Monday, July 10, 2017

A Well-Read Interest-Led Literature Program

When it comes to Matthew and Literature, I'm finding success constantly eluding us.  We've been trying to find a literature study program that works for him, and despite multiple approaches and curriculum companies, we just can't seem to make things click.  I'm not sure why.  He is intelligent and insightful, but I'm leaning toward the idea that "studying literature" just isn't his thing. Getting him to read, and then complete the activities is always a chore, and while he can intelligently (although reluctantly) discuss what he's read, he struggles to find the "right" answers to be able to get a decent grade.

On the flip side, when there is a topic he's interested in, he seems to devour the books.  For example, we recently started a new course about the history of aviation.  The program, Doctor Aviation,  helpfully provides suggestions for further reading.  Matthew has completed only three lessons in as many weeks, but he has read two biographies of the Wright Brothers, Chuck Yeager's autobiography, The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, and when given the choice between two books about Yeager's reach for the sound barrier, asked why he couldn't have both. He discusses them eagerly, sharing more information than I ever thought I needed to know about early planes and pilots.

I'm beginning to think I need to stop searching for a traditional literature program and start thinking outside the box.  I still want to make sure he's exposed to all genres of literature.  However, I'm realizing that it might be better for him to be "well-read in general" than fighting with him to read what curriculum writers deem "worth reading." To that end, we're going stop copying others' ideas and make our own (mostly) interest-led program.

I still want Matthew to focus on reading and understanding what he's read, but rather than looking for obscure quotes or metaphoric meaning, the plan will be for Matthew to read books that tie into his other classes, summarize the book as he goes along, and be able to discuss it.  If it's a non-fiction book, a general summary will suffice, but if it's a work of fiction, I'm going to have him focus on outlining the plot and main character development.

I've decided that most books he would read will fall in "catch all" genres: (Auto)Biography, History/Era, and Science/Tech.  He will have to read a set number of books and discuss them competently to receive a specific grade.  If he does a satisfactory job, the book can be checked off from the title list and counted toward the quota. If not, then it doesn't count and he has to pick another title and start over.  (I'm also open to entertaining plus/minus letter grades if he has read seven of two genres but only five of the third.) I want his grades to reflect not just how many books he's flipped through, but how many books he's able to competently discuss.  The discussion part is going to be key to completion.

I also have been thinking that studying literature without anything to anchor the choices to what he already knows hasn't been helping.  He really enjoyed a course on the history of Greek engineering, including how they made their war boats and planned their battle strategies based on the vessels' strengths and weaknesses. It makes sense that he's reading The Iliad and likes it.  I can't help but at least try to sneak classics in there, so my plan is to list is to pick literature that ties to an era or topic that we are studying. Having visited the Mark Twain house in Hannibal Missouri, he has a connection to the author, reading anything by Twain may make more sense to him. In a similar manner,  The Jungle (Upton Sinclair) or The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck) may not precisely "interest-led" but I'm hopeful that they'll appeal as ways to extend what he's learning about (early labor laws, the Depression and Dust Bowl).  There certainly are fictional science books, but I have a feeling that he'll easily reach the quota of those, so I'm leaving fiction out of that category.

Almost all of his other courses have "recommended reading" selections, so I'll start with those as a base to find books.  He's using The Great Courses to study the geology of the National Parks, and we've already added in using the textbook Geology of National Parks (Harris, Tuttle, and Tuttle) to round out the course's credit-worthiness.  Looking through the course's bibliography,  An American Idea: The Making of the National Parks (Kim Wilcox & Jimmy Carter) looks to be a good candidate for inclusion on his reading list as a science/tech option.  I can also take key players in the history of the parks - for example, John Muir or Theodore Roosevelt - and find books to put under (Auto)Biography.  Even though many of them do require a few of the recommended reading books to complete the course, when you're given a choice of four and want them all, then I think it's safe to say "Two for the original course, and two for lit," is a reasonable division of labor.

"Same author, different book," will also be a likely resource. David McCullough is the author of the biography of Theodore Roosevelt,  Mornings on Horseback, that Matthew read for his government course. He liked that enough to say, "I want to read the Wright Brothers one he wrote." (Thankfully, McCullough has a whole shelf full of history books!)  I can't say too much if he finds a favorite author and wants to explore him more; I certainly have my favorites that I binge read, and then stalk their Amazon pages for new titles!

If we hit a period where we don't have anything to work on, I'll pull out my copy of IEW's Timeline of Classics: Historical Context for the Good and Great Books.  We reviewed  this a while back, and it's really helpful for finding books that go with specific eras.

I initially had thought about giving Matthew a curated list of books, like the IEW Timeline,  but I think he'd wind up choosing a stack of books from one topic and binging.  That defeats the purpose of "well-read." My new plan is to scan ahead in his coursework and the Timeline, see what books are listed within a topic, and then give him a choice of "this or that."

Fingers crossed that this approach works for Matthew.  As a literature lover, I would be thrilled if he learned to love the classics, but ultimately, I'd rather him learn to love reading.  I'm hoping that if he can read a wide variety of books and find what he loves, he will see reading as something enjoyable and not a chore.  That lesson is far more important than the letter that actually goes on his transcript.

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