which the professor would verbally poke and prod a classroom of twenty tired students, hoping that not only would someone eventually raise their hand but that maybe they had actually read too.

This was not the case at the CLTL meeting.

Although not every attendee had finished the book completely, the meeting was positively bustling with discussion. People were contributing because they wanted to, to the point where different voices were overlapping each other and laughter rung out in the small conference room.

Never in my life had I imagined that a discussion about Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea could be so riveting.

Interestingly enough, what also caught my attention about the meeting was that the questions posed by the moderators were not simply questions about the exact content of the book. Sure, parts of the discussion were based on the main character’s thoughts and actions, but often times Zalewski or St. Pierre would ask a question that extended beyond what was written on the page and depended entirely on reader interpretation.

For example, the attendees were asked:

  • Did the main character go too far?
  • Does his determination spell out a sort of death wish?
  • Could his mind have been changed at any point?
  • What will happen after the end of this book?

That last question stood out in particular to me because it reflects one of Dr. Waxler’s beliefs about literature. Waxler says that a good story is like an iceberg, with perhaps 10% above the water while the other 90% remains below the surface. Anyone can read through a book and see the easily visible 10%, but the CLTL meetings encourage people to dive deep into each story and explore the other 90%, asking themselves questions that have no right or wrong answers but that are still based off the characterization and symbolism in the story.

The attendees also seemed to have little problem with this more thorough and in-depth exploration of literature, since they had fascinating theories to contribute and would often pick up on topics to discuss that the facilitators hadn’t even gotten around to mentioning yet.

Imaginably, it is through this process of uncovering the hidden 90% of each novel that allows for the CLTL program to be so successful. Started in 1991, the program was built off of the very idea there was a certain power within literature that could positively affect the way people think, feel, and relate to the world. This small inkling of an idea began just with Dr. Waxler and St. Pierre, and after convincing a judge to give their plan a shot, the CLTL has now grown to be the multi-faceted program it is today, truly living up to its name by changing people’s lives through the power of stories.

As Zalewski stated near the end of Wednesday’s meeting, “We’re learning as much from you as you are from us.”

For the next meeting, the new reading assignment is Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by Walter Mosley, in which the process of digging into that 90% continues.


A Look at the Evolutionary Perspective on Reading and Reading Disorders

Ashley Mills graduated in May 2010 with a B.A. in sociology and a minor in elementary education. She will continue her education at UMass Dartmouth in the Master’s program for elementary education in hopes of becoming an elementary school teacher.

Reading and the Alphabetic Principle

Dyslexia is a learning disability that affects the way a person’s brain processes written material.  Most people assume that having dyslexia is the reason that someone has trouble with reading.  However, according to Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Terrence Deacon, from an evolutionary theoretical standpoint, it is not dyslexia that stands out as a deviant, but rather the ability to read itself  (Deacon & Immordino-Yang, 29).

Because people have no evolutionary specializations that are reading specific, learning to read means recruiting and organizing diverse brain systems to function in specialized capacities (Deacon & Immordino-Yang, 24).  This creates a greater variation in the learning of reading than that of oral language.  Oral language is something that has been around for numerous years as a way to communicate.  The earliest conventional written symbols date back to 3500 BC, long after the formation of oral language (Deacon & Immordino-Yang, 17), leaving a large gap of communication without the formation of symbols used for reading and writing.

The human brain is not evolutionarily designed to use and understand the alphabetic principle:  “the alphabetic principle is a recently available tool and not a built-in organic function of the brain… It does not develop spontaneously, and without explicit instruction it would not develop at all” (Deacon & Immordino-Yang 17).

Learning to Read

Reading is a very complex activity.  An expert reader must not only be able to read the words on the page, but they also need to interpret and understand what is being discussed. Not all students are successful: “Basic literacy competence is fundamental to scholastic success, yet a significant percentage of children, despite sufficient general intelligence, do not attain this goal”  (Deacon & Immordino-Yang, 16-17).

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