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The Dante Club

Eight years ago, San Francisco teacher Callen Taylor saw a need among the students in her school: [1]

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 [2] — 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 [3]. 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.



17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "The Dante Club"

#1 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On December 4, 2014 @ 9:55 am

The real difference comes from committed individual teachers with insights like this. Money helps when its used right — books cost money, trips to Siena cost money, etc. But its the individual teacher that makes it, not detailed parsing of precise steps for each child to learn and get tested on.

How do you make this happen for a million kids? It takes 100,000 teachers with the same commitment.

OF COURSE not EVERY child will respond. But let that sort itself out as the options are made reliably available to all.

#2 Comment By Dan Davis On December 4, 2014 @ 10:25 am

I’ll bet the same would be true of us kids who took all four years of Latin back when (50 years ago) my high school still offered it. Alas, we didn’t get to travel to Rome, except in our imaginations, under the tutelage of a wonderful teacher.

#3 Comment By David J. White On December 4, 2014 @ 10:38 am

The Dante Club is also the name of a murder-mystery novel set in 19th century Boston. Among the protagonists are Longfellow and others working on a translation of the Divine Comedy. They encounter a series of murders based on punishments described in the Inferno.


This teacher’s experience using Dante to awaken the potential of lower-income students reminds me of something I read years ago about a project in Brooklyn to teach Latin to students placed in remedial English. Apparently it worked pretty well. Not only did the students absorb a lot of what they would have learned in remedial English classes, but they also didn’t have carry the baggage of being labeled “remedial.”

How do you make this happen for a million kids? It takes 100,000 teachers with the same commitment.

Which we would be more likely to get if we as a society really valued education enough to make teaching a desirable profession to enter, by treating teachers like professionals (instead of treating them like assembly-line workers) and compensating them accordingly. Imagine what we could do if our best and brightest aspired to be teachers rather than bond traders.

#4 Comment By J. mc.. Fa ul On December 4, 2014 @ 10:49 am


#5 Comment By MargaretE On December 4, 2014 @ 11:17 am

Such a beautiful story, and so encouraging! I cannot wait to read your Dante book, Rod. Good luck in the final stretch!

#6 Comment By Mark Moore On December 4, 2014 @ 11:27 am

slightly OT, but too beautiful to let slip by:
This quote, from Adrei Tarkovsky’s Cinema of Spirituality, may be helpful:

In the entire history of cinema there has never been a director, who has made such a dramatic stand for the human spirit as did Andrei Tarkovsky. Today, when cinema seems to have drowned in a sea of glamorized triviality, when human relationships on screen have been reduced to sexual intrigue or sloppy sentimentality, and baseness rules the day – this man appears as a lone warrior standing in the midst of this cinematic catastrophe, holding up the banner for human spirituality.

What puts this director in a class all his own and catapults his films onto a height inaccessible to other filmmakers? It is, first and foremost, his uncompromising stance that man is a SPIRITUAL being. This may appear to be self-evident to some, and yet it is just on this very point that 99% of cinema fails. Man’s spirituality is quickly and conveniently pushed aside in favor of other more “exciting” topics: man’s sexuality, man’s psychology, sociology and so on. In today’s cinema, if spirituality is dealt with at all, it is never treated as the foundation of our existence, but is there as an appendage, something the characters concern themselves with in their spare time. In other words, while in other films spirituality may be PART of the plot, in Tarkovsky’s films it IS the plot; it permeates the very fabric of his films. It can be said that his films vibrate with his own spirituality. As he himself states, in all of his films the main characters undergo a SPIRITUAL crisis.

#7 Comment By Anne On December 4, 2014 @ 12:35 pm

Dante’s work is as fine as any vehicle, although I’d bet other classics, esp. the epics, would do. What made this effort really pay off had to be that committed teacher who used her imagination to inspire. They’ve made movies about others who’ve done the same utilizing a wide range of gifts, from math to dance. In the end, the greatest gift they share is their time and their minds, in other words, themselves. Society should find more ways to encourage and reward this.

#8 Comment By Bart W On December 4, 2014 @ 12:59 pm

Nothing is worse than the cancer of low expectations. Challenge people and they will respond. Offer them something meaningful to study, love, and explore and they will blossom.

#9 Comment By CatherineNY On December 4, 2014 @ 1:07 pm

A wonderful story. We spent yesterday evening at a local classical Catholic school where we are thinking of enrolling one of our children. In describing the curriculum, the headmaster made a point of saying that all the students will read Dante’s Inferno by the time they graduate.

[NFR: Certainly better than no Dante at all, but I think it is a real shame that many schools stop with Inferno. The Commedia is so full of hope and redemption, but if you stop at Inferno, you would never know it. — RD]

#10 Comment By Rachmiel Ariel On December 4, 2014 @ 1:56 pm

Rod writes, “This week and next, I am in a time of extremely intense writing, revising my Dante manuscript.”

Are you suggesting that we should soon be seeing the continuation of your study on Inferno? Please say ‘Yes!’

#11 Comment By Nancy Wang On December 4, 2014 @ 2:55 pm

How wonderful! What a great testimony to the power of beauty in this world.

I love Bart W.’s comment above: Nothing is worse than the cancer of low expectations. Challenge people and they will respond. Offer them something meaningful to study, love, and explore and they will blossom.

Thanks for sharing this!

#12 Comment By Colonel Klink On December 4, 2014 @ 3:19 pm

This is a lovely story, Rod, and students would do well to read more ancient, medieval, and renaissance literature. Still, something in me wants to say, “If they’re learning English, they should be reading an English author! Why not give them Milton?” even though I know it’s wrong to say.

[NFR: Because Dante offers such an amazing adventure, and he’s so incredibly visual. I corresponded this week with the teacher, who said that kids devour the Inferno, in part because they are really attuned to questions of justice. — RD]

#13 Comment By peter On December 4, 2014 @ 4:16 pm

you may be interested: There is a free EdX course out of Georgetown on the Paradiso this coming Spring


#14 Comment By Gabrielle On December 4, 2014 @ 4:37 pm

This is the dream!! So excited for your book!

#15 Comment By Caroline On December 4, 2014 @ 7:20 pm

Makes me proud to have been a San Francisco public high school teacher although of a different high school and retired before the founding of the Dante Club.

#16 Comment By XSA On December 4, 2014 @ 11:59 pm

“Epicurus was a Greek philosopher (341-270 B.C.E) who espoused the doctrine that pleasure–defined in terms of serenity, the absence of pain and passion–is the highest human good. By identifying the heretics as followers of Epicurus (Inf. 10.13-14), Dante condemns the Epicurean view that the soul–like the body–is mortal.”
US has a political environment now without doctrine and as a result without serenity. It has lots of both pain and passion. You can’t save a soul because you can’t lose a soul. Somebody start an Epicurus club.

#17 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On December 5, 2014 @ 10:54 pm

It says something about America, and even about conservatives, that his post gets about five percent the comments that pile up on a post about gay marriage.