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PLS group holds area seminars

Kristen Durbin | Thursday, January 21, 2010

As the new semester comes into full swing, a dedicated group of a dozen students in the Program of Liberal Studies (PLS) is preparing for the upcoming short story discussion sessions they lead at local middle schools in South Bend.

These student volunteers are juniors and seniors who have participated in Great Books seminars during their studies at Notre Dame, and they share and discuss a wide selection of age-appropriate short stories by classic authors with the young students they lead.

The current seminar program, which involves students from Brown Intermediate Center, Holy Cross School and St. John the Baptist Middle School, is an extension of a successful Homeless Center Great Books program that has been run by PLS chair Stephen Fallon and PLS professor Clark Power since 1998, Fallon said.

A primary goal of the program is to provide new and challenging discussion opportunities for children who may not receive such intellectual opportunities otherwise. This goal reflects PLS’s vision that if the ideas presented in literature are beneficial for everyone, they should be available to absolutely everyone, including children, Jane Doering, a senior PLS volunteer, said.

During the seminars, after reading the short stories, middle-school students engage in dialogue with Notre Dame PLS students about themes, metaphors and ideas they have about what they read. Doering said.

PLS works in full coordination with the middle-school curriculum coordinators in each school to incorporate the short story seminars into the children’s school day, Jane Doering, executive coordinator of the discussion program, said.

“We could accommodate more than the 12 student volunteers we have, but we have to coordinate when the volunteers are free and when the teachers can fit the seminars into their schedules because of the tight middle-school curriculum,” Doering said.

Doering also said middle-school teachers are enthusiastic about the seminar program because short stories are not usually incorporated into their curriculums. Because the stories can be read in a short period of time, she said, students have more opportunities to discuss what they have read with their college counterparts.

Senior Kate D’Ambrose said she is often pleasantly surprised by the level of understanding of the middle-school students despite the high level of literature presented by writers like Oscar Wilde, John Updike and Langston Hughes, among others.

“It’s really interesting to see what the students get out of stories and what they think,” D’Ambrose said. “The kids can get pretty deep with the metaphors in the stories.”

D’Ambrose said discussing the stories in an environment that fosters respect for the young students and their abilities allows for a great deal of learning by both the middle-school students and the PLS volunteers alike.

“It’s a very different situation for the kids, but it challenges them and gives them room to grow instead of learning in the structured environment they’re used to,” D’Ambrose said. “It also helps me become a better learner because you have to be creative and express yourself in different ways if the students don’t understand something.”

In addition to the educational benefits of the seminars, D’Ambrose said the children also benefit from having role models with whom they can converse on a more equal level.

Many of the students, she said, don’t consider college as an option for the future.

Doering agrees that exposing children to fine literature enriches their lives as well as their intellect because literature, she said, speaks to the human condition.

“Fine stories are enduring works dealing with fundamental questions of human existence that have the capacity to engage the whole person in terms of the imagination as well as the intellect,” Doering said. “It is important that these ideas are accessible to everyone.”