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Moving Beyond the Book Report-- and helping your teen get ready for AP English Literature!
Ruth Green, 2/23/2010

Ruth Green has been leading AP English Literature online with PA Homeschoolers for many years. She has five sons, with four graduates and her youngest still homeschooling. She has also taught a literature class with a local homeschool co-op program. Ruth is also a very popular speaker at our summer PHAA High School at Home Conference, speaking on writing, AP English Literature, and how to craft an effective college admissions essay. Do check out the rave reviews on her class at our companion site, wwww.aphomeschoolers.com where we have full info on our AP Online classes.

There are few more familiar icons of middle school than The Book Report. Mothers like to imagine that writing one is the outpouring of enthusiasm that her student experiences from reading a book that is just too good not to share with the world. More often, it is a dreaded assignment that has been given with vague instructions about identifying major characters and summarizing the plot. The musical You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown humorously captures the dilemma that different personalities have with procrastination, meeting word counts, and staying on topic while writing a book report on Peter Rabbit. Nevertheless, the book report serves a useful function in helping the reader to reflect on what he’s read, and the exercise of reproducing that in writing is step one of expository writing.

By the time a student is high school age, however, the standard book report no longer fits comfortably, because both home teacher and reader are bored by simply retelling the story. How can we transition from The Book Report to thoughtful critique and analysis, the type that will be expected of students in AP English courses and college?

I am indebted to the gifted teacher Dixie Dellinger for creating a template that helps students get beyond “what happens in the story.” I start with giving the students this paragraph, which introduces the elements of fiction.

In fiction, a writer creates some people [CHARACTERS], puts them in a time and place [SETTING], has things happen to and between them [PLOT], lets them talk to and about each other [DIALOGUE], creates someone to tell their story [NARRATOR] from a position [POINT OF VIEW], in language [DICTION] using devices [FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE such as SYMBOLISM & IMAGERY] in such a way that the reader makes meaning [THEME].

I recommend starting with short stories, since their size is manageable for both parent and student. (Our children may have the time to read Great Expectations, but few homeschooling moms do!) It is important that initially the exercise be a joint one, that the parent is working with the student before the student is expected to produce this independently. My eighth grade son and I started with  Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” and Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” If I had a daughter, I might choose Ray Bradbury’s “All Summer in a Day,” since students at this age often prefer protagonists of their own gender.

When I did this with my high school LitWits homeschool co-op class, we began with Langston Hughes’s very short story “Early Autumn.” (See below for links to these stories online.) This simple moving story lends itself perfectly to acting, so after a first silent reading, perform the story with your student, one time taking one part and the next time switching roles. The decisions each of you has to make about body movements and tone of voice to bring the story to life will encourage thinking about the subtext, what is happening beneath the surface of the words.  Then together identify in order the elements of the story and insert them into the above template.

To prepare for writing about the story, ask your student to answer two questions: 1) What ideas is the author exploring, or what is the story about (not what happens) [topic]? and 2) What does the story say to YOU about that topic [theme]? The answer to the first question should be an abstract noun (possible ones include time, loss, love, regret). The answer to the second should be a sentence.

From there ask your student to identify two or three elements which give the story this meaning. Have him compose a thesis sentence (or two) this way, using Dixie’s ATT& T (Author, Title, Topic & Theme):

        Example:

Langston Hughes's short story, "Early Autumn" is about love and time and says that time changes all things, even love. It expresses this theme through its setting, narrative point of view, and symbolism.

Now your student is ready to compose body paragraphs. Each paragraph begins with a claim sentence (or two) about the literary element chosen, and the subsequent sentences provide evidence from the story for the claim, often integrating direct quotation from the story with the student’s own commentary.       

To collect evidence to support the claim sentence, ask, “What information, details, reasons, examples do you want to include in your paragraph to support your claim?” You can list these on a separate paper. The commentary aspect of the paragraph consists of explaining what the evidence shows, and how it connects to the claim made.

For example, a paragraph about setting might begin:

“Hughes has the action of the story take place at a busy bus stop in New York City. This setting contrasts with the original setting of the characters’ early relationship in Ohio, and serves to emphasize that time has changed things for them. The streams of “people they didn’t know” passing by highlights their isolation and makes the desperation of the woman to connect with Bill more poignant.”

One way to help the writer visualize these parts of a body paragraph is to use three different colored highlighters to color the claims, the evidence, and the commentary in his composition. If one color is conspicuously absent or limited, that suggests an area that could use more attention.

A conclusion can answer the question: “So what?” or suggest the “take away” message of the story. Avoid the temptation to give the author a “grade” for his prose (“Hughes writes very well and creates a memorable story that everyone should read.”) Rather, offer some substance that logically follows from the evidence given previously (“Hughes’s spare style focuses the reader on the unspoken emotions that are powerful undercurrents to human interaction, and reminds us that moments can be seized or lost with equal ease.”)

By the completion of the paper, the original text has been read closely several times, and both of you have a greater appreciation of how the author has used the story to say something meaningful as well as entertaining. Even better, the writing comes easily because the critical thinking and discussion supplies ample material. It takes practice until this becomes natural, but I promise you that once it does, neither you nor your student will ever look back!

*************

“A Book Report” from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HZEmxby8g8A&feature=related

“To Build a Fire” by Jack London

http://london.sonoma.edu/Writings/LostFace/fire.html

“The Adventure of the Speckled Band” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

http://168.144.50.205/221bcollection/canon/spec.htm

“All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury

http://www.wssb.wa.gov/content/Classrooms/tate/content/freshman/All%20Summer%20In%20a%20Day/story.htm

“Early Autumn” by Langston Hughes

http://www.ogtprep.com/readings/reading8.htm   (This site even has a mini-quiz to accompany the story.)

Another story that lends itself to performance between two readers is Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”

http://www.gummyprint.com/blog/archives/hills‑like‑white‑elephants‑complete‑story


Comment by SharonM, 2/24/2010:

This is our second year with AP Literature in our homeschool (we do not use the PHAA online course, however).  The objectives can be intimidating, and it is difficult to get "off and running" if you and your student are just becoming familiar with the concepts and skills described in this article.  I would suggest this for anyone contemplating an AP Lit course in their homeschool: begin to include AP-like activities several years before you plan to have your child actually take the exam.  Become familiar with the AP test and expectations of the coursework early. and encourage your child to look at literature beyond the obvious ( the template from Dixie Dellinger above is excellent).  This will give you a head start.  Beleive me, the May AP exams come very quickly, and you will wish you had had a few years, not 11 months to prepare.

Response to this comment by Ruth Green, 2/25/2010:
Thanks for responding, Sharon, and for making an excellent point. (By the way, my very first year teaching AP Literature was in my home with my oldest son as the only student in the class, so I can empathize with you!) Many schools prep their students for AP exams through all four years of high school with what is usually called a "vertical team" -- a systematic progression of literature and composition instruction which culminates in an AP class. My hope was that this article would encourage families to take the first step in focusing discussion and writing on the ideas of the text, and not just the action.


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