By David Ward, founder of The Great Books Summer Program
What is it that spark readers for life? How have stories been passed down from generations and continue to inspire and delight readers even today? Is this generation of children still inspired by books or are they only interested in Facebook and video games? All of these questions are something that we strive to answer each summer at The Great Books Summer Program.
The mission of The Great Books Summer Program is a simple one: to inspire discussion about great literature, but what we have found is that we do much more than that. In 2002, when we founded the program as a 3-day “long weekend” with 30 middle school students, we could not have imagined that 10 years later we would welcome over 700 students from 43 states and 27 countries to enjoy a multi-week program on the campus of two prestigious universities — Amherst College and Stanford University. And, with nods from major media, guest speakers that are Pulitzer Prize winners and New York Times bestsellers, and the rave reviews of both the parents and the students, we feel like we’re on the right track with what we’re doing.
We started the program to lead young people to engage with great books and big ideas in a different way than they did in their classrooms at home. We wanted them to come to these realizations on their own through discussion with their peers and guidance from their professors. And, in the process, to find their own best thinking. Each summer, our students attend 1-3 week programs that help them enhance reading comprehension and critical thinking, prepare them for college, and help prime the reading audience for the future. What makes our program so compelling is that we welcome guest speakers from the publishing and filmmaking communities to give the students a chance to understand the work both as a reader and as a writer/filmmaker. How much does understanding the storytelling process inspire reading? Greatly!
Each summer, as we welcome not only new students but also many students returning from previous summers, we can see that we’ve sparked an interest in these kids for great literature and how the themes in some of the great novels connect with the deeper issues in the world we live in. As one of our annual guest speakers, Pulitzer Prize winning historian Joseph J. Ellis said recently about the program, “The core idea of Great Books is very simple: Read some classic texts and talk about what they mean. In our currently confused culture, this idea has revolutionary implications. I feel honored to watch the light bulbs go on.”
About five years ago, we realized that the program touched a chord with families beyond the United States. As the internet and social media bring children from around the world together very simply, we thought it important to offer some shared conversations through our program. Initially, international families found us. And so we began to reach out to a wider audience through participating families as they would go back to the UK, France, Italy, Croatia, Switzerland, Denmark, Jordan, Japan, Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Mexico, Argentina, and a dozen other countries. The International Baccalaureate program, key English-speaking schools, university alumni groups, and more and more word of mouth have been important in spreading the news.
What is fascinating in our discussions is what translates beyond American students and what doesn’t. Because of the unique backgrounds and experiences of these teens from around the world, not every conversation follows along the same line and I’ve been surprised throughout the years to see how some students are inspired and challenged by the themes of the particular books we read.
This year, we’re expanding beyond our campuses in a few new ways. We are using social media to begin to bring the discussion beyond our students and into the Facebook, Twitter, and blogosphere. We are also creating enriched videos that will be a part of a larger pilot program for schools around the country.
We’ve also seen a new outpouring of internationally recognized authors join us on campus for very special speaking and Q&A events. Web excerpts from these great occasions will put more evidence of the fun and excitement of Great Books Summers out for the world to see. Chris Columbus, director of the first Harry Potter movies; Da Chen, bestselling memoirist of childhood in China; and Dennis Lehane, author Mystic River and Shutter Island that went on to become movies, were all 2011 guests at GBSP.
Our objectives for the future focus on an increasingly international and diverse program in which the shared discussion of literature and the development of young people’s critical thinking skills lead to wide participation, additional venues and online activities to achieve a more global reach during the summer and beyond. So many parents have lauded our program for what it sparked in their own child’s imagination and reading life and we hope to inspire more students to go beyond their classroom discussions and see which books change their lives and why.
David Ward is the founder of The Great Books Summer Program.