Not every homeschool course is aimed directly at the student. Teaching the Classics by Adam and Missy Andrews, offered by the Institute for Excellence in Writing, is for parents who would like some guidance in teaching their children how to analyze literature. Since literature and creative writing are special interests of mine, I was very enthusiastic about reviewing this resource.
Although the course is titled “Teaching the Classics“, the principles covered apply to any kind of ‘story’ format- from children’s picture books to biographies, from classic lit to television shows. It is appropriate for parents with children at any reading level, but essential by the time a student is in high school. It’s not exactly a curriculum or system either, but more of a framework for critical thinking about stories, and exercises in discernment about what makes a ‘good’ book ‘good’.
This program is easy to assimilate into your language arts courses because it is about learning techniques that apply to analyzing literature. It doesn’t require the parent to be a literary expert, nor do you have to start reading all of the books on your child’s reading list. And you don’t have to toss out everything you are already doing and start from scratch.
Our kids are reading all the time, and taking in stories from a variety of sources. Using the Socratic Method explained in the seminar, you can gently and purposefully lead and guide your children to think more deeply about the elements of these stories and what they mean.
The Socratic Method is basically teaching by asking questions. No workbooks, no lectures. A very comprehensive list of questions pertinent to literature studies, called the Socratic List, is included in the Appendix of the syllabus. One would not use all of these questions (there are over 100), but definitely apply a few from each of the Five Elements of Fiction – Conflict, Plot, Setting, Characters, and Theme – when you discuss stories with your students.
Teaching the Classics is a more natural method of analysis and interpretation than lectures and workbooks, and once employed, depends much more on the student than the teacher.
Although I prefer books to other media, I kept thinking about how this method would help parents teach discernment to their kids in other areas as well, considering that we live in a media saturated society.
After all, if the goal is to encourage critical thinking as an instinctive habit, let’s not save it for books. The more you use the muscle, the stronger it becomes. So I started using the Socratic Method in our every day lives, unbeknownst to the family at first, to try to ensure more spontaneous and instinctive responses to the questions I asked. If you announce a Learning Moment, kids can become self-conscious about ‘getting it wrong’.
Example: One of our favorite summer pastimes is watching The Next Food Network Star in the kitchen while we are doing dishes and making dinner. Yeah, I know, FNS is not a classic of any stripe, but we found we could apply the Socratic Method to analyze the ‘characters’, or the people, on the show. What do they say about themselves? What are others saying about them? What are their priorities, and how do they go about reaching their dream goal of becoming a Food Network Star? Those are all questions right out of the Socratic List in the back of the syllabus.
How about our bedtime reading? Our family favorite is Calvin and Hobbes. We haven’t, in over 20 years, become tired of Calvin’s antics or Hobbes’ dry cynicism. Calvin is the archetypal 6-year old boy cut from the same cloth as Tom Sawyer. We understand Calvin’s fears, frustrations, desires, and get a kick out of the use of his struggles and verbose speeches to illustrate and occasionally caricature middle class Suburbia. Themes of materialism, commercialism, family relationships,and youth are explored. Also evident were conflicts between Calvin and his parents, Calvin and his teachers, Calvin and nature, and Calvin and himself (or 6 of himself after he uses the Transmogrifier as a Duplicator to make Calvin clones!)
Superheroes are certainly the In thing right now in television and movies. Many involve extreme examples of setting with other worlds and dimensions, and along with the super powers come magnified metaphors of good vs. evil, heroism, human frailty, and . . . you know I gotta’ say it – “With great power comes great responsibility.”
But back to the classics and reading books. Quality literature is important. Many classics have endured and become ‘classic’ because their characters and settings are wonderfully drawn, and the themes explored are timeless.
Another reason to focus on classic lit is the beauty of language, and the model of eloquence they provide for students who wish to become effective and expressive communicators.
However, what do most of us remember about classic lit from high school? Probably not much, and what we do remember we don’t exactly want to share with our kids. The idea of trying to teach The Iliad, Macbeth, or Great Expectations leaves most parents with that unsightly deer-in-the-headlights look.
Teaching the Classics sessions, each one focusing on a particular element of fiction, gives a parent a solid foundation for discussing stories – any stories – with their children. This isn’t a course just for parents with kids in middle school or high school. It’s never too early to begin developing the ability to think critically about ideas, especially those that are unfamiliar, controversial, or in opposition to one’s own.
Literary devices can be a stumper for non-reading parents, but after walking through the process of analyzing Paul Revere’s Ride, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and Rikki-Tikki-Tavi with Adam Andrews, as well as his off-camera class, you won’t feel intimidated by metaphor, irony, onomatopoeia, or imagery. It’s a great lesson to hear these parents working through the concepts he is teaching, and their answers are often insightful and helpful.
You will also learn important literary terms like protagonist, dénouement, symbolism, archetype, foreshadowing, and personification.
The specific topics covered are:
- Introduction – Why Literature?
- Lesson 1: Preparing for Literary Analysis
- Context and Authorship
- Literary Structure
- Literary Style
- The Socratic Method
- The Socratic List
- Lesson 2: Plot and Conflict
- Lesson 3: Setting
- Lesson 4: Character
- Lesson 5: Theme
These lessons are followed by a practice session using Casey at the Bat by Ernest Laurence Thayer. Then Mr. Andrews explains, in very simple terms, how to use this program in your homeschool. A suggested reading list and a glossary of literary terms rounds out the syllabus.
Again, using this course doesn’t require reading tons of books with your kids. Choose one book – and a simple, short book would actually be best – and use some of the questions on the Socratic list from each lesson section to analyze the story.
I appreciated Mr. Andrews’ emphasis on seeking out background information about the author, as well as remaining true to authorial intent. He explained that we can extrapolate some ideas and applications from the text, but it is important, when analyzing literature, that we don’t read into the text. A bit of knowledge about the time and place the author lived in can provide readers with an understanding of the themes and messages the author was attempting to convey, and the examples used in the course illustrate this important aspect of literary analysis very well.
After employing this method of analysis and interpretation, it is almost impossible to look at stories the same way again. Having used it with my own kids, I can see it quickly become a habit.
Teaching the Classics consists of four DVDs with six 45 minute to 1 hour seminars, outlined in a 97-page spiral-bound syllabus with a glossy cover, printed on good quality paper, and can be purchased from the Institute for Excellence in Writing for $89 (+shipping/handling and any applicable taxes).
The seminar I received for review was recorded in 2004. I played the DVDs on my Windows 7 laptop, and there were a few instances of what seemed to be inconsistent lighting and sound quality, that were not, in my opinion, a detriment to the program itself. It’s just something to be aware of as a few times times I had to play back a section to hear Mr. Andrews speak clearly.