Bok Center


When: March 4-6, 2020
Where: Cambridge, MA, United States
Institution: The Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University
Facilitator: Doris Sommer
Sessions: 3 sessions from 3-6pm each day


A Pre-Texts workshop led by Doris Sommer, Ira and Jewell Williams Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and of African and African American Studies, and Thomas Wisniewski, Bok Pedagogy Fellow, Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning Lecturer on Comparative Literature, was held over 3 sessions on March 4th, 5th and 6th from 3-6pm at the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. 

Read reports on this workshop below by (1) Giulia Pellizzato; (2) Timothy Johnson; and (3) Matheus Moreira Nery Batalha.

1. Innovate, facilitate, participate

March 4-6, 2020: more than 20 educators gather at Harvard to become Pre-Texts facilitators.

It’s a Wednesday afternoon at the Derek Bok Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts. A narrator reads out loud a page from The Vortex, a visionary novel by José Eustasio Rivera denouncing the exploitation of rubber gatherers in the Amazon jungle. I scribble spirals on scrap cardboard as I listen intently, while many other educators, teachers, and scholars of various disciplines do the same around the table.


This is my first encounter with Pre-Texts, a pedagogical protocol tailored for engaging students at all ages and levels in creative, engaging, and inquisitive full contact with challenging texts. I experience first-hand the benefits: as a student first, interrogating a text that looks intractable, and making sense of it thanks to creative activities and collective reflection with peers. Throughout the first of three sections facilitated by Prof. Doris Sommer, founder and director of the program, I become familiar with the protocol even before realizing it. The facilitator proposes activities instead of requiring work, competition gives way to collaboration, we find pleasure in tackling challenging tasks creatively, and we reflect critically on what we did. Each activity multiplies the points of access to the text.

At the end of the session, we are invited to think and propose new activities we will lead ourselves and bring more texts the following day. Such is the model of Pre-Texts: instead of being investigated by the teacher, students become investigators of the text, getting at the center of the pedagogical interaction – the ideal starting point for developing a high level of literacy. During the second and third sections we take turns facilitating the activities we proposed. Each activity is efficacious in making us read and re-read the text with curiosity and gain a deeper understanding. We discuss its linguistic substance, its rhetorical dimension, its relation to current, burning issues. We consider possible ways of using Pre-Texts for covering a program. What I am most amazed at is the flexibility of the protocol, which proves apt to teaching literature, but also language, translation, and other text-related subjects. Any subject, in fact: from history, philosophy, and sociology to STEM, including multilingual teaching environments.


At the end of the workshop, we are all at home with the protocol, and ready to implement it in our respective endeavors at the service of students. As a scholar of Italian literature and a passionate educator I look forward to experimenting with Pre-Texts with my language and literature students next semester, as well as with K-12 refugee students over the summer, if measures against covid-19 allow.

Dr. Giulia Pellizzato (Postdoctoral Fellow, Brown University)



Use Text to Make Art: An Introduction to Pre-Texts Methodology



The genesis of the Pre-Texts model traces back to Cultural Agents, whom we see around but lack the terms to recognize. From there, Pre-Texts grew from these basic ideas and more:

  • we can make book; how can we make readers?
  • the neuroscience idea that doing something manually with the hands better engages the brain, and improves listening
  • the ‘name of the game for human development’: teaching kids to read and write
  • the logic of restraints: constraints let you be creative (i.e., within the rigid form of the sonnet is the freedom to create within that constraint)

The Pre-Texts Facilitator participates in everything, so as to not create a hierarchy, and also combines rigor with the protocol with gentleness and humbleness in interactions. The idea is to make the text an object of scrutiny, not the student




Are you interested in creative ways of engaging with texts in the Harvard classroom? In this session you will get a taste of the Pre-Texts method and think about how to use it. With the single prompt: “Use this text to make art,” human capacities fire up and connect with one another. This innovative methodology dispels students’ fear of “difficult” texts because readers become users of the material. Classic literature or scientific documents turn into raw material for personal interpretations. Pre-Texts inverts the conventional order of learning that goes from basic information towards higher order understanding. Starting with the basics — such as grammar and vocabulary — is boring, and we lose students before they scale up to understanding, interpretation, creativity. With Pre-Texts, students begin with the challenge to create something original from a difficult text. To do that, basic information turns into a useful resource that artists appropriate. During the workshop, participants will explore a simple protocol that delivers profound results for teaching and learning practically anything and for negotiating difficult moments in everyday life.



In the week following my attending this session, I held Pre-Texts-based classes utilizing the protocols and prompts of the methodology with an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) class that I teach. For three days, the EFL students became the Facilitators instituting the protocols while I became a participant.

Each day we created art from a text, checked our neighbors, went off on tangents, and asked a question. Each day we disappointingly ran out of time and were forced to prematurely end fruitful discussions. The students asked many questions on the background of the methodology and its founding as well as questions regarding the aims and the reasons behind the Pre-Texts strategies.

On the whole, I relate the success of these lessons to a belief that the students appreciated assuming more responsibility for co-creating the lesson. Unfortunately, before we could explore further in additional classes, the COVID-19 virus struck. Classes have not yet resumed.

Timothy Johnson (Global CoCreation Lab/ Institute for Medical Engineering and Science/ Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

3. Report by Matheus Batalha Moreira Nery in Caderno de Educação (March 2020):