What can we learn from George Saunders about teaching the skill of reading?

By Steve Willshaw


George Saunders is a great short-story writer. Anyone who can come up with the following opening sentence knows a thing or two about capturing our attention:

‘Halfway up the mountain it’s the Center for Wayward Nuns, full of sisters and other religious personnel who’ve become doubtful.’

(‘The Wavemaker Falters’)

So, when A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, Saunders’s reflections on many years teaching a course on Russian short stories to postgraduate students on the creative-writing programme at Syracuse University, came out earlier this year it was clear that it was going to be worth reading. And it absolutely is!

The book contains the full text of seven stories, by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol. Each is then followed by Saunders’s very detailed reflections on the reading process and an explanation of the understandings he has come to about the stories through many years of reading and discussing them with prospective writers. The result is a reflective, thought-provoking response which fully explores both the stories themselves and the complex and ambiguous relationship between text and reader, without ever resorting to theoretical jargon.

Several key learning points for English teachers and English teaching emerge from this.

1. These are great stories that would work very well in the English classroom. Gogol’s 'The Nose' is absurd and hilarious and will provoke great discussion about how truth and strangeness can be curiously intertwined. Tolstoy’s 'Alyosha the Pot' is short and sad and will give students a fresh understanding of the importance of omission and ambiguity. And Chekhov’s 'Gooseberries' is a sublime analysis of the power and importance of choosing.

2. Saunders suggests some beautifully simple ways to approach texts. With Chekhov’s 'In the Cart' it is all about taking the story a page at a time and thinking about each detail and why it has been included. Saunders’s commentary provides English teachers with a brilliant model of what this pedagogical literary narration could look and sound like in their classrooms with their texts.

3. Saunders has a great way with questions. He suggests that the following will do most of the donkey work for you in any literature classroom and it is about time we put more store by them.

1. What do you know?

2. What are you curious about?

3. Where is the story headed?

We, as English teachers, should perhaps spend less time sharing resources with each other on Twitter or constructing 73-slide PowerPoints and instead focus on asking our classes to think about these questions – I think better learning would result. Knowledge would be created because, as Derek Cabrera and Laura Colosi point out in Thinking at Every Desk (2012), ‘knowledge = information x thinking.’ Often, our greatest mistake is to omit the thinking.

4. Another idea that English teachers can start using straight away is Saunders’s formulation, TICHN – Things I Couldn’t Help Noticing. Easy to grasp, easy to implement but capable of opening up vast new realms of interesting discussion as we explore with students why we have noticed these things and what this noticing tells us about the stories and ourselves.

5. Saunders’s ideas stem from years of reading and re-reading the same stories and getting more and more from them each time. It is all too rare in our classrooms to have the time to read things once, let along several times, but we need to make the time. Good reading, as Wolf shows in Reader, Come Home (2018), builds empathy and requires time and concentration. We can’t get to the heart of a text in one reading: we have to give it time to settle, give ourselves time to reflect on its action and characters and how they interact with our own thoughts and behaviour patterns. Only then can real understanding – the kind of understanding of ourselves and others which is the true point of studying literature and which the current climate, health and race crises make all the more crucial – begin to emerge.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain captures Saunders’s wisdom, acquired through patient reading, discussion and thinking over many years, and we have much to learn from it. Read, discuss, think – teach.

Steve Willshaw is the NASBTT Associate Consultant for secondary English, an author and a trustee of the National Association of Advisers in English (NAAE).

Want to read more by Steve? Check out his blog for us on revision tips to strengthen students' exam skills and confidence.

Looking for inspiration on bringing poetry into the classroom? Take a look at our interview with the talented poet Daljit Nagra.