By Diane Magras, Director of Development
Claire Moriarty and Jim Bulteel, members of Orono High School’s English Department (with Erika Dixon, Amanda Johnston, Don Joseph, and Chris Luthin), are among a group of educators who have, in various combinations, attended Winter Weekend for the past 15 years. For years, I’ve heard about these teachers adapting what they’ve learned at the Maine Humanities Council’s popular big book gala to their classroom.
In celebration of Winter Weekend’s 20th anniversary, I asked Claire and Jim to share their thoughts as educators on the Winter Weekend experience.
First off, what are your general goals regarding Winter Weekend for the classrooms and more at Orono High School?
Claire: I heard somewhere that “reading and writing should float on a sea of talk.” That’s the spirit of the Maine Humanities Council Winter Weekends, a spirit we want to foster in our classrooms; the idea that our conversations, however informal they might seem, go somewhere.
Jim: We’re a school that places great emphasis on rich seminar discussions, especially in the Humanities. Winter Weekend gives us the sources, the depth of scholar’s knowledge, and not least, the enthusiastic shot in the arm to want to bring great literature in front of young people. Winter Weekend condenses the expertise of scholars for us to mine for ideas not just about the books but about the contexts out of which those books sprang. It reminds us that when a student leaves school, and goes on with life, literature can stay with them and enrich their life’s course. One day, I’d love to see a former student, now in Carhartts or a pressed suit, show up at Winter Weekend and join us.
Could you share some examples of what you’ve done over the years with your Winter Weekend experience?
Claire: Listening to speakers at the 2010 Winter Weekend certainly helped me frame a semester-long study of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Our high school class met seminar-style a couple of times a week; we tackled everything from the novel’s political setting to the choreography of marital spats. Students set up their own web page, chatted nightly, carried raging arguments into other classes, and capped the whole thing with a graduation weekend spent binge-watching the British TV serial, which they pronounced not nearly as good as the book. Oh, and t-shirts. They made t-shirts emblazoned with their logo: the Middlemarchers.
Jim: The experience of reading a great book, a huge door-stopping volume, is rare for my students. “Too long!” they moan, when I hand them Anna Karenina. “Still too long,” they say, when I ask them what they’ve learned, but, as one student said to me today, “Now I see the ideas. Actually, I like this book.” I think of my classes as the literary equivalent of the slow food movement. Slow reading – luxuriating in the text – understanding it as a work of artifice, of meaning made by construction and imagination is a skill I think each student should possess. Whether, in their future lives, they read again I won’t know – but I hope that if they don’t, they will learn to slowly appreciate portraiture, the symphony, or another of the art forms.
Each year, I notice both of you taking notes (especially Claire). I wonder what you’re looking for each year and how you translate that to the classroom.
Claire: It’s not so much what I’m looking for but what I come upon. Notes give form to what’s going on in my head. For example, notes have allowed me to press Tolstoy and Proust into service in a couple of nonfiction courses we offer. In the appendix to Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation of War and Peace [WW 2009], you’ll find Tolstoy’s rejoinder to critics in which he declares that one of the greatest novels of all time is . . . not a novel. In the preface to his translation of Ruskin, Proust calls reading “that fruitful miracle of communication in the midst of solitude.” Yes. That’s just the ticket — just the tone we’re looking for.
Jim: Have you seen Claire’s copies of the novel? Each year, they are so heavily marked and lined and annotated, filled with post-its and strips of paper covered with ideas, that they seem like the material embodiment of her neural pathways. Yes, notes: call me old-fashioned, but if I don’t take notes I don’t learn. Or I fall asleep, digesting the excellent food, in the darkened lecture room. I bring the notes back here and I re-read them when I’m about to start teaching the book. The lectures give me ideas for directing the students to certain features of the story, the characters, the implied context of a time long ago that no longer is immediately obvious to us.
We like to think that Winter Weekend provides a content-rich experience that energizes, engages, and inspires its audience. How does it do all that for teachers?
Claire: I noticed one of the presenters on Absalom, Absalom! [WW 2015], moved from the present backward through time. It struck me I could try the same thing with the syllabus I was developing then, a course called #blacklivesmatter. So in a workshop on Faulkner, I realized I could adapt that technique and move from a close reading of Kendrick Lamar’s lyrics, backward in time through Toni Morrison’s Jazz, Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, all the way to Othello. The renowned speaker wasn’t there to offer advice on the design of a high school English course, and I wasn’t there to look for it. But there you have it. A draft syllabus materialized in my marginal notes as if in time-lapse photography.
Jim: There are fashionable movements in literary criticism, but what Winter Weekend does is provide what doesn’t often get recognized: intellectual fun – appreciation and thoughtfulness. Where else can you go to put those two words together?
Are there books or topics you’ve dreamed about for Winter Weekend?
Claire: Well, I do have a life-threatening crush on Gustave Flaubert, and the Lydia Davis translation of Madame Bovary is fabulous. . . .
Jim: The great poets have been overlooked recently. Surely Emily Dickinson should be a topic one year, and Elizabeth Bishop another? And who could provide more width of possibilities for planning the weekend than William Blake? Art, poetry, psychology, history – eccentricity! And Ovid’s Metamorphoses have resonated through Dante and Shakespeare down to today’s many translations. Austen invented the free indirect narrative point of view in the simply delicious Emma. Finally, that great novelist, Conrad has three candidate books, I think: Nostromo, Lord Jim, and Heart of Darkness. Oh, Kafka! And The Brothers Karamazov… How long have you got? I’m barely getting started…
How would you recommend Winter Weekend to other teachers as a content opportunity for the classroom?
Claire: The book selections themselves — and the extraordinary presenters — are the best argument for Winter Weekend. Spending the better part of a year (or the whole of February break!) making your way through some deliciously long work you’ve always meant to read (or finish); the sheer pleasure of reading, in the company of others, of talking and listening, of sharing a meal, is what defines Winter Weekend: the restorative power of it all.
Winter Weekend is authentic professional development. There is nothing medicinal about it, nothing in the Read-This-It’s-Good-for-You vein that can blight some literary discussions. All of us return revitalized, animated; and that experience enriches both teaching and learning. I so look forward to reading Palace Walk and hearing what you all have to say about it.
Jim: I can’t quite figure out why I don’t see more of my colleagues from around the state here, especially those who teach the great books. AP English Lit teachers ought to be mobbing you to get in, I think. I’m convinced they would leave refreshed and revitalized and eagerly seeking the opportunities to bring yet another wonderful story to their students.
With eagerness matched by no other professional opportunity in the year, I await Palace Walk.
Orono High School is a public school in Orono, Maine, with an elective-based approach that has been its hallmark here since the mid-20th century. It has only two required English courses: a year-long Grade 9 English class and a semester-long sophomore course in Expository Writing. The department has dozens of course offerings in literature and writing, including American Literature, War and the Human Experience, Women and Literature, Translation, and How to Argue. These are open to all students. Each year, a different teacher in the English Department offers a Special Topic in Literature/Humanities. These focus on literature in an enriched and detailed way and have students demonstrate their understanding of the topic through discussion, presentations, research, creative emulation, and analysis. Middlemarch was the Special Topic in the 2010/2011 years, as described by Claire above.