355 | How to Ruin a Good Book: Three Easy Tips (Janice Campbell)
When your student finishes a literature class or curriculum with the firm determination to never read again, what happened? These three tips provide a bit of ironic insight into ways that a good book can be ruined. Perhaps they'll help you avoid some pitfalls as you guide your students in reading and the joyful study of literature.
Janice Campbell, a lifelong reader and writer, loves to introduce students to great books and beautiful writing. She holds an English degree from Mary Baldwin College, and is the graduated homeschool mom of four sons. You’ll find more about reading, writing, planning, and education from a Charlotte Mason/Classical perspective at her websites, EverydayEducation.com, Excellence-in-Literature.com, and DoingWhatMatters.com.
The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry
An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis
Home Education by Charlotte Mason
Toward a Philosophy of Education by Charlotte Mason
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Janice Campbell Hello and welcome to the Homeschool Solutions Show. My name is Janice Campbell and I'm one of the many hosts here on the podcast. Each week we bring you an encouraging conversation from this busy and blessed journey of educating our children at home. While the title of the show is Homeschool Solutions, we don't pretend to have all the answers to all the homeschooling questions. It is our hope that this podcast will point you to Jesus Christ that you may seek His counsel as you train your children in the way they should go.
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Hi, I'm Janice Campbell, and today I'm going to cover three surefire ways to ruin a great story. As you probably know, if you've listened for long, I love to read. I've read voraciously since I was a child and have been in and taught a good many literature classes. I've also written the Excellence in Literature curriculum, and I still read for fun, for information, and for edification (the process of growing in wisdom). Sadly, I've heard from many people whose classroom experiences with literature turned them away from books. Not just the great books, but all books. Rather than being allowed to approach a novel as a great story to be explored and enjoyed, students were taught to approach literature in a way that made it feel about as pleasant as being forced to spend days digging buried stones from a hot, dry field.
Think about that for a moment. Reading good fiction should be interesting, and it can be a transformative journey of discovery and growth. It should never be turned into something that feels like punishment. However, if you still want to ruin a good book or story, I have three tips for you. You can choose to interrupt it, nibble it to death, or politicize it. Let's talk briefly about each of those things.
The first tip invites you to ruin a great story by interrupting it every paragraph or so in order to explain things and answer questions that have not been asked. Of course, Charlotte Mason disapproved of what she referred to as "the excessive talky-talky of teachers", and she wrote of the undervaluing children's education and personhood by refusing to be quiet and let the story speak for itself.
I think we all remember classes in which everything was directed, expected, or suggested, and students were not allowed to simply immerse in a story, figure out new vocabulary from the context, identify with or despise characters, and draw their own conclusions about why things happened as they did. Charlotte Mason tended to be right about such things, but if you truly wish to ruin a good book, interrupting the reading with extraneous information and unnecessary explanations is a fine place to start.
However, if interrupting doesn't completely ruin the reading experience for a child, you might try tip number two: nibbling the story to death. How can you do this? One easy way to begin is with comprehension questions that prioritize simple information over immersion into the story. Consider O. Henry's delightful Christmas story, The Gift of the Magi. For example, it's just a short story, but an enterprising teacher could easily ruin it by making up a list of trivial questions, such as "how much money did Della have?" Or "how much did Jim's present cost?"
These minor details almost inevitably end up distracting the student reader from the mood and meaning of the story. Rather than allowing students to immerse, empathize with Jim and Della, and be surprised by the twist ending of this little drama, this sort of comprehension question forces students to hunt through paragraphs that quickly turn dry, looking for the trivia stones that the teacher demands. There's a reason this is referred to as nibbling a story to death.
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Speaker 2 Finally, tip number three. Nibbling a story to death with interruptions and questions can certainly ruin it. But if you really want to render a story dull and unpalatable, there's tip number three: just politicize the book by reading it as a tract about some unrelated contemporary fad or -ism, rather than as a work of fiction that evokes a particular time, place, and circumstance. Of course, C.S. Lewis had something to say about that. He makes an eloquent case against harming literature in this way. In An Experiment in Criticism, he writes that "a work of art can be either received or used. When we receive it, we exert our senses and imagination according to a pattern invented by the artist. When we use it, we treat it as assistance for our own activities."
I tend to believe Lewis in such matters such as this, and my own experience with the reading supports his recommendation. However, if you're a teacher who wants to make students hate literature and reading, just interpret every character, motive, and event in the light of a pre-chosen perspective and use it as evidence for a theory or perspective that was entirely unheard of in the author's time.
By now, you've probably realized that these three tips are really about what not to do if you want your students to enjoy reading and literature. There is a place for answering questions that are asked, and there may be a place for bringing up a few thought provoking questions of your own. However, the key thing to remember is that the primary communication should occur between the student and the author. Too much interference completely scrambles the signal and muddies the message. Students are not going to remember and understand every single detail about a book on the first reading, and that's absolutely normal.
Charlotte Mason rather tartly points out that children are not ruminants intellectually any more than physically, and they cannot go over the same ground repeatedly without deadening results, for continual progress is the law of intellectual life. So read, narrate, discuss, or write an essay, and then move on. I cannot count how many times I've re-read something as an adult and realized it was about far more than I had grasped as a child or a young adult. Or how many times, in reading a new book, I gained insight on another that I had read long before.
Literary learning is not a once and done thing, and literature is not like mathematics, where principle must be laid upon thoroughly absorbed principal. Subjects such as history and literature abound with deep connections and can never be learned in isolation. Instead, they are absorbed at the student's level and filed away in memory. As students read more and study more deeply in history, science, theology and other disciplines, they will find deeper meaning and unexpected connections in everything. That's how learning happens.
So I'll leave you with a short poem by Emily Dickinson. "There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away. Nor any coursers like a page of prancing poetry. This traverse may the poorest take without oppressive toll. How frugal is the chariot that bears the human soul?"
Thank you for joining me today. I hope that the three ironic tips I've offered can help you avoid ways of teaching that can ruin literature for your students. Great literature is rich, and every child deserves to enjoy it. I'm Janice Campbell of Excellence-in-Literature.com and EverydayEducation.com, and I wish you joy in the journey.
Janice Campbell Thank you for joining us this week on the Homeschool Solutions Show. You can find show notes and links to all the resources mentioned at Homeschooling.Mom. Don't forget to check out my friends at Medi-Share because you deserve healthcare you can trust. To learn more about Medi-Share and why over 400,000 Christians have made the switch, go to GreatHomeschoolConventions.com/MediShare. That's GreatHomeschoolConventions.com/MediShare. If you haven't already, please subscribe to the podcast. And while you're there, leave us a review. Tell us what you love about the show. This will help other homeschooling parents like you get connected to our community. And finally, tag us on Instagram @HomeschoolingDotMom to let us know what you thought of today's episode.
Have you joined us at one of the Great Homeschool Conventions? The Great Homeschool Conventions are the homeschooling events of the year, offering outstanding speakers, hundreds of workshops covering today's top parenting and homeschooling topics and the largest homeschool curriculum exhibit halls in the U.S. Find out more at GreatHomeschoolConventions.com. I hope to see you there. Finally, you can connect with me, Janice Campbell, at EverydayEducation.com where you'll find my Excellence in Literature curriculum, Transcripts Made Easy and more. As well as at my blog DoingWhatMatters.com and my literature resource site Excellence-in-Literature.com. I wish you peace and joy in your homeschooling journey.