So you’ve recruited students and parents, chosen your first book, set the meeting date–now what? The only way to avoid having nightmares about dozens of little eyes waiting for you to entertain them at your first meeting is to be prepared!
Read the book. Hopefully you did that before you gave the green light to the rest of the group. But you are a busy parent and we won’t assume anything. Even if you read the book when you were in school, or read it with your older children a few years ago, or read it last year, or saw the movie, read it again! The book will be fresh in everyone else’s minds, and you will lose street cred if you confuse even minor characters or details. One other important point is to make sure everyone has the same version of the book. This is especially important with older literature or books which have been translated from other languages. You might want to choose a specific ISBN to make sure each student is using the same material.
Do some research. There are gobs of both electronic and print resources devoted to classic books. Progeny Press offers excellent study guides for all age groups from a Christian point of view. SparkNotes also provides mostly free study guides and even has a video synopsis feature for some titles. The Center for Learning has been a great resource for me in teaching not only classic literature, but non-fiction, drama, and poetry as well. They even have a nice selection of guides for teaching Shakespeare (yes, this is possible in middle school!). Besides getting an overall picture of the book’s plot and themes, teacher’s guides can help with character anaylsis and provide activities, quizzes, tests, vocabulary lists, and writing prompts.
Write a newsletter. This can be in email form, but what child doesn’t like getting real mail? A simple word processing template and a little creativity can build anticipation for your meeting. I titled ours, “Literary Club Update,” and used it to communicate the when and where of each meeting with both parents and students. It went out twice before the actual club meeting to give everyone tools with which to optimize our time together. I started by talking about why I was enjoying reading the book and some of my favorite parts. Then it went on to include:
- A short biography of the author. This might be only facts easily found on Wikipedia, or perhaps you can do some in-depth research and uncover more detail about the person. It is important to teach students to know the background of the person writing what they’re reading so they know what type of worldview they are dealing with. In addition, most classic literature authors were quite interesting! Some of the juicier character tidbits are not appropriate for younger students, but you can use your judgment there.
- Things to do before starting to read. When we studied “The Witch of Blackbird Pond” by Elizabeth George Speare, our pre-reading activities included research on Puritans and Quakers, as well as the history of Barbados. I also encouraged students to familiarize themselves with a map of Connecticut, and to think about trials and what makes a fair trial. All of these facts and activities helped to make the book come alive as students read about these places and situations.
- Diving in. This section is where you introduce literary vocabulary and examples. Make a list of which terms to concentrate on with different books as you go along to make sure you have covered the major vocabulary. Talk about genre and which one your book falls into. Define theme and have them think about it while they read. Give a definition and point out examples of symbolism, foreshadowing, motif, mood, and other key elements of literature. Discuss who the protagonists and antagonists are. With each newsletter, point out a different aspect of the book such as its structure, types of characters, or setting. This exercise will benefit younger students greatly as they move into secondary literature coursework.
- Vocabulary. Students and parents alike can become easily frustrated with unfamiliar vocabulary found in older classics. Make a game out of it with little multiple choice quizzes or word searches. Then be sure to use those words frequently during discussion times. The students will notice and be pleased that they understand what you are saying!
- Personally thinking. This section of the newsletter is devoted to comprehension questions. Encourage the children to use notebooks as they read and jot down their thoughts along the way. Ask them to think about what is going on with the story. Are characters being treated fairly? Who are the good guys and bad guys? Who is their favorite character and why? How would we react in similar situations? The possibilities are endless!
One word of caution: Be sure you don’t give away too much of the plot in your newsletter content. If it is necessary to do so, then warn your recipients with a “spoiler warning” note on the outside of the envelope.
You may want to ask each family to donate a few dollars to help cover your study guide, copying and mailing expenses.
Write a script. Unless you have a lot of experience speaking off-the-cuff, it will work best if you write down a detailed plan for the evening. This not only ensures you cover all the material, but it may keep you from running short if the students are not in a chatty mood! Always have more to say and do than you think you’ll need. Send a confirmation text or email to parents who agreed to host, make snacks, or help with any other aspect of the meeting. Make a list of all your supplies and double-check it before heading out the door.
Phew! That sounds like a lot of work, but it will be worth it! Look for one more blog installment on this subject where I’ll go over some of the books we used and give you specific ideas for discussion topics, games, activities, and treats!
Traci Matt is author of Don’t Waste Your Time Homeschooling: 72 Things I Wish I’d Known.