Combatting a “CliffsNotes” Culture with Literary Acumen

Literary Acumen:

The ability to be discerning and selective when it comes to enjoying books or other written materials. Involves developing a rich vocabulary and critical-reading skills.

– ONE OF 16 HABITS OF THE MIND PROVIDENCE SCHOOL SEEKS TO DEVELOP IN OUR GRADUATES

Combatting a “CliffsNotes” Culture

According to the Literacy Project Foundation, “the average American is considered to have a readability level equivalent to that of a 7th/8th grader (12-14 years of age).” A national reading survey by Scholastic further reveals what is known as “Decline by Nine” wherein the percentage of children fitting the description of “frequent reader” (one who reads books for fun between five to seven days a week) drops from 57 percent of eight year olds to 35 percent of nine year olds. This trend continues into high school as students get busier with sports, jobs, and other pursuits. Furthermore, some schools and teachers have reduced the number of novels read or have stopped teaching the novel form altogether as they simply cannot get the students to finish reading them. 

It seems to me that we are rapidly becoming a “CliffsNotes Culture,” literally throwing reading over the cliff, superficially discussing summaries of books in English class and writing papers by copying and pasting someone else’s generic analysis. 

I am happy to report Providence graduates are countercultural, marching to the beat of their own snare drums as they develop literary acumen, one of the 16 “habits of the mind” described in the “Portrait of the Ideal Providence Graduate.

The word “acumen” in Latin is defined as “point” and figuratively means “mental sharpness.” Literary acumen means more than just being “well read,” but describes the discernment needed to make wise judgments and choices from a depth of perception that comes from fully engaging in meaningful texts and being informed by them. 

How does one develop literary acumen in a culture that SparkNotes itself to a pseudo-competence and copy/pastes its way to grade success? As a humanities teacher, I see six ways Providence successfully combats a “CliffsNote Culture” with real literary acumen.

A selection of some of the books every Providence Upper School student reads and critiques.

1. Design a vibrant reading curriculum

Education should be teleological— based on God’s truth and designed for a purpose —much like how God has designed us for a purpose. To develop literary acumen, books and anthologies of shorter essays and poetry are chosen with the intent to discuss these works meaningfully. We select a wide variety of works that reflect the canon of literature, but also provoke thought, feeling, and various worldviews. For example: freshmen read and discuss Robinson Crusoe’s conversion scene, sophomores ruminate about the atrocities of WW1 depicted in All Quiet on the Western Front, juniors examine the dangers of racism in To Kill a Mockingbird, and seniors contemplate brutal totalitarianism in 1984 and the different types of love in C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces. In four years of Upper School, Providence students will have read and thoroughly discussed at least 30 novels of consequence in humanities courses alone, as well as other numerous essays, short stories, and poems.

Chris Elwood devotes time and attention to creating a transformational experience for every student, up to—and beyond—Graduation Day.

2. Teach with the intention to transform

My personal purpose as an educator is to teach to the mind, heart, and spirit. In Matthew 22:37, Jesus commands, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” He then instructs hearers to “love your neighbor as you love yourself” (vs.39). These are the greatest commandments and they are foundational. They are also the centerpiece to the practice of teaching wherein the primary aim is to illuminate minds and inspire hearts so that genuine transformation can take place. 

Dr. Martha MacCullough in By Design: Developing a Philosophy of Education Informed by a Christian Worldview asserts, “If the aim of education is to promote the full development of each human being as he/she was intended to be (an image bearer of the God of the universe), we must help each individual student develop in all areas: cognitively, socially, emotionally, physically, and spiritually.” 

Such transformation requires teacher intention and time devoted to directed discussion of texts. Exposure to a wide variety of texts, ideas, and feelings is essential to the transformational process, but a text without an intentional teacher falls flat.

Juniors studying American literature with Mr. Elwood recreate characters from The Great Gatsby.

 3. Foster discussion in small classes

Small class sizes foster holding robust and inclusive discussions, enabling teachers to personalize education and answer questions that are on the individual’s minds and hearts. Smaller classes are a tremendous advantage for discussing novels of consequence and shorter essays and poetry in different formats: teacher-directed, student-led, Socratic, etc. Given the safe place created to inquire and dialogue, teachers do not shy away from the difficult questions, but embrace them as a process of connecting what we learn to seeking God’s truth in shaping our worldview.

4. Recognize the purpose of literature

We recognize that literature is not an end itself, but the vehicle for learning to think critically, develop empathy, and hone writing and presenting skills. Every work read is either discussed, presented, or written about (or all three). The text read lives far beyond the pages, becoming alive in the mind, heart, mouth, and writing hand of our students. Literary acumen does not end with the reading of a work, but with applying it, appreciating it, counter-arguing it, and further developing upon its ideas.

5. Analyze texts with integrity

In a Christian school, we teach a hermeneutic (textual interpretation) that has integrity. Cultural and reader responses to a literary text have their time and place in the process of interpretation, but frequently land stuck in the swamp of epistemological relativism where all truths are acceptable. It is most important to seek what the author intends to mean and not rest on what we want the work to mean. Literary acumen demands accuracy in interpretation, regardless of whether one agrees with the authorial intent. Responding in dialogue with one another as we seek textual understanding is a valuable skill our graduates develop through reading and interpreting a wide breadth of works in a vibrant learning community.

Miss Olivia (Avery) with Preschool children, modeling the joy found in reading.

6. Model the joy of reading

The teacher needs to be an ideal example by continuing to read and discuss works of literature; perhaps this is the most valuable gift we can give the lifelong learner, our Providence graduate. Parents, too, can model this joy by continuing to read to their kids and reading on their own as a pleasant pastime. “Decline by Nine” is correlated with the fact that parents typically stop reading to their children at age nine. The bottom line is, if we want our kids to read well and develop literary acumen, we need to read well.

With the goal to create lifelong learners, literary acumen is essential to this process as a base of content knowledge is needed to advance thinking skills, empathy, and wisdom. Wisdom is acquired, not gifted (except in Solomon’s case, but notice he was wise enough to ask for wisdom in the first place). Curriculum should be designed with the purpose of developing the mind, heart and spirit so that any skill may be acquired down the road. 

My goal as a humanities teacher is to make critical thinking, reading, feeling, and writing accessible to all students so they will fall in love with learning for life. It is our hope that every graduate of Providence develops literary acumen – not just earning the label “well-read,” but “well done.”  

Chris Elwood
Chris Elwood

Upper School Humanities Teacher

Chris Elwood teaches humanities and senior Bible courses at Providence School. He loves the humanities-based interdisciplinary approach to learning through a Christian lens. Being able to discuss literature, philosophy, and history in a distinctly Christian context enriches his life as a teacher. 
His favorite books to teach are East of Eden, Universe Next Door, A Separate Peace, To Kill a Mockingbird, Frankenstein, 1984, and Till We Have Faces.

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