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Making Literature Relevant

by Derek Bunting, thirty-year English teacher and CEO/Founder of Literary Focus, Inc.


Guest writers are invited for their insights into different aspects of the Homeschool Hub Utah’s four pillars, which are to connect, empower, educate, and serve homeschooling families in Utah. While we feel each guest blogger’s message will be helpful to homeschooling families, not all ideas presented by every guest blogger are officially endorsed by Homeschool Hub Utah.

 

It is a pleasure to write a guest blog post for the Homeschool Hub Utah! After a thirty-year teaching career, I founded Literary Focus in 2021, a Salt Lake City-based nonprofit organization that uses technology to bring together college-bound students in Grades 7-12 to study literature in small, seminar-style online classes to prepare for the challenge of the AP Literature Exam and college-level coursework.


Last summer, we ran a pilot program with students from Rowland Hall and West High School in Salt Lake City and had 33 students participate in our inaugural four-week courses. This past winter we expanded to include homeschool and international students, and next year we are excited to partner with the University of Utah’s Youth Education Program to extend our program’s reach throughout the state of Utah. A challenge facing all English teachers—and most likely homeschool parents leading novel studies with their children—is how to make classic literature interesting and relevant to students within the current cultural climate. With so many entertainment options available online, the prospect of sitting down to read a difficult, lengthy literary work does not seem to be as appealing to the present generation as it was for previous ones. Through careful curriculum planning, however, we believe we can make literature not only relevant and engaging for students, but also fundamental in their growth and development as people.


When teaching any novel or play at Literary Focus, we structure our curriculum with the goal of challenging students to think critically not only about the book we are reading, but also about how the lessons learned from the literature might impact their understanding of themselves and the world around them. We begin our curricular planning by creating our culminating activities first—the AP Literary Argument, the Authentic Assessment, and the Socratic Seminar—to provide a thematic focus and to clarify what we want to students to learn by the end of each four-week course.


We teach six books each month at three levels of difficulty to accommodate various ages and abilities. Since we serve students who are college-bound, we only select novels or plays that have appeared repeatedly as suggested titles on the College Board’s AP Literature Exam, which students traditionally take in their last year of high school to demonstrate their college readiness and to enhance their chance of admission to highly-selective schools. If parents would like to see the full list of most commonly suggested titles on past AP Literature Exams, please click on the following link: AP Literature Suggested


Our Level 1 books—such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies—are typically taught in Grades 7-9; our Level II books—such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening—are usually taught in Grades 10-11; and our Level III books—such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—are generally taught in Grade 12 or senior AP Literature courses.


If homeschool parents want to lead their own novel discussions with their children, we encourage them to think about what they want their children to learn by the end of each novel or play. When planning our courses at Literary Focus, we follow the “backward design” model espoused by educators Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their book Understanding by Design (1998), which encourages teachers to begin planning by thinking about what they want their students to know, understand, and be able to do by the end of a unit. As a result, the initial step in our planning process is to prepare our culminating activities first, which we will now discuss individually in more detail so parents can create similar activities when building a literature program for their children:



I. AP Literary Argument

AP Literary Argument prompts (Question 3) on the AP Literature Exam present a general

theme that is found in many literary works and then provide a list of suggested titles that reflect that theme for students to analyze from memory in a written essay. When we introduce a novel or play, we select one of those AP prompts from a previous exam that had the novel or play we are about to read as a suggested title.


For instance, when we teach Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street—one of our Level I books in August—we use the Literary Argument prompt from the 2010 AP Literature Exam, which asks students to consider how the importance of “home” in a literary work impacts a character’s growth and development and “illuminates the larger meaning of the work,” a phrase that the College Board uses to indicate a literary work’s central theme:



By using a past prompt from an actual AP Exam, we let students know that we are preparing them for the type of writing that they will be expected to do at the college level. We emphasize with students that learning to write a proper literary analysis is a multi-year process, and the earlier students begin acquiring the skills and knowledge necessary to achieve this purpose, the more prepared they will be when the time comes. Writing essays can often feel like a dry academic task in the best of circumstances, but by using AP prompts from previous AP Exams, college-bound students understand that there is a natural relevance to the assignment, since they know that they will confront similar essays in the not-too-distant future, ones that they will have to write at the college level or on high-stakes assessments that will determine their future options.


If parents would like to see previous Literary Argument prompts (Question 3) from every AP Literature Exam since 1999, we encourage them to click on the following link: AP Literature Past Exam Questions. Once we have selected a prompt that serves as the thematic focus for our course, we begin to prepare students on how to write the final essay. We have students use the rhetorical framework of Hegel’s Dialectic to structure their arguments when responding to all AP prompts. If parents would like to read a tutorial on how we use Hegel’s Dialectic to prepare students to write this type of essay at Literary Focus, please click on the following link: AP Literary Argument Tutorial.



II. Authentic Assessment

In addition to learning how to write an AP Literary Argument, students also work on a final project over the four weeks of one of our courses. The Authentic Assessment asks students to apply the lessons learned from the literature to some relevant, real-world situation. The final project could be a presentation, an exhibit, or a performance that allows students to address an issue raised in the novel or play and consider its significance in their lives or in the world around them. For example, when we teach William Shakespeare’s Macbeth—one of our Level II books in July—students are asked to consider the nature of courage as they evaluate the decisions that Macbeth makes as he pursues his ambition to become King of Scotland. As students analyze Macbeth’s thoughts and actions while reading the play, they also imagine that they have been asked by the Nobel Foundation in Sweden to submit a nomination for a newly-developed prize that they plan to award at the end of the year: The Nobel Prize for Courage.


This particular Authentic Assessment asks students to think of a person in the real world who has inspired them by displaying noteworthy courage in the face of hardship and adversity. Through this assignment, students will also implicitly compare and contrast the characteristics of the people they are nominating with the character of Macbeth and what we should learn from both examples:



In many ways, the Authentic Assessment is the most important activity of any course because it requires students to move beyond the text to find relevance and significance in the lessons learned from the literature. In this particular assignment, students have to consider what it means to be courageous, which hopefully will not only help them recognize true courage in others, but also inspire them to live more courageously in their own lives as well.


If parents would like to create their own Authentic Assessment as a final project for their children, they should think about potential real-world situations that would require students to apply the lessons learned from the literature in some tangible way. To read more about Authentic Assessments and see additional examples, please click on the following link: Authentic Assessment.


III. Socratic Seminar


On the final day of each four-week course, we conclude with a final discussion, or Socratic Seminar, that asks students to ponder the deeper, more philosophical questions that a novel or play asks us to consider. We prepare students for this final discussion on the first day of the course by introducing three “Essential Questions,” a term coined by Wiggins and McTighe that


  • causes genuine and relevant inquiry into the big ideas and core content;

  • provokes deep thought, lively discussion, sustained inquiry, and new understanding;

  • requires students to consider alternatives, weigh evidence, support ideas, and justify answers;

  • stimulates vital, on-going rethinking of big ideas, assumptions, and prior lessons;

  • sparks meaningful connections with prior learning and personal experiences;

  • recurs, creating opportunities for transfer to other situations and subjects.


For instance, when teaching Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake—one of our Level III books in June—we ask students to consider the following Essential Questions as they read about the novel’s protagonist, Gogol Ganguli, and his experience as a second-generation Bengali immigrant in the United States:

  1. What does it mean to be an “American”?

  2. How do our names help shape our identities?

  3. Should we care about our cultural heritage?

We pose these questions on the first day of class and encourage students to consider them as they read, knowing that their “answers” will always be provisional and subject to change. We emphasize with students that good Essential Questions are ones that we should all contemplate throughout our lives—students, teachers, and parents alike—and that our thinking about these questions will most likely evolve with age and experience.


To begin the process of thinking about these questions, we give students an initial journal assignment that asks them to respond to a thought-provoking quotation that addresses one or more of the Essential Questions. For instance, with Lahiri’s novel, we use the following quotation by French writer Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) to encourage students to think about the complex nature of one’s personal identity:



We choose quotations that are intentionally ambiguous or provocative to make students wrestle with the ideas presented, forcing them to draw conclusions without necessarily knowing the context for the thoughts they are considering. In this way, students’ thinking can go in many divergent directions. For parents who are looking for a thought-provoking quotation to use in their own literature discussions, we recommend visiting the following link — www.goodreads.com/quotes — and searching subject keywords related to the three Essential Questions they have chosen.


After introducing the quotation in class, students then write a 150-word journal response for homework that has the following three components:


  • Explanation: What does the quotation mean? What thoughts or feelings are being expressed?

  • Evaluation: Why is this quote significant? Do you agree or disagree with its claims?

  • Application: How is this idea relevant to your life, previous studies, or the world around you?


When students finish writing their journal assignment, they post it on the class discussion board and eventually respond to their classmates’ entries to begin a conversation that concludes with the Socratic Seminar on the last day of class:



We emphasize with students that Socratic Seminars are not debates; instead, they are discussions where we collectively delve into the complexity of the issues involved to try to reach some clarity in our own thinking, knowing that our views will most likely change from the beginning of the discussion to the end as we hear viewpoints and perspectives different from our own.

Before we begin the Socratic Seminar, we introduce students to the educational philosophy of Socrates, who decided halfway through his teaching career to stop making declarative statements of any kind to his students. He found that his proclamations carried too much weight and stifled his students’ creativity and ability to think for themselves. It was at that point that he founded what is now called the “Socratic Method,” a pedagogical approach that uses clarifying or probing questions to test the logic and validity of any student premise or assertion. If parents would like more information about using the Socratic Method

in their discussions, please click on the following link: Socratic Method.

Our goal at Literary Focus is similar: to challenge students to think deeply about the literature they are reading to discover their own truths about the characters and situations. We also want our students to consider how the lessons learned from the literature might impact their understanding of themselves and the world in which they live. The three culminating activities that we use in our courses help us achieve that purpose, and we hope that students use these final activities as springboards for further thought and contemplation long after the course has concluded.


If you would like to learn more about our program, please visit our website — www.literaryfocus.org —where you can see the full selection of books that we are offering this summer, a sample daily agenda for a typical four-week course, and student and parent testimonials. Best of luck building your own literature program for your children, and if you have any questions about our courses or these culminating activities, please leave a comment below or email me at dbunting@literaryfocus.org.

 


For the past thirty years, Derek Bunting has taught English in a wide variety of educational settings—from a private school on Maui, Hawaii, to a Catholic school in Portland, Oregon, to an inner-city charter school in Springfield, Massachusetts. A New Hampshire native, Mr. Bunting has a B.A. in English from Dartmouth College and an M.A. in Education from Stanford University. In 2001, he and his wife, Cynthia, moved to Salt Lake City, where he taught English at Rowland Hall for five years and Skyline High School for ten before becoming the Director of Curriculum and Instruction at the Winter Sports School in Park City. In 2021 he founded Literary Focus, a Salt Lake-based nonprofit organization that uses technology to bring together college-bound students in Grades 7-12 to study literature in small, seminar-style online classes to prepare for the challenge of the AP Literature Exam and college-level coursework.

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