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Great World Texts Program

March 26, 2009

UW Communications

High school students in Wisconsin are digging into great world literature that would bewilder older and more experienced readers: “Don Quixote,” by Miguel de Cervantes, “Dante’s Inferno,” by Dante Alighieri, “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and “The Brothers Karamazov,” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. All the students need is a chance to try and the right guidance from their teachers. Both of these necessities are provided by the Center for the Humanities.

During the past five years, the center’s program Great World Texts in Wisconsin has enabled some 1,000 students to read heady and challenging tomes not found on the young adult reading list. The program is a perfect example of the Wisconsin Idea in action. It creates partnerships between University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty and Wisconsin high school teachers for the benefit of state students.

Teachers from all over Wisconsin apply to participate in this groundbreaking opportunity. Students from Rhinelander to Monroe, from urban, rural, large, small, public, private, charter and bilingual schools experience college-level scholarship, develop an understanding of world cultures, and hopefully begin a lifelong interest in classic texts.

“The books chosen are great novels with themes of contemporary relevance that students can relate to, such as adventure, chivalry, madness and journeys,” says Lara Kain, assistant director of the Center for the Humanities. “The classes are not exclusive to college prep, honors or advanced placement students. We have students from all levels and all reading abilities.”

“We were so excited to connect with the university and all its assets. Another plus was all the other participating schools,” says Joel Betsinger, a first-year participant in the program who teaches English at the high school in Lodi. “This [‘The Brothers Karamazov’] is not an easy book, and the students started with some trepidation, but it’s going pretty well. We wanted to challenge our students and give them a glimpse of college.”

Teachers attend two workshops in Madison to prepare them for teaching the books. UW-Madison faculty provide expertise on the book and classroom activities are formalized. The sessions also give the teachers a chance to meet to share successes, best practices and advice on what isn’t working. Web-based teaching guides and materials developed by faculty and graduate students provide ongoing support throughout the year. Teachers and students stay connected with each other through discussion boards and groups. All this allows teachers to take risks with tough books and give their students learning opportunities they otherwise would not have.

“With the amount of information we received, we didn’t have many questions. And when we did, we’d e-mail and get answers right away,” says Betsinger.

The partnering between campus and participating high schools doesn’t end there. UW-Madison undergraduates, who also read the books, are peer mentors to the younger students, helping them online with writing assignments and assisting faculty and graduate students at the teacher workshops.

The yearlong reading program culminates in a student conference in Madison that brings all the students and their teachers to campus to present an individual or group project on the book. The creativity and array of projects is dazzling. Research papers, debates, videos, video games, paintings, dramatic performances, graphic novels and children’s books have all been produced.

“Everyone presents; that’s a requirement. Sure, they’re nervous, but that’s part of learning. We make a point of mixing the students up so they see presentations and meet other students,” says Kain.

Internal campus partnerships are essential to the program’s success. The program has support from the Division of Continuing Studies, literature and language departments, and campus Title VI National Resource Centers, which are required to provide K-12 educational outreach. For example, faculty experts from the Department of Spanish and Portuguese and outreach staff from the Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian Studies Program provided guidance and resources for “Don Quixote” and “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” The Department of Slavic Languages and Literature and the Center for Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia is currently on board for “The Brothers Karamazov,” this year’s book. Next year, the Department of African Languages and Literature and the African Studies Program will help students and teachers with “Things Fall Apart,” by Chinua Achebe.

Kain says the centers welcomed the program. It’s a high-value, high-outcome partnership, and the centers benefit from the groundwork and connections made by the Center for the Humanities with teachers and schools. “Our campus Title VI partners really appreciate Great Texts in Wisconsin. The program reaches schools statewide, not just in the Madison area. It is a truly regional resource,” says Kain.

The program might have even longer legs. Kain recently presented Madison’s program to outreach staff at the national Title VI conference. The meeting attendees learned how collaborations and partnerships can be developed between universities and high schools in other states.

For the students, some of the most lasting lessons come from the confidence gained by meeting a challenge they thought was beyond them. “At the beginning of the year, the teachers say, ‘This book is too hard; they’re never going to get it.’ But they always do. There’s always something to grab on to,” says Kain. “They are so proud of themselves, they are really processing the material. They get it.”

“‘The Brothers Karamazov’ would be hard for anyone. But it’s good for our students to experience something that’s over their heads,” says Betsinger. “With guidance and aid, they see they can get through this. That’s a huge benefit.”

Students participating in the Great World Texts of Wisconsin must create a project and present it at a conference that brings the students to the Madison campus. Examples of projects from past years may be found at http://humanities.wisc.edu/programs/great-texts/student-work.html. For a teenaged take on sin, damnation and the afterlife, take a look at “The Nine Circles of High School Hell,” made in 2006-07 when “Dante’s Inferno” was the text being studied.

While in Madison, in addition to hearing and seeing other students’ presentations, the students will hear a keynote lecture titled “The Brothers Karamazov: Memory and Laughter” by award-winning translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. This year’s conference will be held on Wednesday, April 1, at the Pyle Center. For more information on the Center for the Humanities and the Great Texts of Wisconsin, visit http://www.humanities.wisc.edu.
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– Gwen Evans, 608-262-0065, gevans@wisc.edu

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