August 11, 2018

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 delight-directed and 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, a truth that was recently confirmed when my former principal provided his unsolicited feedback - more than 15 years after I'd left the profession. He said, "It was my good fortune to be [your colleague] at the high school level and I know that [your] students loved [your] approach and reported their language skills improved significantly in [your] classes." Thus, 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 she was very intimidating. 

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 did with my girls, starting when they were eight and nine.

During their elementary years, our workshop looked like this:
  • Choose a bookThough I didn'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 did use its suggested literature lists (which used to be available for free) as one basis for the girls' choices, as well as Gladys Hunt's wonderful Honey for a Child's Heart collection. One could also use Christine Miller's All Through the Ages and titles from TruthQuest History. I liked that the books on the lists I used are categorized by age/approximate reading level, that they are real (quality) literature (not twaddle), that they've been "vetted" for appropriateness for Christian children, and that they represent the whole spectrum of literary genres. Of course, as I did in my classroom, I allowed each of my children to decide which book to read when, and I let them choose other books of interest - i.e., appropriate titles they found at our library - as well. 
  • Read the book, one chapter a dayThe girls were capable of reading the books on their own because I purchased the titles at each one's instructional level. But we greatly enjoyed "cuddle time" where each one read to me individually, so that's what we did for a few years. We sat together, and I either listened or "buddy-read" every other page. This also enabled me to see each one's decoding and comprehension progress without having to require written narrations. And we didn't rush; I could have required more than a chapter a day, but, instead, we found it was better overall to savor the books by taking our time.
  • When a book is finished, choose a projectTo get creative ideas appropriate for elementary-aged students, I started out using a very helpful series called Book Projects to Send Home - the entire set of which I still keep on hand. Unfortunately, the books are out of print and are hard to find for a reasonable price - and I can't necessarily recommend alternative resources because the only ones I've seen come from common core-aligned entities. However, HOD does offer three of the books for a good price. And once you see a few ideas, you probably won't need all the books anyway; after my girls had paged through the guides we have and had tried some of the projects, their creativity took over. So after a while they mostly came up with projects from their own imaginations. We simply talked through their ideas, and I provided feedback and guidance as necessary.
  • Work on the projectIn most cases, I allowed a week or two for this and didn't have a problem with dawdling - both because the projects were so enjoyable and because the girls were excited to get on with the next interesting book. My one accommodation was to schedule project work as the last task of the day so nothing else would interrupt if a child wanted to work for an extended period of time.
  • Present the projectWhen 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 inevitably asked questions, and that really helped us to see what the reader had understood.
  • Start a new book...and continue the processDuring our first year, my older daughter read nine books, and the younger read 13 - the difference being that the older tended to choose longer works that each took a little more time. Not only that, I also 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 our new batch of literature for the following year. All of that told me they were, 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 made me very happy to continue.
All that said, I should add that I also gave a different type of reading assignment. Namely, the girls each read from a level-appropriate book in the Amish Pathway Reading series, doing two stories a week along with each story's accompanying workbook pages, eventually completing the entire series. The stories were quite engaging, but they were not exactly real literature so I knew they should never supplant our need (or desire) to continue Readers' Workshop. However, since the stories were 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 felt confident in my decision.

When I started the workshop, I considered the probability that we'd eventually want to pursue some deeper literary analysis (a.k.a., "picking a book apart"); as I said, I occasionally taught specific whole books to my public school students so I know that kind of work has its place. However, I knew that could/should wait until later. And, even then, I knew I'd provide options and wouldn't require analysis of every book...because that would surely kill my kids' love of literature and, by extension, of lifelong learning. In fact, I eventually decided to wait until high school to tackle literary analysis and that I'd use Movies as Literature instead of forced reading of particular "classic" titles while continuing Readers' Workshop, 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 most 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. If you want that, Readers' Workshop is your ticket.

Wondering how to engage your older kids with this approach?
Check out my post on Fostering Your (Older) Kids' Love of Literature here.

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