Throughout history, education has been about the exploration of great ideas—the purpose of life; the living out of virtues—all part of the process of thoughtful maturing. High school is the perfect time for students to join this great conversation through encounters with classic literature. Not only are they developmentally ready to begin wrestling with big ideas, they need to be doing so in order to develop habits of mind and heart that will anchor them through the rapid changes of young adulthood.

Great literature can be challenging, so it needs to be presented in a way that helps students connect with it. How can you present ancient works when you aren’t sure you understand them yourself? How should students approach complex works such as Shakespeare’s King Lear, or Homer’s Odyssey? What keys can unlock their understanding? And what hazards do you need to avoid? I would suggest three things:

  • Start with story
  • Help students frame the literature in context
  • Write with purpose

Start With Story

If students are to enjoy literature, they should first approach it in the form the author intended. Thus, Shakespeare’s plays should be seen; Homer’s epics should be sung; and poetry should be both heard and read. You probably won’t find a bard to sing the Odyssey in your living room, but you can read it aloud or use a good audiobook version. Listening to literature can help students immerse in the story, which awakens interest and increases engagement.

As a student is reading or listening to a great work, it is critical to remember Charlotte Mason’s advice to let students meet great thinkers “mind to mind” without throwing up a barrier of questions, interpretation, and talk. The student needs to experience the book in its entirety in order to have a bird’s-eye view of the story arc and the big idea at the book’s core. Allow the book and context resources to speak directly to the student, and the student will be encouraged to speak directly back during the writing stage of literature study.

Present Great Books in Context

If reading a great book is like taking a trip to another time and place, context is the scenic travel guide that helps students discover the literary, artistic, and historic influences that shaped the book. Context resources can include poetry, art, music, a bit of the author’s life, important events and ideas of his time, and other relevant resources. Because literature is the focal point of the study, context resources should be brief, yet interesting and relevant.

To provide easy access to context, it is helpful to have some reference basics in your home library. In addition to the usual dictionary and thesaurus, it is helpful to have a chronologically-arranged encyclopedia of world history, a copiously illustrated art history book, an atlas, and a set of Norton anthologies of American, English, and World literature. Certain elements of context information are also available online, but it is wise to use a carefully curated group of context links rather than browse through whatever comes up first.

Write With Purpose

Once students have absorbed the story and studied context resources, they should be ready to think deeply about the text. One of the best ways to do this is to write responses to carefully crafted writing prompts. Francis Bacon said that “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man,” and he was right. The process of writing through an idea captures initial thoughts and impressions, eliminates logical inconsistencies, leads to deeper insights, and provides practice in clear, exact expression.

In order to encourage deep thinking, writing prompts should engage students at the “why” level. This is not the time for trivia questions, such as “What was Cosette doing when Marius first saw her?” (Les Miserables by Victor Hugo). That type of trivia belongs in a game, not in a high school curriculum! A good essay prompt is specific, and tends to address things such as the overall theme of the book, character motivation, the author’s intent, or the reliability of the narrator.

Narrow, deep prompts guide students down a path of focused thought, but a loose, general prompt such as, “Write about the idea of justice in Les Miserables” tends to result in a shallow, unfocused essay, as the topic is too broad.

A better question would be, “In 750 words, consider how the classical virtue of justice shapes the lives of Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. Discuss which of the two men is more just and more virtuous, and explain why, using quotes from the text to support your thesis.”

Reading great books is a bit like time travel, and writing can be a voyage of discovery. Enjoy the journey!

Copyright 2017, The Old Schoolhouse®. Used with permission. All rights reserved by the Author. Originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of The Old Schoolhouse®Magazine, the trade publication for homeschool moms.

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