Tuesday, March 08, 2011


When I was a serious bicycle rider, I often took pleasure in “drafting” off a rider in front of me, and my students occasionally use a similar kind of drafting in English class. In the bicycling world, drafting is simply a way to save strength on a long ride, slipping in behind a steadfast rider and letting the wind work against him and pass smoothly around you. You soon see, as you relax your leg muscles and start feeling refreshed, that drafting, surprisingly, is a way of going far while loosening up and taking it easy. Surely I want my students to go far as youthful scholars of reading and writing, but I prefer to have them travel with a certain looseness and liberty. Constantly struggling up the steep hills of great books can only bring bewilderment and hopelessness, so I often send the students off to do some “drafting” to make the ride through the pages somewhat easier and more pleasurable. For an especially problematic chapter in A Tale of Two Cities, I might ask them to read the Sparknotes summary before reading the chapter, just to gives them a calming foretaste of what’s ahead. Yes, it’s a shortcut, and yes, it eliminates some of the challenge of toiling through the chapter on their own, but, like drafting on bicycles, it’s a way of refreshing their worn-out minds for the long and laborious reading that lies ahead. It’s a break, a chance to take some mental breaths, and it usually results in singularly spirited reading for the next few chapters. After cruising behind the Sparknotes bike for a few pages, following the twists and turns in Dickens’ sentences can seem as easy as coasting downhill.

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