Mission High is composed of mostly low-income, minority students, many of them new immigrants learning English. The school’s curriculum concentrates largely on modern, multicultural literature as a way to engage students in reading. While Mission students do read a couple of Shakespeare’s plays and a smattering of other classics before graduation, much of the Western canon never crosses their desks.
Callen Taylor, 30, teaches social studies at Mission and said many of her students lack “cultural currency.” They have no knowledge of Greek mythology or Renaissance artists or ancient Rome.
She was made especially aware of their gap in knowledge when they returned to Mission last fall after having participated in a variety of summer programs along with wealthier students from other schools. They told her they’d felt intimidated.
“They felt like why are all the kids smarter than us?” Taylor recalled. “Why does everybody seem to know Greek mythology? How do they know Jupiter is the same as Zeus? A lot of people would take that for granted.”
Her solution? The Dante Club.
She started a Saturday morning club in which twelve kids would get together and read through the Inferno together, and talk about the poem. Taylor got the idea after doing Bill Stephany’s and Ron Herzman’s NEH-sponsored summer program in Siena, in which a select group of high school teachers learn how to make Dante come alive for their students. You can apply for the 2015 program here  — and as someone who has both been to Siena and benefited massively from Herzman’s teaching on Dante via the Great Courses, I cannot encourage you strongly enough to do so. Anyway, this is what happened when Callen Taylor came home from Siena:
She returned to Mission to learn her students had felt ill prepared for their summer programs and believed the Dante Club could give them more confidence. She suggested they all meet the next weekend — Labor Day weekend — to start reading Dante. And they all showed up and haven’t turned back.
“It’s a hard poem, and I can’t believe they come. Every weekend, I’m shocked that they come and want to read it. And they like it!” Taylor said. “It gives them confidence academically and when they get that, they want more.”
She said they’ve especially seized on the idea of fate, which plays prominently in Dante’s work.
“They like that idea — is it fate or do we have control in our life?” Taylor said. “For kids in poverty, it seems like a lot of their life is up to someone else.”
The kids told the San Francisco Chronicle reporter that reading Dante had changed their lives. Readers of the newspaper collected money to send these impoverished kids to Italy, on the Dante trail, and off they went. So now, eight years later, the reporter has done a follow-up piece to see what happened to the club members . It turns out that nearly all of them have done well — and they credit their teacher and Dante for paving the pathway to success.
The highlight of the Dante Club came when the group traveled to Rome, Florence and Siena together on a two-week adventure. Most of the kids had never traveled beyond their initial moves to San Francisco. They marveled at the Sistine Chapel, the statue of David and the rabid Italian fans watching the World Cup.
“That was the best experience of, like, my life,” Jimenez said. “It was crazy. To me, it was amazing.”
Lim said she thinks often about the trip to Italy and that the art museums were her favorite part. She said that without Taylor’s “guidance and perseverance,” she and the other Dante Club members never would have read the masterpiece or taken the “once-in-a-lifetime journey.”
“This club provided me a different perspective and outlook on life,” she said. “Who would have thought that a few inner city students would learn so much from the work of Dante Alighieri?”
This week and next, I am in a time of extremely intense writing, revising my Dante manuscript. I’m writing it in part for readers like these kids, and for teachers like Callen Taylor. If posting is light here in the next few days, know that I’m not wasting time.