September 15, 2011

Fostering Your Kids' Love for Literature

When I was a classroom teacher working with immigrant kids at both the middle and high school levels, I rebelled. I simply refused to pull the dusty old literature anthologies off the shelves...because, even then, I had Charlotte Mason ideas in my head (without knowing it). Thus, I instinctively understood that reading snippets of literature chosen (randomly) by editors in New York high rise office buildings was not nearly as useful - or as motivational or enlightening - as reading whole living books. Similarly, though I once taught Steinbeck's The Pearl and annually enjoyed leading my high schoolers through mandated group study of Romeo & Juliet and Julius Caesar, I shied away from whole-class literature units as much as possible, too.

Instead - though many colleagues wondered what I was doing and some (especially at the high school) even ridiculed me for it - I developed a Readers' Workshop in my classrooms at both schools (and Writers' Workshop when I taught literacy blocks at the high school).

In the case of Readers' Workshop, that meant every student reading a different book at any given time. Often the books came from the extensive classroom library of appropriate literature I built over the years - and carried with me from the middle school to the high school when I transferred. But students were free to read other books, too, as long as they pre-approved them with me.

I encouraged the kids to read outside of class - the more they read, the higher their "quantity grade" for a semester could be - but class time became work time, not lecture or busywork time. Thus, on most days, we chatted together for a few moments after the bell rang and then the kids got to work (for the next hour or two) on whatever phase of a book each was working. So, if you'd been a fly on my classroom wall, you'd have seen on any given day that some were reading, others were journaling about what they'd just read (a required task that helped me track each one's progress), and still others were working on projects for recently-completed books. They all stayed on task because I'd built trust, communicated my expectations from the beginning and "roamed" the room, checking in with each student and helping as necessary.

I devised a series of projects - at least one that highlighted each multiple intelligence strength - and created detailed instruction sheets and grading rubrics. Thus, when a student finished reading a book, he chose a project and worked on that until it was completed to his satisfaction. When a project was finished, it was put up for display, and the student chose a new book with which to start the process again.

It all ran very smoothly, and I know my students - even the high school seniors - loved it. They weren't free to read anything - they had to choose literature of some sort (not magazines or comic books) and it had to be educationally appropriate - but they had enough freedom of choice that even the reluctant students enjoyed the task. And they had time to read right in class; thus, they actually did it. So, because they were reading regularly, their skills improved as a matter of course; I know they did because I read the daily summaries/narrations, and I saw growth of understanding over time. And then they were allowed to demonstrate their understanding in creative ways through projects that supported their various multiple intelligence strengths.

I knew without a doubt that my workshops were right for kids...and it didn't matter one iota (to my students or me) that my establishment-type colleagues scoffed at me. In fact, when one teacher in my department mocked my classes in front of our shared students, they defended me despite the fact that the only thing the woman ever worked hard at was intimidating them.

But what does all of that have to do with home education - my purpose and calling today?

Well, plenty...because I believe that the best way we can foster a love for literature (and learning) among our own children is to develop a homeschool version of Readers' Workshop with them. And that's just what I've done with my girls, starting when they were eight and nine.

Our current workshop system looks like this:
  • Choose a book. Though I don't use Heart of Dakota's (HOD) actual Drawn into the Heart of Reading program (I think it's too heavy on literary analysis), I do use its suggested literature lists as the basis for the girls' choices, as well as Gladys Hunt's wonderful Honey for a Child's Heart collection. I like that the books on these lists are categorized by reading level, that they are real (quality) literature, that they've been "vetted" for appropriateness for Christian children, and that they represent (at each level) the whole spectrum of literary genres. Of course, as I did in my classroom, I allow each girl to choose which book to read when, and I let them choose other appropriate books of interest - they found several at the library last year. But the HOD lists and Hunt book provides a very solid foundation.
  • Read the book, one chapter a day. The girls are, of course, capable of reading these books on their own because I purchase the titles at their instructional level. But we greatly enjoy "cuddle time" where each one reads to me individually, and so that's what we do with this literature. We sit together, and I either listen or "buddy read" every other page. This also enables me to see each one's decoding and comprehension progress without having to require written narrations. And we don't rush. I could require more than a chapter a day, but, instead, we've found it's better overall to savor the books by taking our time.
  • When a book is finished, choose a project. To get creative ideas appropriate for elementary students, I started out using a really helpful K-5 series called Book Projects to Send Home - the entire set of which I still keep on hand. However, after paging through those books and trying some of the projects, the girls' creativity took over. So now they mostly come up with projects from their own imaginations. We simply talk through their ideas, and I provide feedback and guidance as necessary.
  • Work on the project. In most cases, I allow a week or two for this and haven't had a problem with dawdling - both because the projects are so enjoyable and because the girls are excited to get on with the next interesting book. My one accommodation is to schedule project work as the last task of the day so nothing else need interrupt if they want to work for an extended period of time.
  • Present the project. When a project is done, we schedule a family sharing time in the evening, during which the project's creator extemporaneously summarizes the book for the rest of the family and also explains her project. As part of the process, Daddy inevitably asks questions, and that really helps us to see what the reader has understood.
  • Start a new book...and continue the process. Last year, Rachel read nine books, and Abigail 13 - the difference being that Rachel tended to choose longer works that each took a little more time. Not only that, I noticed a marked increase in the amount of books each chose to read on her own for fun...and they couldn't wait to see the new batch of literature for this year. All of that tells me they are, indeed, developing a love for literature. And, since a love of reading is a sure-fire way to pretty much guarantee a lifelong love of learning, that makes me very happy.

All that said, I should add I have also given a different type of reading assignment four days a week this year. Namely, the girls are each reading from a level-appropriate book in the Amish Pathway Reading series, doing two stories a week, along with each story's accompanying workbook pages. The stories are quite engaging, but they're not exactly real literature so they'll never supplant our need (or desire) to continue Readers' Workshop. However, since the stories are well-written and interesting, I decided they'd be good for extra practice and for helping the girls develop additional vocabulary, comprehension, and critical thinking skills (through the workbook exercises). And my friend, Dr. Kathy Koch, Ph.D., praised the pedagogical quality of the materials, so I feel confident in my decision.

I can also see a need in the future for some required reading and deep literary analysis (a.k.a., "picking a book apart"); as I said, I taught specific whole books to my public school students so I know that kind of work has its place. However, I'm confident that can wait until middle and high school. And, even then, I think I'll provide options (i.e., given three Shakespeare tragedies, which would each girl prefer to read?...or, from a list of five Steinbeck novels, which would each like to tackle?). I also won't require analysis of every book they read...because that would surely kill their love of literature and, by extension, lifelong learning. Instead, I foresee us analyzing one or two books a year - the idea is to develop the skill of analysis, and that should be plenty to accomplish the goal - and then continuing Readers' Workshop in a way similar to what we do now, albeit with more advanced books and projects.

If you've never considered Readers' Workshop in your home - and I think it's probably safe to say that many of you have not simply because it's a rarely-used technique even among those who've studied educational methodology - I urge you to look into it a bit more and strongly consider implementing it. 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. But Readers' Workshop can and will do just that.

For information about Fostering Your (Older) Kids' Love for Literature, click here.


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