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.

Theater and Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence:

The ability to understand and manage one’s own emotions and the emotions of others in a group setting in order to produce positive outcomes.

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

Doing theater raises a big question

We’ve finally finished auditions for James and the Giant Peach, and while I’m headed full steam ahead into the most stressful season of my year, it provides me an opportunity to reflect on the question we must always ask when purposefully putting ourselves into stressful situations, “Why?”

Why take on stress?

I’m looking at long days, sleepless nights, and big emotions—not only my own, but belonging to the students involved in the show, the production team, and anyone who happens to cross my path. So the question stands, “Why?” Why put ourselves into these situations? Why do we go out of our way to encourage students to undertake a potentially stressful project? And, the bigger “why” question: Why do we strive to create something that will exist only for a moment, and then dissipate as suddenly as it appeared? 

I am happy to say there is a point to all the craziness. A beautiful fruit comes from theater and the other performing arts; it is called social emotional intelligence.

Every aspect of performing teaches us how to understand and control our emotions and how to navigate emotions between others. 

Becoming self-aware

In acting classes, we learn self-awareness. While studying the works of the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov and other like-minded acting experts, we learn where emotions sit in our bodies. Through psychological gestures we learn that not only do emotions manifest through our body language, but that we can actually change our emotions by choosing different physicalizations. In class, we learn to recognize our own emotions and how they affect our thoughts and behavior. We find our strengths and weaknesses, which builds self-confidence.

Mr. Escamilla teaches students how to produce their own weekly newscast, “PSN—Providence Student News.”

Three rules for improv…and for life

In our eighth-grade enrichment class, my colleague, Abigail Pryor, and I place a strong emphasis on improvisational acting. We believe that improv—which requires acting without a script—develops self-management, a basic life skill.

The three rules of improv we encourage students to take with them are 1) Yes…And; 2) Make Statements; and 3) No Mistakes, Only Opportunities! These three skills teach even seasoned improvisational actors to start with an open mind and that their own ideas are worthwhile. They teach actors to come up with solutions, not to look for problems. Finally, they teach that every mistake, no matter how seemingly overwhelming, is just an opportunity to move forward in life.

In improv, we learn we are able to control impulsive feelings and behaviors, manage our emotions in healthy ways, take initiative, follow through on commitments, and adapt to changing circumstances.

Taking the audience on a journey

Meanwhile, performance pieces, such as plays and musicals, teach us about social connection. It is not enough to only understand our own emotions and how they affect us, we must extend that understanding to the audience. As performers, we are asking the audience to trust us to take them on a journey they’ve never experienced before. In order to build that trust, actors must be authentically interested in the emotions, needs, and concerns of other people. It is imperative that actors are able to pick up on emotional cues and feel comfortable socially.So, what is it all for? What is the “why” behind choosing to undergo a season of stress in order to put on a transitory performance? We do this so our students can learn vital life skills, which come around to be the very antidote to the aforementioned stress: self-awareness, self-management, and social-awareness.

Producing positive outcomes

From Day 1 (handing out retreat t-shirts), Mr. Escamilla has brought order to chaos and made Providence students feel welcome and appreciated.

How can students—and everybody else—develop and apply these social emotional intelligence tools? 

For starters, enroll in an acting class! We have several at Providence, covering the gamut from singing, dancing, and acting to learning the technical aspects of performance, including lighting design, set and prop building, stage management, and stage makeup (offered as a TRIAD course in the May third term). 

More practically, remember, God has given us emotions to guide us through life.

Start with self-awareness. What am I feeling right now? Where am I holding this emotion in my body? If it is anger, you might feel your jaw clench. If it is fear, you might feel your heart race. If it is happiness, you might notice a lightness in your step.

Then, look to manage the emotion. For example, anger serves as a call to action to eliminate injustice, while fear directs us to find safety. 

I have built my performing arts curriculum around recognizing, understanding, and expressing emotions. The benefits of having the language to identify your emotions and the skill to appropriately control them is a rarity in many adults today. It is a priceless skill to develop during the school years.

Finally, find the connection. We have a tendency to only share the emotions we find “good” and “acceptable.” To live authentically, we must honor ALL the emotions we’re experiencing by allowing others to understand us on a deeper level. 

All arts, be it performing, visual, or other, are about connecting with others. 

And, isn’t connecting at the very heart of the Gospel?

Austin Escamilla
Austin Escamilla

Performing Arts Director

A lifelong performer, Austin Escamilla has spent many years working in the Santa Barbara theater world. He has a passion for improvisation and sketch comedy, as well as acting for the stage and camera. Mr. Escamilla is beyond excited to share his passion for all things theatrical with Providence students. He is inspired by their talent and creativity and enjoys helping build a top-notch performing arts program.

The View from the Top Is Magnificent

Hiking with sixth graders

Last fall, I enjoyed accompanying the sixth graders on a Beyond the Classroom hike, along with Providence faculty members Mr. Scott Mitchell, Mrs. Mary Wilson, and Mrs. Kendra Forster (nee Dayton). A visiting student I’ll call “John” joined us that day. I appreciated his courage, as he was our only guest, he didn’t know anyone, and he had never hiked before. John and I became trail buddies as we navigated a challenging but exhilarating day in the Los Padres front country. 

During our five-hour hike up Jesusita Trail, John and I ran low on water, overheated in the hot sun, felt our energy lag as the trail steepened, and even despaired a little bit when we finished the “emergency chocolate” and were still nowhere near the top. I encouraged him to think about where we were going and what we would see: spectacular views of the city, sea, and sky from a peak overlooking all of Santa Barbara.

A journey with a distinct destination

At Providence, we like to say we begin with the end in mind. We look ahead to the goal of a Providence education–graduation and beyond–and plan how we can best “prepare students for lives of purpose equipped with the knowledge, wisdom, and character found in God’s unchanging truth,” as stated in our mission.

We have four divisions in our Preschool through Grade 12 school in which to work toward this noble goal. We’ve ascribed a word for each division to articulate how we partner with parents to produce hopeful, grateful, determined, and confident students. Year after year, we build upon what students have learned and prepare them for the next stage of their educational, social/emotional, and spiritual development. We call this the Providence Journey.

Preschool students feel known and loved 

The word for Preschool is nurture. Students engage in play-based learning in a vibrant, dynamic, and safe environment. As a result, they develop social and emotional skills, build self-confidence and independence, and cultivate kindergarten readiness. Modeling the love of God, thoughtful teachers lay the educational foundation that subsequent divisions build upon.

Lower School launches life-long learners

The word for the Lower School is inspire, as teachers instill in students joy for learning that will serve them for the rest of their lives. Teachers nurture abilities, strengthen weaknesses, and guide in knowledge and truth. As a result, students grow in their understanding of God’s love for them and develop a sense of personal responsibility.

Middle School students find their unique gifts and talents

The word for our Middle School division is encourage. Middle school is a season of transition when students begin to discover themselves and their potential. Our Middle School team encourages students to delight in who God made them be as they explore new ideas, consider new perspectives, and develop new talents. As a result, students grow into a learning community and discover each person’s value and significant contribution.

Upper School students pursue excellence and impact 

The word for our Upper School division is challenge. The high school years are some of the most important in preparing students for success in life and college. Faculty train students to use their minds well and seek the truth. Chapel, Bible classes, service opportunities, and spiritual retreats foster character development and teach students to root their identity in Christ. Providence students graduate prepared to engage culture and impact our communities through service, leadership, and civic duty.


Our journey language—nurture, inspire, encourage, and challenge— is intentional because we have a destination in mind. And like every great hike in Santa Barbara, the view at the end is spectacular.

Don’t stop now!

Early in the sixth grade hike, my trail partner, John, repeatedly asked me how far we had to go. “We’re just getting started,” I’d reply. Then, when we were well past the halfway mark, I pivoted my encouragement to “We’re almost there.” But when he said he couldn’t go any further and we were almost to the top, I said, “You’ve never been this far or climbed so high, and I won’t let you miss this view!” Buoyed by encouragement, he ran the last 35 steps to the peak at Inspiration Point. 

John would probably tell you I dragged him to the top, but his big smile of accomplishment as he looked out over all of Santa Barbara was worth every minute of challenge and pain on the way to the peak. The story he had to tell his parents about his journey up Jesusita Trail would be a story of perseverance, resilience, and growth. 

As each division at Providence encourages students to dive deeper, explore, and find a personal sense of calling, we see curiosity and excitement explode and students’ lives transformed. We believe God designs his children—our students—for a much bigger purpose than just graduating from school. God’s call is to an active, adventurous life of leadership, service, and influence. 

No matter when students join the Providence Journey, whether in the earliest years of Preschool or at the threshold of Middle School or beyond, I can’t help but think, “We’re just getting started!” 

Tawny Kilpper
Tawny Kilpper

Admissions Director (K–12)

Tawny Kilpper is the Providence School K–12 admissions director and parent of a Providence graduate and a current Upper School junior. She loves sharing the Providence Journey with students and parents and encourages anyone to reach out for more information.

Thinking Critically about Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking: The ability to skillfully conceptualize, analyze, synthesize, evaluate, and apply information. Involves identifying the validity of facts and sources presented and reading critically.

– One of 16 Habits of the Mind Providence School seeks to develop in our graduates

A student once asked me whether I peppered my wife with scores of probing questions at home. No doubt, he was feeling sympathy for anyone else who had to endure my skewering train of inquiry. Perhaps he imagined this dinner table conversation:

WIFE: “So, honey…how was your teaching today?”

ME: “Well, dear,” I answer in this imaginary conversation, pointing my fork at my wife, “it depends on how you define ‘teaching.’ What exactly are you asking me? Why do you bring it up?”

I assured my student that my wife and I never—well, seldom—have such conversations. Just because students frequently give me squinty-eyed gazes, or complain their heads hurt after enduring my series of probing questions, does not mean asking questions is all I do. But it is an important part of my work as a teacher. A bit like running laps or doing push ups, being pushed through the hoops of this mental exercise can be painful, but the results are worth it.

Thinking well about important things

We need to enrich the definition of critical thinking, particularly in a distinctly Christian school, such as Providence. Many schools do a good job, overall, of teaching and modeling how to think clearly, deeply, and well. Beyond that, though, it’s important we help students recognize the importance of what topics and questions they are thinking about. While gossipy pop-culture sound bites may be appetizing, what we’d really like students to encounter is what is good, true, and excellent.

Thinking virtuously

Besides nudging students to think about important things, we also mustn’t assume all deep thoughts are equally virtuous. It’s quite possible that a well argued, logically constructed, articulate argument for infanticide is more dangerous than a sloppy argument for that abhorrent practice. Again, it’s not just how we think but what we think about that is important. We teachers strive to cultivate virtue: we prepare the soil, plant seeds, water, fertilize, and—ouch!—prune. The goal of practicing critical thinking is not to deconstruct students’ views on the big issues of the day and leave those views chaotically disassembled in a heap on the floor; it is to create something beautiful—that is, well ordered, well oriented, and God-honoring.

In our era, ever-shorter attention spans combined with political and social polarization leave us trapped in a cultural war where sound bites are weaponized and thinking is itself aborted as soon as we encounter a view we don’t like. The wonderful thing about a distinctly Christian education is that it provides the antidote to this cultural poison. Christian thinkers don’t ignore the big issues; with Scriptural truths in one hand, and a newspaper (or a mobile device) in the other, we clarify definitions, examine assumptions, and explore consequences for all sorts of questions.

For example, what exactly is “justice?” Or “social justice?” Is there a difference? And how did esteemed thinkers of the past (Plato, Aristotle, Old Testament prophets, Augustine, Locke) view justice? One of my favorite economists, Frederic Bastiat, said justice is the “absence of injustice,” and the sole function of laws is to create the absence of injustice. What does that mean, and is that true?

Bringing this train of thinking closer to the students’ own world, what does justice have to do with the student debt crisis? With earning a higher minimum wage for a summer job?

(Is your head hurting now? My long suffering wife does listen to me practice this sort of musing—a lot.)

Creating mental muscle

Plowing through a cascade of questions creates a sort of mental muscle, tempered and shaped by Scriptural truths. I never tire of reminding students that in the first few chapters of Genesis, two central truths stand out:

1) As image bearers of God, humans deserve dignity.

2) As sinners, humans are ever prone to selfishness.

So, how do those two truths enlighten our understanding of justice? Equality? Politics? Theology? Cinema? Music? Art?

Critical thinking nourishes civil debate while developing spiritual virtues, and therefore is an essential part of a distinctly Christian education. Regrettably, such a form of critical thinking is a rare experience in today’s educational landscape. 

In I Thessalonians 5:21, the Apostle Paul admonishes us to “test everything” and our Christian school classrooms are excellent places to do just that. Grounding excellent reasoning with Scriptural truths is an exercise—a habit of the mind—that shapes students’ minds and hearts. I hope and pray such habits will help students transcend our superficial and polarizing culture.

Bruce Rottman
Bruce Rottman

Upper School Humanities Teacher

Bruce Rottman teaches humanities, economics, and American government and directs the Libertas Scholars Program at Providence School. He loves helping students develop their critical thinking skills by posing provocative questions that will lead them to a greater understanding of human flourishing.