Study, or discuss?You don't, of course, need to do either. You can just read books on your own - never discussing or studying them. But this site, along with the lit groups it's designed to support, presumes that homeschooled teens derive distinct advantages, and learn literature in a valuable and different way, by discussing it with other teens.
There are certain kinds of reactions, thoughts, and insights that come naturally to teens (such as "I hate that character!"). These will power what might be called "naive discussion." Then, there are questions that teens can learn to ask, and ways that they can learn to view and think about literature, that can spark whole different kinds of thinking, and therefore change the nature of teens' discussions.What kind of discussion is "good discussion?" What does it mean, to "engage with the literature?" Should homeschooled teens formally study literature, like academics in university English/literature programs do? If so, in what way, to what extent, and with what degree of formality? Just how much formal, academic literary analysis is right for teens? Consider this:
When I was in college, I was horrified by a professor who told us that only naive inexperienced readers read "for the plot." The goal was to look beyond the plot and see what else was going on. Maybe. But I think we shouldn't underestimate the profound importance of "stories" in human culture. We all have a deep need for stories. Interpretation is fascinating too, but not at the expense of ruining the primal pleasures of the story.
- Heather, a homeschooling mom and former literature professor
It's fine to "merely" read and discuss books, enjoying the company of smart teens. You don't need to do any more. Teens who spend 4 or 5 years in lit group will learn literature, and all (good faith) discussion of literature is good. "Naive" discussion, like that of younger readers, is some of the best - it should be encouraged, never looked down on or "corrected."
Still, discussions vary in quality. Teens know this, and in unvarnished teen style, will flatly state that someone's comments, or even whole discussions, "are lame." How to achieve an incisive, interesting, energizing discussion that teens enjoy, and grow and learn from, instead of one that's lame?
And, what if you want to "go beyond" "naive" discussion of literature? What if you feel that it's important that teens learn some amount of formal literary analysis; that they learn to "go deeper" and see things in literature that underlie or inform the parts of the story that are in plain view? What if you want to teach teens to see literature in a wholly different way?
There are some tools, and some things you can try, which may help you in both
- Discussion - asking better questions, coming up with better insights, learning the basics of literate discourse.
- Study - getting a little deeper into literature, studying it, learning the basics of literary analysis.
A little of this stuff goes a long way. Don't try using all of these at once! That'd take away from the love of the story, and teens would lose interest. What we want is the "awakened interest" reaction of "Hey, I never thought of that!" or "I never thought of it that way!" What we do not want, is to analyze the literature to death, to dullness, to indifference.
You don't need to use one of these tools every week or even once per book. Sometimes a whole book may go by with just reading and discussion. It is OK to leave the tools in the toolbox. Review them from time to time, and maybe use one based on:
- whether the tool/technique is suitable for the book currently being read, and
- your knowledge of where the teens are in their ability to analyze, comprehend, and discuss literature.
Discussing LiteratureA good discussion about literature is much like any other good discussion. Attempt to say clever, wise, profound, impressive things, and you'll likely miss the mark. You might also come across like a pompous, pretentious jackass. The key to a good discussion of literature is not saying great things, but rather, asking great questions. It turns out that there are some ways to practice, and get better at, asking good, insightful questions, and when you do, really good communication can happen, and very interesting insights can result.
There are very many sets of pre-written (or "canned") questions, often called "reading guides" or "study guides." Many lit group leaders find them very useful, and use them. Many of the questions are very good. You can get good ideas of how to present the literature to teens, and hints as to which aspects of the literature you might want to focus on. And, it is a lot easier to read out questions from a study guide than it is to come up with good ones yourself. The idea of study guides is generally to focus minds on important aspects of the literature, get readers/discussants thinking along lines that they might not have thought of by themselves, or, just to get them thinking, period. These are worthy goals. But routine use carries an inevitable consequence: using somebody else's questions causes you to think along somebody else's lines. As leader, you can avoid thinking along somebody else's lines by coming up with your own discussion-sparking questions. But from the point of view of the teen participants in your lit group, if you run your lit group like this:
- Assign readings
- When meeting, guide the discussion by asking teens questions about the assigned reading, and getting them to answer.
What works best for many homeschool teen lit groups (and in my own experience) is for the teens themselves to create their own questions, bring their questions to the discussions, and ask them. There may be a number of plausible explanations as to why this works, but whatever the reason, it seems that involving teens more, and giving them leadership roles (asking a question that sparks discussion is a kind of leadership), charges them up and gets them going. So maybe you say "Fine, OK, let's get the teens to ask each other their own discussion-sparking questions." Just exactly how do we get them to do this? The answer's simple and twofold. First we teach them how, then we get them to practice. Nobody's born knowing how to construct good questions about literature (meaning, in this context, questions that do a good job of sparking lively, interesting, deep, and insightful discussion). And this is not a particularly easy skill. Homeschooled teens in a literature group are already reading AP or college level material; the work of coming up with good questions, such as are typical in study/reading guides, is typically done by graduate students, or professors of literature. Just how hard do we want to make teens work? It does take work, and teens (including intelligent ones) do in fact find it difficult at first, to come up with good, discussion-sparking questions. But over a period of weeks they can learn to do it, and over a period of months, get quite skilled at it. We may begin teaching teens how to formulate questions by explaining the difference between good, discussion-sparking questions, versus others that just "fall flat." Actually doing this requires the teacher's art, which can't be explained in a document like this one. But the material itself - how to formulate good question, is possible to study, learn, and then, both model and teach. Very many people have addressed the related questions: "How may I ask questions about literature?" and "What is the best way of generating/formulating good questions?" If you are interested in a survey of the very many people who have done work in this area, you may look at the first part of this document, titled Questions in Literature Discussion. It's only a draft and it is quite long, so I don't recommend it to you unless you take a specialist's interest in this field. A better resource might be the second and third parts of that same document, titled My Own Levels and Using Questions in Homeschool Literature Discussion. These sections explain three levels or kinds of questions, and give some ideas for how you may teach their use. A more succinct resource, covering (in very compact form) the same material but in just two pages, is this document, which is a handout I give to the teens in my Lit Group. If you read it you can probably get the general idea:
- Factual questions can be valuable; they have their place in literature study and discussion. However, there usually is not a lot of room for discussion; the facts (of the story) are the facts, and unless the author is deliberately being ambiguous, there's little to talk about.
- Personal Involvement or Personally Involving are the questions we want to come up with. Their name expresses our goal; these are the questions that get people engaged, both with each other and with the literature itself. To come up with these questions, one must keep part of one's mind on the book being discussed, and, simultaneously, somehow imagine engaging the human qualities (such as judgment or sympathy - there's a long list) of the person being asked.
- Away from the Book questions are worth mentioning because, being human, people are bound to bring them up. We get off on tangents. It's good to see this as normal (because it is) and also to nicely define this sort of question - it helps teens during real-time discussion, to recognize when they are getting off the subject. Away from the Book questions are not necessarily all bad, especially in the context of a group of teens that meets 33 times annually, year after year. But they need to be limited.
If you decide to teach, and then ask/require, your teens to come up with their own discussion-sparking questions, and if you are a leader of the group, you are not off the hook. You still have a threefold responsibility. First, you will need to model "coming up with and asking good questions" yourself. The teens will learn what a good Personally Involving question sounds like partly from hearing you ask them. Second, there's always the possibility that the teens will come up short. Especially when they're first learning/new to the group, or in case of a lot of absences, or just 'cause of random events, it may happen that teens don't bring enough good discussion-sparking questions to the meeting, to "power" it for the whole hour (if that's how long you meet). In such cases you must be able to step in and ask good discussion-sparking questions yourself. Third, perhaps it's occured to you "Great - let the teens lead, but what if they miss something important?" Many leaders of homeschool literature groups want to ensure that the teens get a "good, solid" grounding; that they've thoroughly and deeply explored the nuances of literature. A complete discussion of "How much literary analysis and interpretation can we cram into teen heads, and how much should we?" is beyond the scope of this document. But there is no need to hew to the hardest line of "If the teens don't bring it up themselves then it doesn't get discussed." In fact, there are things in books that teens are very unlikely to pick up on themselves. You may think that some of these things are important. If so, then bring them up, either as a discussion question, or, simply, by telling them about/teaching whatever it is. At least in my lit group, though the teens definitely, highly enjoy running their own show, they're also quite willing for me to instruct them, from time to time. As long as I don't do too much of it, they enjoy it.
Definitions of "The Classics"
Most of the serious definitions of "the classics" sound something like this:
What is a literary classic and why are these classic works important to the world?
A literary classic is a work of the highest excellence that has something important to say about life and/or the human condition and says it with great artistry. A classic, through its enduring presence, has withstood the test of time and is not bound by time, place, or customs. It speaks to us today as forcefully as it spoke to people one hundred or more years ago, and as forcefully as it will speak to people of future generations. For this reason, a classic is said to have universality.
- Notes to Wuthering Heights, Touchstone Classics Edition (2005, Prestwick House, Clayton, Delaware) [emphasis added]
A problem with such definitions is, no one agrees on which works:
- are of the highest excellence,
- say important things about life and/or the human condition, or
- say them with great artistry.
Some people do agree somewhat, some of the time. But the little they do agree on, changes with time. Standards of excellence and artistry change, things that once sounded important now sound obvious, or even false or ridiculous. Once, all novels were considered trash: only poetry, essays, sermons, and ancient, uplifting, &/or ennobling works were considered to be literature.
That's why the time test gets included. There is some sense to it; fads die out and a book that's still read and/or cared about after 100 years has certainly passed some kind of real-world test.
Still, though you'd figure that after 100 years, people might agree what's great and what isn't, they don't. One person says a 120-year-old book's a classic "must-read" while another says the same book's worthless, a waste of time, pretentious, overblown, overpraised, over-assigned. So the time test fails to do what it was supposed to.
And the time test presents a problem of its own: to be a classic, the book has to be old (at least 100 years old by the above definition). Does that mean an 88-year-old book isn't a classic, no matter how great? That it only becomes "classic" when it has its 100th birthday? How was it a worse book when it was only 99 years and 364 days old? Imagine that someone says to Harper Lee (author of To Kill A Mockingbird) "Your book is a classic." Is she duty-bound to say "You are mistaken - it's not yet 100 years old?"
In the end nobody really tries to apply the definitions. They use lists, and so do we.
Definitions of Literature
What about literature itself? Just what is "literature?"
Most people are comfortable with saying that a book or other work qualifies as literature if it is "important," or perhaps "impactful." Some say that a literary work is a work that's amenable to literary analysis. That's a nice definition in some ways but has some obvious problems.
Here's one pretty good definition of literature, from Terry Eagleton's book The Event of Literature:
My own sense is that when people at the moment call a piece of writing literary, they generally have one of five things in mind, or some combination of them. They mean by "literary" a workEagleton calls these defining elements:
- which is fictional, or
- which yields significant insight into human experience as opposed to reporting empirical truths, or
- which uses language in a peculiarly heightened, figurative or self-conscious way, or
- which is not practical in the sense that shopping lists are, or
- which is highly valued as a piece of writing.
- non-pragmatic, and
A number of people have written books designed to help a person read books. Some people find these valuable. Note that each author has a distinct point of view, which may not jibe with your needs. What one person considers a good, even life-changing reference, another person considers deadly dull, constraining, dispiriting, and an "anti-resource." Read these not as a devotee, but as a skeptic, and remember, they exist to serve your needs - not the other way 'round.
- How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster
Subtitled "A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines," Foster tackles the difficult task of teaching "deeper literary meaning/reading" to young/novice readers. Suitable for both leaders and readers/participants. Here's the book in mobi and azw formats (both readable on a Kindle, and on some other e-reading devices).
- How To Read A Book (1972 edition) by Adler and Van Doren.
Mortimer Adler was the founder of the Great Books Foundation, author of and/or contributor to some of the best and most important lists of great books, and the editor of the Great Books of the Western World collection. Adler's a giant in the world of literature study.
But, Adler's outlook toward the study of literature was, shall we say, authoritative. Innovative "takes" or interpretations, alternate competing viewpoints, a collaborative engagement which results in an interpretation that no one's ever thought of before - these are not the lines along which Adler thought. If your goal is to engage teens in literature in a way that excites them, gets their creative and social juices flowing, and enthuses them, be careful - this book is probably an anti-resource for you. However it is a classic, and can serve as a good source of ideas.
Charcterization exercises and ideas
- Characterization Exercise 1 - How the author tells
- Characterization Exercise 2 - Tracking a character
- Characterization Exercise 3 - Who knows whom? How? How well?
- Characterization Exercise 4 - Writing a character's resume
- 6 ideas from Grace Llewellyn
Characterization exercise 1 - How the author tellsHave teens brainstorm ways in which an author tells you what a character is like. Here's a sample list:
- How they look
- The way they talk - slang, accent
- The way they walk, eat, do things
- What they think
- What they say to other characters
- What other characters say or think about them
- The choices they make
- How they get along with other characters
Show the list to the teens, talk through it, then hide, erase, or put it away. Then ask them to brainstorm their own list of ways you learn about a character. If their list contains items from the above one, that's OK.
Once the teens have brainstormed their own list, copy the resulting list of "Ways you learn about a character" into their journals, and/or save them however you save things in your group. If you'd like, save the list to the Helpful Resources section of the discussion area of this web site.
Explain that characters may be described in 4 ways:
- First Person - the character tells their story
- Second Person - a character tells about another character
- Third Person - a narrator tells a story about the character
- What the character says and does (fact and act).
Every story must be told by somebody, but we don't always learn about characters purely from the point of view of the First, Second, or Third "Grammatical Persons." Sometimes a story can be told from a variety of viewpoints, by multiple tellers (this especially happens in plays). In a "fact and act" story it may not matter who tells the story. In this style, the narrator, whoever it is, may omit opinion, "internal dialog," and explanations; we learn about the character by reading what happpened and what they did.
Now read aloud sample passages which exemplify each of these. After each example, ask these questions:
- What was revealed about the character?
- How does that affect your (the reader's) feelings?
- How reliable is the information? (refer to Reliability Notes below)
- One character might not give accurate or objective information about another; they have their own viewpoint, their opinion may be skewed.
- A character might not give accurate or objective information about themselves; they have their own viewpoint, their opinion may be skewed.
- Some people consider (or deem) an author's third-person narrative to be impartial and definitive, but this isn't always true. The author can have some fun fooling (misleading) the reader. They might describe a complicated character, or one who is mentally ill and doesn't have "just one character." And, an author can be biased, which can color, bias, or even distort their characterizations.
Sample 1: First Person - the character tells their storyFrom The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time by Mark Haddon
Then the police arrived. I like the police. They have uniforms and numbers and you know what they are meant to be doing. There was a policewoman and a policeman. The policewoman had a little hole in her tights on her left ankle and a red scratch in the middle of the hole. The policeman had a big orange leaf stuck to the bottom of his shoe which was poking out from one side.
The policewoman put her arms round Mrs. Shears and led her back toward the house.
I lifted my head off the grass.
The policeman squatted down beside me and said, "Would you like to tell me what's going on here, young man?"
I sat up and said, "The dog is dead."
"I'd got that far," he said.
I said, "I think someone killed the dog."
"How old are you?" he asked.
I replied, "I am 15 years and 3 months and 2 days."
"And what, precisely, were you doing in the garden?" he asked.
"I was holding the dog," I replied.
"And why were you holding the dog?" he asked.
This was a difficult question. It was something I wanted to do. I like dogs. It made me sad to see that the dog was dead.
I like policemen, too, and I wanted to answer the question properly, but the policeman did not give me enough time to work out the correct answer.
"Why were you holding the dog?" he asked again.
"I like dogs," I said.
"Did you kill the dog?" he asked.
I said, "I did not kill the dog."
"Is this your fork?" he asked.
I said, "No."
"You seem very upset about this," he said.
He was asking too many questions and he was asking them too quickly. They were stacking up in my head like loaves in the factory where Uncle Terry works. The factory is a bakery and he operates the slicing machines. And sometimes a slicer is not working fast enough but the bread keeps coming and there is a blockage. I sometimes think of my mind as a machine, but not always as a bread-slicing machine. It makes it easier to explain to other people what is going on inside it.
The policeman said, "I am going to ask you once again. . ."
I rolled back onto the lawn and pressed my forehead to the ground again and made the noise that Father calls groaning. I make this noise when there is too much information coming into my head from the outside world. It is like when you are upset and you hold the radio against your ear and you tune it halfway between two stations so that all you get is white noise and then you turn the volume right up so that this is all you can hear and then you know you are safe because you cannot hear anything else.
The policeman took hold of my arm and lifted me onto my feet.
I didn't like him touching me like this.
And this is when I hit him.
Sample 2: Second person - one character talks about anotherFrom Martyn Pig by Kevin brooks
Think of the worst person you know, then double it, and you'll be halfway to Auntie Jean. I can hardly bear to describe her, to tell you the truth. Furious is the first word that comes to mind. Mad, ugly, and furious. An angular woman, cold and hard, with wiry blue hair and a face that makes you shudder. I don't know what color her eyes are, but they look as if they never close. They have about as much warmth as two depthless pools. Her mouth is think and fire engine red, like something drawn by a disturbed child. And she walks faster than most people run. She moves like a huntress, quick and alert, honing in on her prey. When I was younger I had nightmares about her. I still do.
Sample 3: Third Person - a narrator tells the storyFrom Skinwalker by Tony Hillerman (from chapter 3 of the book)
"Warm Pepsi-Cola," Kennedy said, his voice full of wonder. This remark caught Chee thinking of the way the buckshot had torn through the foam rubber of his mattress, fraying it, ripping away chunks just about over the place where his kidneys would have been. Thinking of who wanted to kill him. Of why. He had thought about the same subjects all day, interrupting his gloomy ruminations only with an occasional yearning thought of Mary Landon's impending return to Crown-point. Neither produced any positive results. Better to think of warm Pepsi-Cola. For him, it was a familiar taste, full of nostalgia. Why did the white culture either cool things or heat them before consumption? The first time he had experienced a cold bottle of pop had been at the Teec Nos Pos Trading Post. He'd been about twelve. The school bus driver had bought a bottle for everyone on the baseball team. Chee remembered drinking it, standing in the shade of the porch. The remembered pleasure faded into the thought that anyone with a shotgun in any passing car could have mowed him down. Someone now, on the ridgeline behind Bistie's hogan, could be looking over a rifle sight at the center of his back. Chee moved his shoulders uneasily. Took a sip of the Pepsi. Turned his thoughts back to why whites always iced it. Less heat. Less energy. Less motion in the molecules. He poked at that for a cultural conclusion, found himself drawn back to the sound of the shotgun, the flash of light. What had he, Jim Chee, done to warrant that violent reaction?(from chapter 20 of the book) (Imagine rewriting this in first person - would it work? Be easy?)
The damp air carried the thousand smells aroused by rain. But something was missing. The acrid smell that fills the air when rain wets the still-fresh manure of corrals and sheep pens. Where was that? Chee's intelligence had its various strengths and its weaknesses—a superb memory, a tendency to exclude new input while it focused too narrowly on a single thought, a tendency to be distracted by beauty, and so forth. One of the strengths was an ability to process new information and collate it with old unusually fast. In a millisecond, Chee identified the missing odor, extracted its meaning, and homogenized it with what he had already noticed about the place of the Goldtooth outfit. No animals. The place was little used. Why use it now? Chee's brain identified an assortment of possible explanations. But all this changed him, midstride, from a man happily walking through the rain toward a long-anticipated meeting, to a slightly uneasy man with a memory of being shot at.
Sample 4: the character's own statements and actionsFrom Deenie by Judy Blume
(from page 2 of the book)
(This part is written in the first person. The character describes her own feelings and thoughts.)
The bus stops on the corner by Old Lady Murray's news-stand. Ma bought a magazine and a pack of gum from her. I try not to look at Old Lady Murray because she's so ugly she makes me want to vomit. She has a big bump on her back and she can't stand up straight. You can see the bump right through her clothes. Even in winter, when she wears an old black coat, you can see it. That's a fact. But today it was warm and sunny, just the way it always is in September when you're wishing it would hurry and get cold. And Old Lady Murray was wearing a plain cotton dress. I pretended to be window shopping so I wouldn't have to look her way.
I was happy when the New York bus finally came down the street. "Hey, Ma ..." I called. "Here's the bus."
As we got on, the bus driver greeted me with, "Hi, Beautiful!"
Ma gave him a big smile and said "Deenie's the beauty, Helen's the brain."
(from page 111, after Deenie finds out she has scoliosis and needs to wear a brace)
(This part is also written in the first person, but it wouldn't matter. We could get the information about Deenie's character just as easily if the selection were written from the third person point of view. She doesn't tell us her feelings or internal mental/psychological state until the last 3 sentences; except for those, we draw our conclusions about her character based on what she says and does.)
We walked down the hill, past the church with all the statues, and around the corner. Old Lady Murray was fixing up her magazines as we got to the bus stop. I bought a roll of Life Savers from her. I stood closer than I ever had before. When she gave me my change I told her, "I have scoliosis. That's why I'm wearing a brace."
She didn't say anything.
"You have kyphosis, don't you?" She went back to stacking her magazines.
"I know you have kyphosis ... that's what made your spine crooked." Old Lady Murray didn't answer me. She started coughing. She had a terrible cough. Her face turned purple. I offered her a Life Saver but she brushed my hand away.
When she stopped coughing I said, "Do you have any kids?"
"Are you married?"
"No ... I got nobody ... no family at all."
"But you have a mother and father ... I mean, you did when you were small."
"But ..." I almost called her Old Lady Murray. I caught myself in time and instead I said, "But Miss Murray ... everybody has a mother and a father."
"Not me," she said.
"Then where did you come from?"
"The stork," she said, and started to laugh.
"Deenie!" Midge called. "Here comes our bus!"
I wanted to explain to Old Lady Murray that I wasn't fooling around with her. That I was really interested in her family. But Midge called me again and Old Lady Murray wouldn't stop laughing.
Characterization exercise 2 - Tracking a character
About 1/3 of the way into the book, say:
"As you read the rest of this book, pick a character to follow. When reading, how do you get to know them? Track how that character's traits and motivations are revealed by noting the following:"
- what you noticed,
- what motivates your character;
- what changes your character's character;
- how the characters influence each other's development
- how the characters influence each other's actions.
"At the end, we'll discuss the following questions, so keep them in mind as you're reading and noting:"
- How has your character changed since the beginning?
- What strategies (narration, comments and thoughts of others, what the character says and does) has the author used to create the character? Are all three used evenly?
- Why do you think the author did it the way they did it?
- What decisions can you imagine the author making as they wrote?
At (or toward) the end of the book, have the discussion you told the teens you would.
Here's a form you may find helpful, and use, in tracking characters. But, just tracking this same information in a composition book, or any other form of a journal, can work just as well. Here's an editable version of the same form, if you want to modify it, and here's a filled-out sample you may use to demonstrate/teach how to do this.
2 Potential Problems
Teens may choose characters that die or otherwise don't last. Tell whomever has so chosen that their character won't last. Don't say what happens to the character; they'll have to read and find out for themselves. Also tell 'em that when their character exits the story, you'll ask them to pick another character to follow. Suggest that it might be easier to pick a long-laster in the first place, but leave the choice up to them.
Teens may choose minor characters. If they do, tell whomever has so chosen that their character is minor. Suggest/ask them to switch to a major character, or else track more than one character (major and minor; multiple minors).
Characterization exercise 3 - Who knows whom? How? How well?
About 1/3 of the way into the book, say:
As you read the rest of this book:
- If possible, think of three or more characters, one of whom is known to all/both of the others.
- Think of each of the "knowing" character, and try to imagine, or summarize, their unique perspective (their opinions, feelings and judgements) regarding the "known" character.
- What overall picture does each "knowing" character have of the "known" character - what does each of the "knowers" think of the "known" character overall?
- If the "knowing" characters were to separately and individually describe the "known" character, how would they do it?
- Do you think any of the "knowing" characters is right? Are any of them wrong?
- If any of them are wrong, how do you justify contradicting that person's own experience? Or their judgement, or observation ability?
- Is it possible to say for certain what the "known" character is like?
- Do you feel like you, reading the book, know the "known character?" Do you have a good idea of what they're like? Could you accurately predict:
- What they'd do in/respond to some hypothetical situation? How they'd solve some kind of problem?
- What they'd think when reading some book, and what they'd think of the book?
- What they'd hink in some hypothetical discussion? What they'd say aloud?
- How they'd feel in some hypothetical situation?
- Continually question the reliability of information; especially if it comes from another character.
- How do different characters's perspective of the story's events differ? How are they the same? Try to imagine, or summarize, each of their unique perspectives (their opinions, feelings and judgements) regarding some event or events in the story.
Characterization Exercise 4 - Character Resume
Here's something that could be fun to fill out together as a group, or singly and then each present to the group (or have the moderator read them aloud). It's a "Character Resume" to fill out, using your imagination and inventing things. Levity can be good. Don't just repeat information from the book (even if this is possible), but all of the information you invent must fit the character, so have good reasons for what you write. Your answers can be contemporary (from the character's own time) or current (today/right now).
Here's a filled-out sample to give you an idea how to fill these out.
If you do this exercise more than once, on further iteration, brainstorm new questions for a new resume. Here's an editable version of the resume for your use. If you'd like, save your brainstormed questions and/or the changed form to the Helpful Resources section of the discussion area of this web site.
6 Ideas by Grace Llewellyn
Here are 6 ideas for literature study by Ms. Grace Llewellyn*. I've added the tie-ins for lit groups.
Making Contact With Literature
It's human nature to want intimate connection with whatever we're attracted to. It's more gratifying to hike through wilderness, drinking snowmelt and acquiring blistered feet, than to drive a scenic mountain route. It's nicer to kiss somebody than to stare at a photo. My father told me once that he thinks some men hunt because it is the only way they know to be close to wild animals, more than watching them on TV or in zoos. In many ways I catch myself trying to establish relationships with things I like - cutting up National Geographic to rearrange it into my own scrapbooks, inventing variations on my favorite recipes, taking my own photos of favorite landscapes though postcards are cheaper and more perfect.
Same thing with literature. It's not always enough to simply read stories and let them work on us in their deep, unspoken, mysterious ways. Sometimes we need to meddle, to build a bridge between ourselves and someone else's writing. Unfortunately, the only way most of us are encouraged to do that - in high school and college English courses - is by performing left-brained, even cold-hearted, acts of literary criticism upon the pieces we love. The further you go up the "English" ladder, the less acceptable it becomes to make any comments about how literature affects you personally, or how your own life reflects its themes. Instead, you must analyze, define, compartmentalize. At times, this gets absurdly abstract and detracts from literature's ability to work on us in those deep, unspoken, and mysterious ways. Therefore, here are a few other ways of becoming involved with literature, ways which I think are respectful of yourself and of what you read, ways which let it keep living and growing inside you:
Make a commonplace book - a personal collection of quotes lifted from your reading - from novels and poems and essays, not from other people's books or quotations. W.H. Auden's A Certain World: A Commonplace Book is a nice example, though the fact that it was published is a bit misleading: the most important value of such an undertaking is intimately personal, although it could easily feed into more public projects. For instance, the "education" section in my own commonplace book is getting long enough that I sometimes consider turning it into a book of its own someday - but I would not try, or want, to publish my whole collection. You can organize your quotes by themes ("honesty," "dogs") or leave them in an amorphous, poetic lump. Your quotes can be as short as a phrase or as long as a page ... or more. Because the important thing is your involvement, it's best not to photocopy or use a scanner to lift quotes, but rather to type or write them out yourself.
Lit group tie-in: Ask teens to start one of these, and, from time to time, ask if anyone has added any good quotes lately. A couple of times a year, ask teens to bring their "commonplace books" and read aloud from them.
Memorize your favorite bits of literature. Some people memorize quotes so they can sound urbane while chewing hors d'oeuvres at snobby parties, but that's not what I mean. Twelve years ago I spent half the summer at a field camp in Northern Minnesota studying zoology. I walked alone in the evenings, and sometimes I'd be overwhelmed as the fireflies came out and the loons called and the frogs sang and the warm wind moved inside me and tossed in the alder thickets. I wanted to have some way of touching this beauty, and one thing I did was to memorize part of Barry Lopez's story "The Search for the Heron." Then I would walk along at night reciting it in a quiet voice. Yes, I do know that sounds cheesy, but I'd be much more pleased with myself if I had a bigger supply in my cheesy brain of memorized poems and paragraphs, and not such a big supply of college English papers upstairs in my file cabinet.
Lit group tie-in: Ask teens to memorize a poem or passage and recite it before the group. Then ask the same or other teens to read a passage aloud. Try to choose a passage or poem similar to the one the teen has memorized. After hearing the memorized passage and the "read-aloud" one, ask teens their impressions of each. Ask leading questions such as "Did both passages sound equally powerful?" and "Did Amy sound like she 'owned' both poems equally?" If there is a noticeable difference, discuss how it would be if we lived in a culture in which oral literature predominated, compared to reading from print. Also discuss the narrator's/reader's role in audio books - are all readers alike?
Read aloud to someone you love, or take turns reading aloud. If you make reading itself into a full experience, you won't feel so much that you have to do something else (i.e. write papers) to the experience to appreciate it.
Lit group tie-in: If you do this in lit group, obviously it doesn't need to be somebody you love! An acquaintance is fine. Also note the various kinds of love (besides romantic), such as love for a sibling or parent. Within lit group, you can just pair off and read to one another.
Prepare a selection of short readings (about 5 minutes each when read aloud). Ask teens to skim the first few sentences of each, and choose readings they'd like to read aloud, noting that multiple choices are both OK and highly encouraged! Note their responses, and pair teens who have each indicated interest in the same readings, if possible. For example, if 2 teens have each said they'd like to read selections 5 and 7, pair them, and ask each to read one of the two passages aloud, and listen while the other is read. Order of reading and choice of who reads which is up to them.
If you're trying to get to know someone, trade reading "assignments," so that you each read each other's favorite literature. That way, you get to build a shared inner landscape and enjoy good books along the way.
Lit group tie-in: Organize teens to do this outside of the lit group. E-mail and other technologies make the communication of assignments easy (if the teens do use e-mail, ask them to copy you on these "assignment communications." Two schemes are both worth trying: pairing teens who like the same kinds of literature, and pairing teens who like very different kinds of literature.
Write essay-length book reviews, like those in Harpers, Audubon, The Nation, Ms. Writing long reviews is a great balance between criticism and just-plain-reading. You actively participate in the reading - watching for ways the book relates to what you know from other reading from personal experience, from stories in the news, from your understanding of history, from eavesdropping in the park. You'll keep your eyes peeled for good quotes, find you try to both capture the overall gist of the book and to highlight a few points or themes which strike you as especially interesting. It's often fine to weave in relevant personal stories or current events, certainly to give background information about the author or subject, and to point out the book's limitations or to suggest unusual applications for it. For instance, I wrote a review of Susannah Sheffer's Writing Because We Love To: Homeschoolers At Work in which I pointed out how classroom teachers could use the book's ideas; my piece was published by English Journal, a magazine for secondary English teachers. That's another advantage of writing reviews: it's one of the easier ways to get published as a beginning writer.
Lit group tie-in: This must be an optional activity - not every teen will be ready, willing, or able to do this, or benefit from the exercise. If any teen does write a review, read it aloud or ask them to read it during a lit group session, or pass out copies to read silently. Then discuss it. Introduce the concept of "Questions, Comments, Constructive Criticism?" if you haven't already, and if the author wants, let the group question, comment, and offer constructive criticism.
Host a poetry reading. Read your favorite poems, and invite a few friends to read their favorites. Honor the poems by making it a gala event, candles and dress-up.
Lit group tie-in: Devote a lit group session to this, or better yet, set this up as an after-group event. Consider making it a "poetry slam," or an "authors read their own," but that's only one option - not everyone writes poetry, or good poetry, or is willing to read their poetry aloud. Limiting the event to poets only reading their own work might limit attendance.