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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Now that I have such great ideas from you all on literature books, my instinct is to have my older two responsible for their own reading, with certain goals encouraged/enforced. I have no desire to test them on reading, but would like them to self-train to read critically and identify themes and certain basic content points. I've always hated traditional book reports--they have nothing to do with book *reviews,* which are actually a good skill to develop.

So, with the idea of developing critical reading skills, I was thinking of having review "blanks" with basic info like author and title, main characters, and then certain questions to spark critical thinking. When they finish a book, they'll fill in a review worksheet for it before we return it to the library.

I would LOVE suggestions on leading questions to get them thinking about the books they are reading.

Here's what I have so far:

How well did this book help you to get to know the main characters?

How did one main character change over time?

What was the climax of this particular story, and how was it resolved?

Choose two or three theme words to describe this book [and I'll have a theme word bank with concepts like friendship, bravery, helping others, anger, etc.].
 

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I guess I'm just wondering why this approach would be superior to just talking with your children about the books that they read? I know worksheets like this are an essential tool for schools, because they have to assess 25 kids quickly and easily... but for homeschoolers, just talking about books seems much more personal. That way you can focus on particular issues that might be more applicable for some books than for others, and you can actually have a two-way conversation about the book, so that your kids have their ideas challenged and learn to support them logically, on the fly.

dar
 

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Discussion Starter · #3 ·
I want to do a written worksheet for a couple of reasons: On the positive end, it makes them work with sentences, punctuation, clarity of communication, and paragraph development (as well as handwriting). As an editor and writer, I constantly see (and have to fix) the written material of people who have never been taught how to write systematically and with an eye to clarity and an understanding of parts of speech, so I am very serious about teaching it. I can be a little tougher on that in a short worksheet format than I would ever be on creative writing, where they should have a lot of leeway.

On the negative end, I freelance all day. I MUST be able to set them to work and not supervise them/be next to them all day--I wish I didn't, but if the mortgage is gonna get paid I need to work. So I have to be like a traditional teacher in that my own review of their work is done in discrete blocks during the day or in the evening. By that time they have probably moved on to a different activity altogether.
 

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I've always been of the opinion that critical reading skills have more to do with good critical thinking skills than anything else, and that both are best developed through meaningful, incisive, often Socratic-style discussion and debate at the family dinner table (or in the minivan while travelling, or at the kitchen sink while doing dishes, or whereever your family tends to gather for conversation).

Just last night, for example, my 9yo started a conversation about how the differing philosophies of the two different music school weeks he's attended this summer infused all parts of the organization and execution of the programs, and which he preferred, and why, and how it seemed like such a no-brainer to him to start with a philosophical vision, but to people coming from a different perspective, the philosophical issues are not even perceived, let alone articulated and put together as a coherent whole -- and how that lack of coherence creates problems. That was the gist of it, though he didn't use those exact words. My 7yo and 12yo contributed their ideas as well, as did dh and myself.

If your kids aren't already thinking deeply about what they're reading, modeling critical thinking and engaging them in this sort of conversation will probably encourage that much better than written assignments.

Two suggestions for more independent work, since I understand you're trying to encourage that:

Junior Great Books are great anthologies of short stories, folk tales and novel excerpts with wonderful critical thinking questions. Real questions... the sort where there isn't a "correct" answer and where the person asking the question (i.e. you) is actually interested in exploring the answers offered, not just in evaluating whether they're correct. As a very simple example that helps illustrate: "Why do you think Jack [of Beanstalk fame] went back up the beanstalk the third time after he had already gained so much wealth from his first two visits?" You might want to focus on that type of question, which of course won't fit well into the "blanks" format you're working on. My kids hate "questions that aren't questions" (i.e. where the person asking doesn't want to know that answer but wants to know whether you know the answer) and respond much better to Real Questions, Junior-Great-Book-style. A couple of Jr.GB anthologies might help stoke your creative juices when it comes to asking Real Questions.

Another possibility would be to help your kids develop a website- or newsletter-based set of reviews of the books they've read, guiding them to an understanding of what makes a review informative and helpful and interesting to read.

Miranda
 

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Quote:

Originally Posted by thekimballs
As an editor and writer, I constantly see (and have to fix) the written material of people who have never been taught how to write systematically and with an eye to clarity and an understanding of parts of speech, so I am very serious about teaching it.
I understand what you're saying, but I had to add this thought. My dad taught university philosophy and critical thinking, and wrote textbooks in these fields, for forty years. He always said "the biggest cause of bad writing is bad thinking."


Miranda
 

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Discussion Starter · #6 ·
Quote:

Originally Posted by moominmamma
I understand what you're saying, but I had to add this thought. My dad taught university philosophy and critical thinking, and wrote textbooks in these fields, for forty years. He always said "the biggest cause of bad writing is bad thinking."


Miranda
Oh, I absolutely agree. But I just can't imagine stopping a kid mid-sentence and saying hey, wait, you didn't back up your supporting argument from two minutes ago. I want the kids to express themselves verbally and in creative writing with a great deal of freedom. Having a *limited* amount of writing that has to show logical thought and progression, where arguments can be identified and criticized, where organization can be expected and enforced, gives me a place where I can encourage good thinking and good thinking about writing.

But I do realize that I'm old-school on this--we also diagram sentences and do a lot of other structured worksheet-y assignments. I'm a long way from a public-school-type regimen, but I would never call us unschoolers or even leaning in that direction.
 

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You might look into the Bravewriter program at bravewriter.com
she has a newsletter and a writing program which might be of interest. She also has a blog and a yahoo group.
 

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Quote:

Originally Posted by thekimballs
Oh, I absolutely agree. But I just can't imagine stopping a kid mid-sentence and saying hey, wait, you didn't back up your supporting argument from two minutes ago.
You can wait until they stop talking and ask a question to help them think more deeply about what they are saying.
 

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Ummm...problem is, the questions you asked won't encourage critical thinking.

They're good at factual recall, e.g., "What was the climax and how was it resolved?" or "How did one main character change?" but these aren't open-ended questions, or at least they're not that open.

To ask a genuinely open-ended question, you have to ask a question you genuinely don't have the answer to:

Instead of, "What was the climax?"
Why not, "Why did the author make this event the climax?"

Instead of, "How did the main character change?"
Why not, "WHY did the main character change?"
"WHY did the author decide to make him/her change that way?"

Oh, and FYI, although "theme" is often loosely used to mean a dominant topic in a piece of literature, the more precise meaning of "theme" is "the author's message," and the more precise term for a dominant topic or pattern in a piece of literature is motif. You're really talking about motif here when you say "theme words like friendship." Friendship, technically, is a motif. What the author SAYS ABOUT friendship is the author's theme.

So, some more theme questions:

1. What is the author's message here?
2. Why do you think so?
3. Choose one moment in the book where the narrator or a character comes close to articulating the author's message.
4. Choose one moment in the book where you really see the author's message at work and explain why that particular scene or moment really sums up the author's message.
5. What is the author saying about [fill in the blank with the motif word, e.g., friendship, revenge, love, etc.]
6. How does the author get us to see that message?

Hope that helps. Basic rule: think of questions beginning with WHY and WHERE, as in "Why do you think so?" and "Where did you see that in the text?" Constant reference to the text to support their opinions is a crucial skill.
 

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Quote:

Originally Posted by moominmamma
I understand what you're saying, but I had to add this thought. My dad taught university philosophy and critical thinking, and wrote textbooks in these fields, for forty years. He always said "the biggest cause of bad writing is bad thinking."


Miranda
Your father is absolutely, positively correct. I teach English literature and this is the most succinct and insightful comment defining the biggest problem I have with student papers.
 

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Quote:

Originally Posted by thekimballs
Oh, I absolutely agree. But I just can't imagine stopping a kid mid-sentence and saying hey, wait, you didn't back up your supporting argument from two minutes ago.
Then don't wait two minutes!! Listen, here's what a discussion in my class sounds like (obviously, I'm extrapolating from a zillion discussions):

Teacher: Why did Jack go up the beanstalk a third time?
Student: I think it was because he was greedy for more gold.
Teacher: Why do you think so?
Student A: Well, he went up for gold the first two times he went up the beanstalk and came down with the bag of the ogre's gold and the golden egg-laying hen.
Student B: No, not the first time. The first time, he didn't know what was up there -- he went up because he was curious, but he didn't know about the ogre's house or the gold.
Teacher: Can you read that part?
Student B: [reads]
Student C: And he got the egg-laying hen, so that's going to keep giving gold as long as he says, "Lay," so why's he need more?
Teacher: So, C, do you agree with A?
Student C: No, no I don't. I don't think he's greedy.
Student A: I still think he's greedy. I mean, how does he know the hen's not going to, you know, die?
Student B: Like Milky-White the cow.
Student D: She didn't die.
Student C: Yeah, she just stopped giving milk. [Reads, "But one day, Milky-White gave no milk."] But still, the hen could stop giving eggs. Maybe he is greedy.
Teacher: Is Jack being greedy, or is he being prudent?

And so on.
 

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Quote:

Originally Posted by Charles Baudelaire
Your father is absolutely, positively correct. I teach English literature and this is the most succinct and insightful comment defining the biggest problem I have with student papers.
I certainly agree that good thinking is a prerequisite to good writing, but I don't think it's the only one. I taught 3 semesters of freshman comp when I was in grad school. It was a good university, and the class was required for all incoming freshmen (i.e. they couldn't place out of it w/ AP credits or tests
. I had, for the most part, very bright kids. They were interested in what we were reading and invested in the class. I was always impressed with their ideas during class discussions. Yet, almost without exception, they were completely lost trying to get their ideas into writing. They didn't know how to write a complete sentence in a lot of cases, much less come up with and support a thesis. I'd read through a mess of a paper and find a brilliant thesis buried in the third paragraph on the second page. They simply weren't comfortable with written language; had no idea how to make it work for them.
 

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I agree with Charles Baudelaire about the difficulty with the types of questions you're proposing. They're traditional "reading comprehension questions" of the type that tend to follow stories in the dreaded school readers I remember - and they could almost equally well be multiple choice.

Certainly discussion is most important in critical thinking - I know that the most stimulating environments I've been in, in which I've been able to discuss critically that which I've read, have been small seminars where everyone can bounce ideas off of each other. If you're freelancing during the day, talk about the day's reading over the dinner table.

I know you say you don't care for book 'reports', and in a traditional, circumscribed format they can be very dry. However, giving a page or paragraph limitation (suitable to the child's age and capabilities), and simply asking them to write about what THEY want to from the book can be a great springboard for discussion. Particularly when more than one reader is involved, it is possible to gain a very interesting perspective on what different readers have taken away from the book or story.

What about comparing news stories about the same event from different sources? How does the emphasis differ? Why might that be?
 

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Discussion Starter · #14 ·
Quote:

Originally Posted by kokotg
I certainly agree that good thinking is a prerequisite to good writing, but I don't think it's the only one. I taught 3 semesters of freshman comp when I was in grad school. It was a good university, and the class was required for all incoming freshmen (i.e. they couldn't place out of it w/ AP credits or tests
. I had, for the most part, very bright kids. They were interested in what we were reading and invested in the class. I was always impressed with their ideas during class discussions. Yet, almost without exception, they were completely lost trying to get their ideas into writing. They didn't know how to write a complete sentence in a lot of cases, much less come up with and support a thesis. I'd read through a mess of a paper and find a brilliant thesis buried in the third paragraph on the second page. They simply weren't comfortable with written language; had no idea how to make it work for them.
Thank you; that's exactly what I'm saying. I've read master's theses that were absolutely hopeless, and somehow this person managed to get through 25 years of his or her life with no one asking them to write clearly and correctly.

I absolutely admire and respect the idea that more informal discussion or inspired writing (the sort of "what did you take away from this book" questions) can be a great way to interact with a book, and it can get kids resistant to reading and thinking much more interested in what they're doing. But I also firmly believe that at some point you DO have to introduce the standard vocabulary words--character, conflict, crisis, resolution, character development, etc. and that the kid needs to learn to identify and work within those structures.

And, yes, I love structured writing. I like the old "five-paragraph essays" and outlining and developing a thesis and supporting it--because I think being trained in that way makes you a much better writer in every way, creative or not. It's like being forced to take figure drawing before you're allowed to do abstracts. What made Jackson Pollack a fabulous abstract artist is that he was a truly great tradtional figure artist--he communicated the classic principles of proportion and movement within a much freer genre. Same thing with Picasso--a truly talented portraitist who understood when and how to leave rules behind.

But what I DON'T believe in is making the process deadly boring and horrible. I want to ask for a good end product, but make the journey interesting and challenging. I have LOVED many of the suggestions you've had for me, and I thank you so much for putting thought into it.
 

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Absolutely, learning the vocabulary and techniques of traditional literary criticism are of value. They're just not quite the same thing as learning "critical thinking," I suppose, hence my confusion!


...one of my favorite books as a child was my mother's copy of a glossary of literary criticism terms. What about having a 'term of the week,' or something along those lines, and exploring allusion, allegory, hyperbole, etc?
 

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...a way to get them to think critically is to take the concepts in the book and apply them outside the text for example. A comparative analysis of two characters from two different books, discussion of symbolism and imagery and what it could stand for and did the author intend that or not. For classics, think about a reader in that time period (a good opening for a history lesson) and how it is different when reading it in modern times. How would her experience as a reader be different from your experience as a reader? The key to critical thinking is to get them to look for answers to question that don't necessarily have a right or a wrong answer but to make an argument and back it up with passages from the text.

I agree with your reasoning about getting them to write it down. I teach College Comp and Lit classes and some students can form such great thoughts and ideas in class but their papers are a mess of disorganization. In many fields (whether you go to college or not) good writing skills can help you and bad writing skills can hurt you.

I also wanted to say that I don't think your questions are bad for opening questions. It is important to make sure they are identifying those types of components in literature such as main character and climax before they can move on to the critical thinking.
 

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Quote:

Originally Posted by thekimballs
I absolutely admire and respect the idea that more informal discussion or inspired writing (the sort of "what did you take away from this book" questions) can be a great way to interact with a book, and it can get kids resistant to reading and thinking much more interested in what they're doing.
I think the best reason to talk about a book is because it is fun and interesting and helps us dig deeper, not because it will get kids more interested. My mom and I often read the same books and talk about them. Now my DDs bring me books to read so that I can enjoy them, too. We read because it is wonderful, and we talk about books because we cannot help it.

Quote:
But I also firmly believe that at some point you DO have to introduce the standard vocabulary words--character, conflict, crisis, resolution, character development, etc. and that the kid needs to learn to identify and work within those structures.
I think that the vocab is BEST introduced in conversation. Honestly, none of the vocab is difficult and my kids learned it when they were quite young by doing Five in a Row (which uses wonderful picture books). If a older child who is reading chapter books doesn't know them, then discussing the books seems the best way to address this.

I think that you are rolling too much into one thing. Critical reading, writing a 5 paragraph essay, understanding vocab are different things, and I don't think any of them are addressed by answering straight forward questions about a book.

I think crititcal reading and thinking are BEST addressed in conversation. This is the dialectic. As homeschoolers, we are uniquely able to provide this to our kids.

Writing a 5 paragraph essay is an important skill for college. If my kids were getting ready to trot off to college, and I would encourage them to learn this skill because it comes in very handy. This isn't what you were talking about at all, though. I don't think answering straight forward questions teaches one to write an essay.
 

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Quote:

Originally Posted by kokotg
I certainly agree that good thinking is a prerequisite to good writing, but I don't think it's the only one.
True, not the only prerequisite. But I think that in your response to my post you're equating "bad thinking" with "not being smart in the schoolish sense," which really isn't what I meant. By "bad thinking", I [or my father, whom I was quoting] meant "being unable to organize one's various clever thoughts into a cogent thesis and set of supporting arguments." That's the set of skills that the sort of discussions Charles Baudelaire presented encourage -- and that's exactly the set of skills that you described as missing amongst your college students.

Miranda
 
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