Archive for the ‘Studying Lit’ Category

Question: Why do students have to study literature?

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

Library booksImage by CCAC North Library

My response: The study of literature is intended to give students a lens into the ideas and stories that shape society (present and past) as well as to expose them to the complexity of human development, through time. All sorts of fiction genres create scaffolding for philosophies, ideologies, the politics of relationships, the exploration of the logical end of imagined scenarios, the psychology behind particular actions and events, and more. Literature also exposes students to uses of language not available in non-fiction, and creates a series of cultural touchstones for shared understanding that transcend mere fact.

In short, literature provides an avenue of expanded imagination and language for the sake of both appreciating beauty and human depths, while sharing the experience with other readers (creating a kind of connection and community through shared story). We consider the reading of literature to be one of the ways we create societal cohesion!

Now onto the real question: do they HAVE to study it?

Kids don’t have to study lit any more than they have to study trigonometry or post-modernism or physics or sculpture. Some exposure to literature is valuable just like some exposure to advanced math and science has value. But for kids who are not enamored with literature, keep it to a minimum just like you would if you were raising an actress who never imagined using the quadratic equation in her future but who wanted to go to college and so needed to take Algebra 2.

Make it as painless as possible. Select works of fiction that are more easily accessible (popular story lines with fast-aced writing). Learn how to identify themes, imagery, plot arc, and characterization. Appreciate the use of language (note what sort it is, examine why it works or doesn’t). Learn to write one literary analysis essay in high school so when it happens in Freshman English in college, it won’t be your child’s first attempt.

Cross-posted on facebook.

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The professor-archetype

Monday, June 3rd, 2013

Portrait of Professor Benjamin H RandHave you ever noticed that in some children’s literature, a professorial type male character is often included as a father-like figure to a gaggle of kids? He might even be the father.

This man is usually interesting to the reader because he seems oblivious to typical parental worries—he doesn’t throw up red flags of caution when the children experiment with dangerous tools, contraptions, or potions. He is unworried by their retellings of journeys into magical worlds or forests. He is non-plussed by their cheeky philosophy or their impolitely expressed opinions. He often accepts their fantastical tales with aplomb, barely registering alarm when they return from adventures riddled with danger, and shows a surprising capacity to believe the stories at face value.

This man-character doesn’t lecture children and sometimes, infuriatingly, doesn’t even give advice or warnings when they seem most merited. He, himself, might be engaged in his own mysterious doings and ponderings, which leave the children bewildered and impressed.

I think of characters like Professor Dumbledore (Harry Potter), Professor Kirke (Chronicles of Narnia), Professor Martin Penderwick (professor of botany, The Penderwicks), Merlin (The Sword and the Stone), Wayne Szalinski (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids), Gandalf (Lord of the Rings series) and even the benign homesteading pioneer, Pa Ingalls (Little House series).

This archetype is an intriguing figure. Children gravitate to these men and I’ve been curious about why. I have a few hunches. It seems to me that children crave the experience of being taken seriously. They want their words to be weighed by adults and then found to be full of truth, sincerity, and importance. Even if children’s ideas or experiences could be explained away by an adult’s greater worldliness, children still hope to find in the adult they respect, an appreciation for the way they know the world so far.

These professor-like men uniformly respect a child’s grasp of the world they live in and they are appropriately engaged in their own battles and explorations so as not to be overly impressed by the children’s, either. These men’s lives are independent of whether or not the kids turn out, survive, or discover the same truths the professor-types take for granted.

Additionally, the professor-archetype believes he doesn’t know everything and is open to learning from any source, including the naive experiences of kids. This openness registers deeply with readers. It gives child-readers hope that the thoughts and feelings they have about the life they are living can find a kind, sympathetic, or at minimum, respectful audience in the adults they love and trust.

When I get worked up (wanting to cover all the bases, trying to protect my children from danger – even my adult children!, lecturing them from the vast-expanse of my more abundant failures and successes, disbelieving their reports because they don’t match what I’ve known to be true), I sometimes envision Professor Kirke and his wave-of-the-hand type attitude. He couldn’t be bothered explaining away Lucy’s experience of Narnia. If she reported it and she was trustworthy and we admit that there are things in the universe we do not yet know, there must be truth in Lucy’s report. End of story.

A profound respect for the truthfulness of children. Impressive.

When faced with my children’s inexperience and their youthful impulses, I have to resist the temptation to be a stodgy, know-it-all adult who fails to see magic and opportunity in a child’s point of view. I have to sometimes sit on my hands (which tend to do all the talking, lecturing, and waving) and let the perspective “ride”—let it run its course or express itself without restraint to hear the full-bodied nature of what it wants to say. I have to make room for what makes me uncomfortable.

I’m learning how to let risk be a part of a child’s (or young adult’s) exploration. I’m trying to hang back, talk less, and listen more. I want to be open, quieter, more curious, less case-closed.

I want to relate to my kids, believing that life is a better teacher than a lecture.

I want to respect their experiences without being a busybody about them.

It’s funny. This professor-archetype character is so popular with kids. They just love the surprise of an authority figure who would treat children as peers and invite them into real danger trusting them to their competencies, heart (valor), and goodwill—at least on the level of how they express their participation in the world around them, and how they understand their part in it.

These men (and women) make good role models for us. Don’t you think? Who are your favorite adults in children’s (or any) literature? What have you learned from them? I’m curious.

Cross-posted on facebook.

Image Portrait of Professor Benjamin H Rand by Thomas Eakins (1874)

Reading aloud matters

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013


I spent hours of my adult life nestled in the corner of the sectional, feet tucked under me, with a book in my hands. Sometimes a baby sucked on a bulging breast at the same time, and one of those babies didn’t like to listen to my voice resonating through my chest cavity. Some well-timed nips to the nipples drove home that message. Ouch!

Other times a toddler couldn’t be calmed or a middler would knock over the orange juice onto the carpet and the book would get flung back into the library basket. Reading time over! Waving the white flag.

But those were exceptions. We made it a daily priority to read together for an hour. Read aloud time signaled the start to our homeschool day. It was the “coming together” of all of us of all the ages in all our stages, and it told us: “Yes, we homeschooled today.”

Over hummus and olives one Friday night in my friend’s kitchen (homeschoolers really rock the social scene), a bunch of my mom friends and I became animated as we swapped titles and our various reactions to the children’s novels we had read over nearly 10 years time. Better than a book club! We drank wine, we got misty over Anne of Green Gables, and had a wide variety of reactions to Moccasin Trail and Across Five Aprils. We were a wealth of detail about Rome and Egypt (easily could have talked husbands under the table about ancient history—so schmart were we, aided and abetted by fiction for children).

We also laughed about the books that bored us but that thrilled our kids.

For instance, I have no idea what happens in any Redwall book. I got through (operative phrase there) the first one (not as delighted by the woodland feasts and feisty creatures in chain mail as my kidlets), but then somewhere during the second installment, I discovered I could make shopping list, consider the benefits of dying my hair, and respond to angry posters online all in my head while reading, without skipping a sentence. So I’d merrily read along and space out, until that one moment that was sure to give me away at the end of any given chapter:

“Mom what do you think is going to happen next?’


“Um…” I scrambled. “I have a hunch the bad guys are preparing to attack the Abbey.”

Yes! That is what they thought! They knew it!

And that, friends, is the correct answer to any question about plot in Redwall. You’re welcome. You may return to kitchen remodeling in your mind.

While in this vigorous conversation about kids’ lit, one of the moms made a remarkable statement:

“I can’t figure out how you all have time to read aloud. We never have time. That’s the one thing we’ve never done in all our years. I just don’t see how it could be fitted in.”

For a tense moment, you could have heard an olive drop to that tiled floor. We were stunned, because what quickly became clear is that there were even a few us (I plead guilty to this charge) who sometimes got little more done in a day than reading aloud. I couldn’t imagine what homeschool would be if you didn’t read books to your kids.

If I had been forced to supervise workbooks all day, every day, for 5 kids, for 17 years without fiction? Without reading Laura Ingalls Wilder? Without discovering Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf or Robert Peck’s Soup? Not getting to read The Shadow Spinner or become enchanted by Toad and Mole and Badger in Wind and the Willows?

My laundry basket of library books, the wide array of reading lists, the hours spent using my voice to share my emotional reactions in real time to the plights and adventures of heroes and heroines I grew to love as my own possession… This was/is the teaching that is/was homeschool to me… to us.

Homeschoolers rightly think reading to our children is about getting them to hear quality language or to learn about history in a story-format or to become familiar with great literature. It is those.

But it’s also this: When you read aloud, your children discover your values and your humanity. They see tears form in the corners of your eyes. They notice the catch in your throat as you describe a tender scene of connection between two estranged characters. They hear you roar with laughter over an inside joke or a cultural touchstone and they want “in” and expect you to help them “get it.”

Big Juicy Conversations

And then you talk. About the book! About that awesome story and your surprise at the ending or how glad you are that it did end well. Forget that odios word “narration” for a moment (it has been used to drub tedious recounting out of children when a Big Juicy Conversation will do so much more).

You talk about who you liked and who you believed and who you rooted for to get what he or she wanted. You talk about the evil stoat or the wicked prince or the confusion that goes with a troubled character who has both admirable qualities and also real flaws. You compare today to then, and here to there. But you do it, filled with emotion and connection, and the sense of your own place in history and on the planet, all in front of your children—showing them a way to interact with each other, with their neighbors, with their fellow country-persons, and even with how they perceive other times and places.

Reading aloud is the chief way in the homeschool you show who you are to your children—and they show themselves to you. It’s the core of education.

I can’t think of any more important practice in the homeschool than the sacred read aloud time.

I’d love you to name titles that stand out in your memory that made good read alouds (include ages they might work for, though I found my kids could listen to virtually anything at any age).

Read to your children every day that you can. You won’t regret it.

5 ways to encourage reading

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

Reading tips
Sometimes you love to read, your kids love to hear you read, and the whole family walks around with a nose in a book or up against the screen of a Kindle. But maybe your family has a kid or two or three who finds the work of reading a deterrent to actually doing it. They love stories—books on CD, movies, cartoons. They may enjoy comic books. But the sustained effort to read a novel is challenging. And being the conscientious wonderful parent that you are, you are now worried. What to do!

I have a few tips today to offer you. Feel free to add more in the comments.

1) Create a cozy reading space.
Hidey-holes are particularly popular. Pick a corner of a room where people are (no isolated space gets used in a homeschool family so make this space a part of the family activity), prop a pillow or two up against the wall and place one on the floor (a bean bag chair works too, or a futon). Next to the floor-level cushiony space, situate a basket with books in it (tempting ones, a range – fiction, non-fiction, short, long, easy, challenging). Next to the basket, add a small low table with a lamp on it. Or alternatively (to “up the cool factor”), put a clip light in the basket for the child to attach to the book itself to provide lighting. Be sure (if it’s winter where you are) to add a cozy blanket to snuggle under. Specify that the corner is for reading, not for any other activity. Any child may go there any time he or she wants to read, even if only for a couple of minutes. (In big families, you may need several hidey-holes—don’t forget hidey-holes under tables or near fireplaces or behind sofas, too.)

2) Write personal notes in the book that the child is going to read.
DSCN7073.JPGMy daughter does this for siblings when she loans a book. She writes notes at particular moments in the story in the margins for the sibling to read. These might be comments like “Bet you didn’t see that coming!” or “Isn’t so-and-so a jerk?” or “Tell me when you get to this chapter so we can discuss. It’s so infuriating!” Knowing that these notes are in the margins waiting to be discovered can help a child sustain attention to keep reading just so he or she can see what you wanted to say to him or her.

3) Light a candle for “reading time.”
Blue and yellow Everyone in the family reads while the candle is lit. Start with 5 minutes of silent, family reading and build over a period of weeks to 15 or 20. During the “reading time,” no one will get up to get a glass of juice or a snack for a sibling or child. No one will pull out the Legos and build a fort (unless you have some pre-readers who need to do something while everyone reads). When the candle is extinguished, reading time is over, talking and noise resume.

4) My mom’s tip for reading worked wonderfully for my siblings and me.
She sent us to bed at whatever bedtime was the current one. But she always told us we could stay up as late as we liked as long as we were reading in bed. This strategy had two benefits. First, we found ourselves reading every night because, in part, it meant we got to stay up late. Second, we wanted to go to bed to read to find out what happened after we fell asleep with the light on the night before—it made the whole “getting to bed” routine much less of a big deal and it turned all of us into readers!

5) Go to the library on a regular basis.
Even if you have digital books aplenty, there is something about walking through the stacks and getting to pick out your own books that makes the library a fabulous incentive for reading. Don’t worry if your child picks books and doesn’t read them or doesn’t finish them. The accumulation of information, language, and story from repeated visits, paging through books, reading some, ignoring others, will generate more reading later. Only good can come of it!


5 tips to get you back in gear

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

DSCN3023.JPG Happy New Year, Brave Writer families!

Too bad we can’t settle into a “long winter’s nap” right about now. January insists that you be productive, so let’s look at 5 ways to do it that I hope are relatively painfree.

If you live down under: You just finished your big holiday and it’s summer vacation. Rock it! Have a great time. We in the north envy you, but we know it’s well deserved.

  1. Coziness first
    It’s winter in the northern hemisphere. Everyone is nicer to each other under cuddly blankets or with fires roaring or with tea and candles. Don’t “hit the workbooks” so much as invite everyone back to the routine with a little attention to snuggling and pleasing natural light. Remember that winter can create a sinking feeling—moodiness, depression, pessimism, loneliness—all due to loss of sunlight. So bring some inside and warm up the space. Keeping tables and counters clear seems to matter more in winter too.

  2. Read alouds second
    Nothing says “gentle return to education” like a new novel to read together. Pick something you loved as a child (not a new novel). This is “comfort food” time. Find the joy in the novels of your youth (pair it with The Arrow, if we have an issue created for it). This month’s issue (Jan 2013) is for Little Town on the Prairie (my favorite children’s book series of all time). You might also love reading Wind in the Willows to help foster the coziness you need (how can you resist Mole’s home?). Check out the Already Published Issues of The Arrow for more ideas.

    For older kids, you might simply designate a time that everyone reads to themselves at the same time. Shared reading time, with a fire, is amazingly intimate. It creates a dynamic of valuing literature and private reading experience, while also giving the home a moment of silence (akin to when a newborn baby is sleeping and a hush comes over the space). The Boomerang Already Published Issues is a great place to find titles to read.

  3. Make one plan
    Plan ahead and execute the One Thing you’ve been meaning to do all fall but never got to it. Check out our blog entry on how to focus on one thing at a time.
  4. Go on a field trip to…
    A nature center, a ski lodge, the library, an art museum, the movie theater, the zoo, a restaurant from another culture, your best friend’s house, McDonald’s playland (yes, sometimes that’s even a good idea in January), a shopping trip to China Town, or Little Saigon, or the Italian Quarter. Pick one. Plan it. Do it. Get OUT of the house.
  5. Add one novelty item to your homeschool
    This could be a new set of watercolors with an easel. You might purchase a whole set of dinosaur cookie cutters to go with your dinosaur unit and you will make playdoh and do cut outs. Maybe you add a bird feeder to the nearby tree and spend some time each day noting which birds show up. Get a new strategy board game or several decks of cards and teach everyone Solitaire. Even a new sled (for outside) or a mini trampoline (for the garage or basement) can inject some lively activity when you start to feel trapped indoors.

The main thing to remember is that January is the middle of the year. You can actually plug along nicely in your traditional education work (math, science, grammar work, reading, writing) because the quieter, slower months are conducive to all of that. Just remember to not let cabin fever take over. In those moments, remind yourself of this list and pick ONE to do!

Fabulous article on form vs. freedom at college level

Monday, April 6th, 2009

Listening to College Writers

What has stayed with me most strongly from the past two semesters has been students’ remarks that the most important thing they will take with them from English classes into the rest of their lives is the ability to bring out what is deepest in themselves with clarity, to take that terrible risk, and to be heard and understood by someone, whether a teacher, their classmates, or an even broader audience.

Close Reading Tips

Monday, March 30th, 2009

To be a good academic writer, it helps to be an effective reader. Close reading of texts is the key. I found a great set of tips here:

Close Reading Tips

Book Review: The Animal Dialogues

Wednesday, February 6th, 2008

Craig Childs’ book, The Animal Dialogues (Uncommon Encounters in the Wild), is an insightful look at how a naturalist spends his free time. Liam, who is our animal-nut around these parts, is lapping up the delightful (and, at times, downright scary) encounters between human and beast.

Childs divides the book into chapters that each contains a single animal. He then details the intersection between his curiosity and the animal’s natural instincts… often to the point where you wonder: What on earth were you thinking, Craig?

What makes this book such a delightful choice for you and your kids is… you guessed it: the writing. Childs is a natural story-teller. He grabs you by the shirt-collar and holds you against the wall until your pulse finally slackens as he demonstrates his improbable escapes.

Here’s a sample of his terrific writing:

“The grizzly bear is six to eight hundred pounds of smugness. It has no need to hide. If it were a person, it would laugh loudly in quiet restaurants, boastfully wear the wrong clothes for special occasions, and probably play hockey. It would also pursue secret solitude, disappearing for weeks on end while people were expecting it at upcoming meetings. At the moment, it was bold and aloof, making sure we knew we were being watched, but keeping its distance.”

The first section includes the following animals:

Mountain Lion
Cat and Mouse (A hilarious chapter! We couldn’t stop laughing.)

He continues with birds (raptors!), moutain animals like elk and bighorn sheep, and then runs through the gamut of unusual fellows such as rattlesnakes, rainbow trout and even mosquitoes. His final ode is to the most complex beast of all: the human.

Childs is frequently a guest on NPR so you may have heard him share his bits of naturalistic advice and wisdom there. More than anything, I find this to be a perfect read-aloud. Each chapter has suspense and closure. You can read each one over a several month period, one per week, or read them all in a row (like we are).


Peter Pan

Monday, January 28th, 2008

Johannah wrote to me from college to tell me I must read Peter Pan. Then she wrote again later to tell me that the first five chapters are genius but after that it gets a bit racist. Still when Johannah calls writing genius, I listen. She’s a great reader, better than I am.

So I followed her link to the online version and began reading today any time I needed a break from SAT/ACT essays (which was often, I confess). Then I had to keep interrupting Jon from his work because I was laughing so hard, I felt guilty unless I involved another party.

Tonight as I closed up shop online, I took another quick peek at the first chapter (couldn’t resist) and read the following. Instantly I thought of you all.

Mrs. Darling first heard of Peter when she was tidying up her children’s minds. It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for next morning, repacking into their proper places the many articles that have wandered during the day. If you could keep awake (but of course you can’t) you would see your own mother doing this, and you would find it very interesting to watch her. It is quite like tidying up drawers. You would see her on her knees, I expect, lingering humorously over some of your contents, wondering where on earth you had picked this thing up, making discoveries sweet and not so sweet, pressing this to her cheek as if it were as nice as a kitten, and hurriedly stowing that out of sight. When you wake in the morning, the naughtiness and evil passions with which you went to bed have been folded up small and placed at the bottom of your mind and on the top, beautifully aired, are spread out your prettier thoughts, ready for you to put on.

Good night, good mothers.

How does she do it?

Monday, August 20th, 2007

Little House
Originally uploaded by juliecinci

Every now and then, a writer I’ve read countless times tricks me into rereading her work. As I selected passages for the September issue of the Arrow from Little House on the Prairie (a book I’ve read so many times, I can practically narrate it chapter by chapter from memory), I meant to simply thumb through my 1960s hardback volume to my favorite quotations and then jot them down…

Instead, my teaspoon poised itself in front of my mouth as my French onion soup went cold while I read the first four chapters without a pause or a breath… I rushed to the part where we find out whether or not Laura’s dog Jack survives being washed downstream in a rising creek after his long journey from Wisconsin to Kansas, running the whole way on foot under the covered wagon.

I know how it turns out. I know it so well, I can almost quote the poignant description. But somehow, any time I start reading the opening lines of this book, I can’t stop until I get to that most exquisite writing which releases me from the prison of narrative tension.

Little House 2
Originally uploaded by juliecinci

Laura Ingalls Wilder is one writer who gets more done with simple language than just about any other children’s writer. She so thoroughly inhabits the mind life of a little girl, you forget that she’s in her sixties at the time of writing.

I first heard the Little House series read to me by my mother. She sat in my bed, back against the headboard, reading the books chapter by chapter in her soothing voice. So special did our readings become that for years afterwards, my mother continued to purchase and give to me Laura paraphernalia and any other books related to her life as they were published. I have the full set of hard back books as well as many other Laura related publications all housed in my bookcase.

Eight years ago, I finally had the joy of visiting South Dakota where Laura spent her long winter. Our kids were with me and I had just finished reading the series aloud to them… for the second time. We marveled at the tiny house whose drawing room Laura considered large and spacious. We admired the trees planted for each of the girls. All those years later, they towered over us. What an astonishing experience to see that all we had read found its roots in a real place, among real people. In an odd way, I felt as though we were visiting family. That is the power of Laura’s wonderful writing.

Laura’s books are a gift to every generation. More than a portrait of a moment in history, of pioneering life, Laura Ingalls Wilder offers us timeless writing. If you haven’t read her books, now’s a great time to start.