Preparation for Video Introduction

Preparation for Video Introduction

A key part of our mission is instilling a passion for reading in students of all ages by leading them to the experience of absorption and identification in imaginative literature. In preparation for your video introduction, please read the essay on absorption, below, written by the President and founder of the Institute, Paul Copperman.

A key part of our mission is instilling a passion for reading in students of all ages by leading them to the experience of absorption and identification in imaginative literature. In preparation for your video introduction, please read the essay on absorption, below, written by the President and founder of the Institute, Paul Copperman.


Essentially, the Institute’s curriculum is about books. Not just any books, but the best books available for young people. It’s about the formative experience of being absorbed in these works. It’s about what makes a great work of juvenile literature. It’s about helping students engage great books for pleasure and meaning.

What does it mean to be absorbed in a story? How does it foster intellectual, spiritual, and character formation? Why is it the central goal of the Institute’s programs for entering 4th and entering 5th graders, and one of two central goals of the programs for entering 6th-8th and entering 9th-11th graders?

An absorbed reader identifies with an author’s main character and imaginatively participates in the character’s experiences and adventures. Absorbed reading is an effortless flow of experience, the character’s experience in the imaginatively recreated world of the book.

When this level of reading ability is brought to the classics of juvenile literature, the resulting experiences make a lasting impact. In Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, the reader becomes Frodo of the Shire, embarks with eight companions on a dangerous quest, keeps on against all odds, only to have his own personal failure at the end redeemed through the unintended help of one of the most pitiable characters in all literature. Frodo struggles and suffers, fails often, despairs, yet perseveres. He finds help in unexpected places, from the lowly to the highest. His adventures take him to places of indescribable beauty and horrifying desolation. The fate of the world rests on his shoulders; his adventure leaves him changed in some ineffable way, humbled, weaker, yet translucent for the spirit that animates him.

A good reader doesn’t just enjoy The Fellowship of the Ring; a good reader is changed by the experience. Tolkien’s values, his understanding, his humanity, his faith, these things are vicariously experienced by the young person as his own. Think about Frodo’s perseverance. Young people need to learn to persevere in their studies, in their work, in personal relationships. But it’s hard; we all want things to go easy, we’re all tempted to quit when things get tough. Frodo didn’t quit, and the reader who identifies with him and who is absorbed in his adventures will experience Frodo’s perseverance as his own.

Or think about Frodo’s compassion. Compassion makes us human, but the route to compassion leads through suffering. Frodo starts out no more compassionate than any other, self-centered young person. Yet at the very center of the story is his compassion for Gollum, a terribly disturbed, unhappy creature who struggles throughout the book with the evil that threatens to possess his soul. The reader who identifies with Frodo will experience Frodo’s compassion as his own, and he will be subtly changed by the experience.

Think about Frodo’s hope. He doesn’t have much, just enough to keep going. But he gets a lot of help along the way, and always manages to overcome the obstacles in his path. The help is critical; he could not possibly succeed without Sam, or Aragorn, or Gandalf, or even Gollum. But there is a sense of something greater helping him, a providential force, which asks more of him than he thinks he can accomplish, but which in the end sees him through to success in his mission. The little kernel of hope in Frodo’s soul, which he never abandons, blossoms into the full radiance of hope fulfilled. And the young person who identifies with Frodo finds that the hope in his own soul is strengthened, a hope tempered by the intuited understanding that much will be asked of him.

Great juvenile literature carries the highest values in our civilization, and transmits them to our children. In the discussions above I focused on perseverance, and compassion, and hope. I could just as easily have focused on courage or trust or humility. The key is that great juvenile literature makes no attempt to present these values and truths through moralistic lectures. Instead, they are transmitted through an imaginative representation of human experience that captures a reader’s imagination and engages him emotionally. The young person is shaped from the inside out, not from the top down.

Good, age-appropriate literature can help form a young person’s soul. These great and good books help us, as parents and teachers, guide young people to the higher values and truths in life. And we know that development toward these higher things is not a given, not in our world today, not ever. It’s a joy to be a parent, to watch our children grow, but it’s always challenging and often hard. We need all the help we can get.

The books we recommend to our students portray characters, problems, and situations that are intuitively comprehensible to a young reader, and important. Important because they creatively depict situations and issues that are of real concern to every young person. Growing up, becoming independent, facing fear, achieving success, dealing with friends, overcoming adversity—if discussed directly or realistically, these issues can be a turn-off, but when creatively embedded in a work of imaginative literature they are reassuring and meaningful. Reading books of this quality will give young people a vision of successfully negotiating childhood and adolescence and coming out okay—competent, confident, part of a community.

Perhaps even more important to a young reader than these developmental issues are the deeper, spiritual issues—maintaining personal integrity in the face of challenge and temptation, connecting to the deepest and highest aspects of one’s self, acknowledging weakness and flaws, finding and then not straying from the right path through life. The key issue is meaning—finding real meaning in literature that points to real meaning in life. Young people yearn for real experience, authenticity, significance; the best literature for young people satisfies that yearning while helping to keep that hunger alive in their souls.

Another way of looking at this aspect of the reading experience is to put it in terms of transcendence. Through great literature young people transcend the limitations of their existence—the young person who has never been out of the projects can explore the world, someone who has never known family security and love can find it in a book, an adolescent filled with fear about dangerous or challenging circumstances can find courage and hope.

There is another dimension to good juvenile literature every bit as important as spiritual depth and meaningful issues imaginatively represented. That, of course, is literary quality—the level of imagination and symbolization, richness of detail, sensitivity of characterization, depth of plot, effectiveness of language, and overall artistic achievement. Literature is an art form, so in the end we’re also talking about beauty.

The booklists we provide students in 4th grade and up are filled with great, age-appropriate literature. We have devoted great efforts to finding the very best books ever written for young people. The capstone of each of these programs is the list of great books we provide our students. These lists are filled with books that will transport young readers out of themselves, out of their worlds, into realms of imagination in which they contact the deepest forces in reality represented in ways that are engaging and edifying.

Once fluency in children’s novels is achieved, it’s a good thing for our students to read the books we recommend. It’s even better if they can read them with good comprehension, which is where the Institute’s comprehension instruction comes in. When you were a child, did you ever have the experience of reading the first quarter of a book or so and feeling confused about the characters or the story? Thinking back over the best juvenile literature you read, do you think you got the full meaning from the books? In the literature portions of class, our teachers mediate the meaning of the books our students read. One of the most important goals of these classes is to teach students how to discover the meaning for themselves.

Literature instruction in our programs is discussion-centered. Through discussion, students engage the books in the curriculum on important and appropriate levels, from surface details about characters and events to the deeper meaning inherent in the characters’ experiences and suggested by the resolution of the major plot elements in the story. To promote and direct discussion productively, we provide our teachers with discussion questions and guidance for every reading assignment in every book in the curriculum.

The following is an example of a discussion guide for Banner in the Sky, a novel we read in our middle school program. The questions and discussion guidance that follow display this dimension of our approach to teaching comprehension. Questions the teacher asks are signified by the word ASK in bold print. Italicized text following the questions represents the answers teachers aim to elicit from students.

ASK: What is Rudi like? How can you tell by what he says and does?

  • Courageous & adventurous
    • Doesn’t think twice about climbing alone.
    • Doesn’t let small size keep him from climbing.
  • Loves climbing – explore how Rudi feels when he’s climbing
  • Irresponsible/reckless
    • Cuts work without getting permission or telling anyone where he’s going.

ASK: Where/when does this story take place?

  • Kurtal, a village in the Swiss alps, in 1865.
  • Citadel is only unconquered mountain near Rudi’s village

Read aloud paragraph on p. 18 beginning with “It stood up like a monument”.

ASK: Why does the Citadel hold such power over Rudi’s imagination?

  • He’s inspired by the challenge
    • Citadel hasn’t been conquered
  • Rudi’s father died while trying to climb the Citadel.
  • Beauty and majesty of the Citadel draw Rudi.
    • Suggest to students that there may be something inside all of us that is drawn to the majestic, beautiful, and magnificent.
    • Invite students to share examples of a beautiful natural sight they’ve seen and/or share your own example.

As you see, our questions are not primarily questions of fact. Instead, they ask students to respond personally to the material they’ve read, and reflect on the deeper issues that are raised. At times we need to raise points that students have missed; other times we have to close off spirited discussion in order to move on. The discussions move back and forth on two levels: the literal level, of events retold in proper sequence, and a deeper level, of issues raised and reflected upon. We hope that students learn to engage literature at the level of meaning, and appropriate meaning for themselves.

Because the goal of our literature instruction is to enhance understanding and engagement with the story from the inside, we do not introduce terms or methods to analyze stories. We want our students to become absorbed in their reading and to identify with characters, an experience that would be compromised were we to take an overly analytical approach.

Book discussions of this kind reinforce the formative effects of the literature. Remember, we are referring to good juvenile literature, which means it is full of the kind of meaning that young readers crave. They come to the program wanting to know how to find meaning and authenticity in their own lives, and how to overcome obstacles and avoid the false paths that lead to banality and meaninglessness. That is what these books are about, so that is what the discussions will be about. The discussions have intrinsic value as time well spent, and they have developmental value as our students explore and embrace the higher values they can access through literature.

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