Friday, July 19, 2013

American Lit made easy

One of my degrees is in English. One of Mr. Blandings' degrees is in English. Together, we have endured many an hour of sometimes fascinating, sometimes shamefully dull instruction in the name of understanding literature.

Which is, of course, why we swore that when it came to introducing our children to those works considered classics (deservedly or not), we'd find a better way.

For the most part, in our home, this has looked like some event or conversation reminding either Mr. Blandings or me of a character, an author, a nearly-forgotten line of a poem. From there comes an impromptu synopsis of the work, a discussion on theme, a library hold, and plenty of dialogue.

It's messy, but it works. In this manner, Atticus has tackled titles ranging from Animal Farm to Ender's Game, and Jo has found herself smitten with everything from Agatha Christie mysteries to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Last summer, sensing that a bit of organization might not be remiss in light of a new baby on the way, I took a different spin on our normal slapdash romp through the catalog of Books You Really Ought to Have Read and assembled a list. The criteria? All American literature. All in chronological order. And all written by authors whose lives and works lent themselves to interesting character study.

Jo used this framework as something of an outline for her literature study this past year and, can I just say, it was a hit? Not only did she enjoy the books and learning more about the writers, but Mr. Blandings and I were delighted to share some of the truly great bits of past fiction and poetry with our daughter. Conversation-- the key element of this plan-- was plentiful. As a matter of fact, I offer this disclaimer: while this curricula was written specifically to be handed over to a teen, if you cannot participate fully in the discussion of character, morals, themes, allegory, etc., do not pass go. Consider, at the bare minimum, researching the links and familiarizing yourself with what your high schooler will be learning. Even better, read along with your child. After all, great books become even more great when they are shared.

Below you’ll find a timeline of major American authors and movements in the literary world with which you should make yourself familiar this year. Your instructions are to use the iPad to locate the brief biographies noted here, write up a paragraph for your binder summarizing the biography, and to read the works mentioned. No author should take more than two weeks (including reading the book), but if you find that you’d like to dig deeper into the work of a particular author, we can certainly discuss. (Mom and Dad can suggest titles.) You will, in that instance, be given extra time. 

After reading, you will have two follow ups required. The first is a discussion Mom & Dad on the book. Bring at least three questions and a whole lot of knowledge of the book. Prepare for a lively conversation; as you know, we take no prisoners when it comes to literature! 

For the second, you may choose from the following options or, alternately, create a project of your own choosing:
  • Write an alternate ending to the story that puts the characters where you would rather see them end up.
  • Write a brief summary of the historical time period where the story is taking place (ie, Victorian England, WWII, etc.) noting key events.
  • Write a character sketch of your favorite (or least favorite) person in the book, describing how the character grows or progresses.
  • Compare the book to another that you’ve read that may be similar in style or just remind you of this one.
  • Sum up the plotline in a poem.
  • Write a news article about the main climax of the story.
  • Write an obituary/eulogy for the main character in the book.
  • Put together a book report that hits the high points of the story for someone that may or may not have read it.
  • Write an essay persuading someone that this is the best or worst book ever written.

Remember--you have TWO WEEKS to do this unless you have chosen to do extra work and have gotten that cleared by Mom. If you need to read in the evenings or weekends, I expect that you will budget your time to do so. Let me know if you are getting bogged down. Do not wait until it’s critical! And--have FUN! American Literature is amazing, and your dad and I have been waiting to share many of these stories with you since you were old enough to read!

1823: Clement Clarke Moore, ( "A Visit from St. Nicholas." ( For an article discussing the controversy over whether Moore really wrote this poem, go to

1827: Edgar Allen Poe ( “Tamerlane” (

1850: Nathaniel Hawthorne ( The Scarlet Letter

1854: Henry David Thoreau ( Walden

1865: Mark Twain ( "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" 
1884: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
***This author should take three weeks***

1904: Jack London ( Sea-Wolf (Call of the Wild was published in 1903)
**If you would like to read more, this author may take three weeks**

1920: Robert Frost (“The Road Not Taken” (

1922: T. S. Eliot (, listen to Eliot read one of his best-known works at , The Waste Land

1926: Ernest Hemingway, ( **just the main article**, hear him speak at The Old Man and the Sea

1927: Willa Cather (, Death Comes for the Archbishop 

1945: Tennessee Williams (, The Glass Menagerie

1960: Harper Lee (, To Kill a Mockingbird

1 comment:

Thia said...

I love this approach! I do think that the Old Man and the Sea will probably not make our reading list here. I guess I need to reread it to see. I read it in high school and less than enjoyed it, although I loved lit in general.