Friday, August 19, 2011

The Frederick Douglass Summer Reading Program

The last 4 summers, Black Studies @ SIUE has worked with the university's Student Opportunities for Academic Results (S.O.A.R.) program to coordinate a common reading activity focused on Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Our common reading activity involves approximately 60 to 40 incoming first-year students each year.

Now that I think about it, I'm excited by the idea that Douglass's book is the first college book that more than 200 of our students have received over the last 4 years as they prepared to begin at SIUE.

During the course of the common reading activity, which begins in July, the students and I exchange letters and emails focusing on what we are experiencing as we read Douglass's narrative. I read Douglass during my first year as an undergraduate at Tougaloo College in Mississippi. I really enjoyed the book and returned to it often over the years.

I had read Douglass's work alone, outside of any class assignment, so looking back, it was a somewhat lonely process working through the book by myself. One benefit, I think, has been providing the students in our common reading activity with a more communal reading and writing experience than the one I had. I'm aware, of course, of the advantages and necessity, of reading alone and in isolation at times.

Nonetheless, the students also benefit by considering various responses from other readers, their peers. Over the course of the activity, I collect and share the different observations folks have made concerning their experiences reading Douglass. The multiple takes on the book provide the participants with a sense of how different readers respond, and we all end up considering sections from the book and Douglass's life that we had not considered on our own.

From a teacher's perspective, I also appreciate the project because it introduces me to my students through various written correspondence over a month before I meet them face-to-face. I end up learning their names and getting a glimpse how they express ideas about at least a few subjects in writing prior to our first class session. By the time we meet in August, we already have one common topic for discussion: Frederick Douglass.

Related Content:
Some Responses to Reading Frederick Douglass

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