February 10, 2017

Fostering Your (Older) Kids' Love of Literature

I recently wrote about the Readers' Workshop I developed for my daughters several years ago in lieu of relying on a pre-packaged literature curriculum. I summarized my rationale by explaining that, "after a child learns how to read, there is a place for further skill development and literary analysis, but that should not be your focus if you intend to grow joyful readers and lifelong learners in your home. If you want that, Readers' Workshop is your ticket."

As I write, my daughters are now "in high school," and I still hold firmly to the same conviction, in large measure because I actually first used Readers' Workshop with teens in my days as a classroom teacher. Thus, I knew even before my children were born that there would be no reason to throw away delight-directed reading just because a child had grown tall enough to look me straight in the eye. 
Of course, we understandably changed a few things about our Workshop as the girls grew up. 

Our high school system looks like this:
  • Choose a book. I do not require any particular "classics" of my kids; in fact, I chafe against the notion. As an English major and bibliophile myself, I enjoy a good deal of classic literature and I "talk it up" as appropriate. Additionally, because research clearly shows its benefits at all ages and because it builds our family unity, we still prioritize daily read-alouds - often led by my husband - and most of what we read then are "classics." However, there are so very many good books out there that it seems like the height of hubris to suggest that a certain handful of "famous" titles is "better" than others. Instead, I simply make low-pressure suggestions from my own reading experiences and also rely on Gladys Hunt's Honey for a Teen's Heart and Christine Miller's All Through the Ages. One could also use Far Above Rubies and/or Blessed Is the Man by Lynda Coats and selected titles from TruthQuest History. And a teen who has a hard time deciding what to choose could first read Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books by Tony Reinke. I personally like that the books on the lists I reference are categorized by age/approximate reading level, that they are real (quality) literature (not twaddle), that they've been "vetted" for appropriateness for Christian teens, and that they represent the whole spectrum of literary genres. I usually buy several dozen books the girls choose once or twice a year from a discount source, though I allow them to decide which book to read when, and I let them pick other books of interest - i.e., appropriate titles they find at our library - as well. 
  • Read the book, one chapter a dayI could require more than a chapter a day - and the girls actually choose to read more on a regular basis - but we've found it's better overall to savor the books by taking our time. And, of course, they're reading other material for our daily time of formal bookwork and personal enjoyment as well, so they're getting plenty of content in all areas.
  • (Perhaps) write a narrative summary for each chapterMy girls have demonstrated an ability to comprehend and remember what they've read, so I don't require summaries. However, I did require daily journaling of my former students because of their learning needs. For a child who would benefit from such reinforcement, asking for at least a half page summary or reflection/evaluation per chapter is reasonable.
  • When a book is finished, choose a project and/or write a book reviewMy girls enjoyed creating projects until very recently, and some teens - including many of my former students - resonate with projects all through high school. For such kids, we must set aside our ill-informed bias that projects are juvenile or less "rigorous" than, say, writing a paper. Rather, allowing a teen to choose his preferred method for demonstrating his understanding of a book honors him as a capable young adult and also gives him the opportunity to develop and maximize the unique talents and abilities God has bestowed upon him. In other words, though kids do need to learn to write basic essays and, perhaps, a research paper (and there will be plenty of time for that throughout the secondary years), writing is not "better" than other means of expression. Thus, the child who wants to design a detailed movie poster after reading The Grapes of Wrath, build a model of the Pequod after tackling Moby Dick, or sew a period dress upon finishing Gone with the Wind is not copping out. In fact, such hands-on endeavors - decided upon by the child with parent approval as needed - are often far more challenging than writing an essay. That said, my daughters both reached a point where they asked if they could forgo projects, at least for the time being. And that's fine as well. So we decided together that we'd create a book review blog, and that the girls would review their completed Workshop books - as well as selected others - for the real potential audience of blog readers. In due time, we'll use sources like Essay Styles for High School and Movies as Literature to work on more detailed literary analyses, but for now the reviews - for which I've developed a Book Review Checklist - suffice.
  • Work on the project/reviewIn most cases, I allowed a week or two for a project and didn't have a problem with dawdling - both because the projects were enjoyable and because the girls are always interested in getting on with the next interesting book. Book reviews, on the other hand, generally only take two or three days: one to draft, a possible second to make necessary content revisions, and another to post the final, edited draft onto the blog itself.
  • Present the project/reviewWhen a project was done, we scheduled a family sharing time in the evening, during which the project's creator extemporaneously summarized the book for the rest of the family and also explained her project. As part of the process, we asked questions, and that helped us to see what the reader had understood as well. In terms of book reviews, posting them on the blog is the girls' primary means of presentation for now, but I could also ask them to read the reviews during a family sharing time, and/or that they promote their posts via social media.
  • Start a new book...and continue the process. During 2016, my older daughter read 15 books using this system; the younger, 24 - not counting what they read during free time or what we read together for read-aloud time. Clearly, the approach works to encourage continuous, engaged reading 

And with all of that, I can almost hear the question bouncing around in many brains: So what about grading?

We homeschoolers often feel we can get away without grades in elementary - and perhaps even middle - school. But when we start talking about high school, we are sorely tempted to shove our kids into a school-at-home box - in the case of literature, by making them read pre-digested short story excerpts from an anthology text, look up meanings for vocabulary words, answer comprehension questions at the end of each selection, and then take unit tests...all cut-and-dried "objective" means of compiling percentages that can be converted to convenient letter grades to "prove" that our kids have "learned." In the meantime, of course, we kill their love of reading (and real learning) - and we spend their high school years wondering why our once-curious kids suddenly just go through the motions. But at least we've got those letters to plant on the transcript...

Bedeviled by this prospect, I actually began talking with experienced homeschoolers - graduates themselves and parents who've graduated several children who have gone onto varied post-high school endeavors, including college - many of whom insist that, while having a transcript is important, including letter grades may not even be necessary. And praise God if that's true! At root, grades are simply a glaring, ugly symbol of the mass institutional schooling system that treats children like products on an assembly line - artificial and dehumanizing (we grade eggs and sides of beef but we shouldn't rate children in such a way!) - not to mention meaningless in the grand scheme of life. And we homeschoolers shouldn't buy into the system's way of objectifying children if we don't have to. So...just in case my girls are blessed enough to meet with progressive employers and/or admissions counselors, I'm preparing grade-less transcripts as our first offensive salvo into post-secondary life.

However, I realize that most people have been sadly indoctrinated into expecting to see grades on transcripts. So we may be forced to jump through the grading hoop, loathsome though it is. And one decent option - which I did use during my classroom teaching days though it's not quite what I'm personally doing now - would be to develop grading rubrics (for Readers' Workshop and as a much more meaningful and useful method for virtually every area of study). With rubrics, students complete concrete, meaningful learning tasks based on clear, measurable parameters they know before their studies even begin. Rubrics respect kids as human beings by giving them all necessary information ahead of time and granting them choice about what level of performance each seeks to attain. Though still a grading system, rubrics are the least offensive of all formalized methods, and I can recommend them in good conscience if one absolutely feels the need to have a structured approach.

In the end, rubrics or my current approach - which is probably too "radical" for most to fathom and too personalized to adequately describe here - will give my kids grades if they need them for the sake of some schooled employer or admissions counselor. But what's most important is that through Readers' Workshop my girls are continuing to enthusiastically read a wide variety of literature according to each one's interests. And because they're reading from a foundation of personal motivation, they're absorbing and retaining knowledge and principles as a matter of course. That's what Readers' Workshop does - for older kids just as well as youngers.

*****
To read my first piece - Fostering Your Kids' Love for Literature, which is geared toward those with younger children - click here.

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