Thursday, March 27, 2008

Deconstructing Penguins


For years, my friend Amy has run the middle school reading group for local homeschoolers, and I've run the high school group. Recently, just for a change of pace, we switched.

I'm enjoying the middle school group a great deal, but I have to say that it is a whole new ballgame. Of course, the reading material is completely different. It's been a change going from Till We Have Faces to The Giver.

The big difference though has not been so much the book choices, but the pedagogical approach. When I lead the high school group, my preparation consisted of simply reading the book. Oh sure, I'd do a little background reading here and there, but that was about it. This is a group of homeschooled teens who LOVE to read. They come prepared, already with years of experience deconstructing books, and they hardly need me to show them how to find the author's underlying meaning.

Middle school students need more guidance. My first priority was to show them how to look beyond the surface of the story. To get beyond the facts of the book's plot and find what the plot was really saying. For example, on the surface Animal Farm is about a bunch of animals taking over the farm. Yet, that is not what the book is really about, is it? With a gentle touch we can help the student see that the plot is about communism. Now, I don't know if my middle school students are going to read Animal Farm (actually, that's the high school book for April), but you get my drift.

Another priority for me is not to overdo the analysis. Nothing can kill the joy of reading faster than paragraph-by-paragraph dissection. I need to look for balance between an all-out gab session and a deep analytical dissection.

I found help in Deconstructing Penguins: Parents, Kids, and the Bond of Reading by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone (from the public library). The authors are a married couple who lead a parent/child reading group at their library. The tone of the book is conversational which, in all honesty, is hard for me to take at moments. But, overall, the book has been a goldmine for me. It is laid out very simply and in layman terms.

Yes, I wrote a book on teaching through literature, but that was from a mom perspective, not a college literature professor perspective. I need literary analysis dumbed down for me. (Whew, I feel better getting that off my chest.) Honestly, do we really need high-brow literary analysis when we're teaching 7th and 8th graders?

Deconstructing Penguins teaches the reader how to get kids excited about "deconstructing" literature. The title comes from the authors' first attempt at running their parent/child reading group where they all read Mr. Popper's Penguins.

The book is written with upper grade school students in mind, but I had no problem taking the authors' lessons and applying them to my middle school reading group. This month, the students had chosen Inkheart by Cornellia Funke and I followed the authors' advice from Deconstructing Penguins extensively in running the discussion.

First, a little background. We don't meet in the library. The free rooms in our library are very dungeon like. Not fun. We meet instead at a coffee house. The atmosphere is very grown up and the kids love it. This is a large coffee house that actually has a couple of private seating areas. The high school students sit in one area and the middle school students in another. Back at my home are several of the parents watching the younger siblings. In fact, they have their own little reading group. For April we're reading Charlotte's Web by E. B. White. Then, when the big kids go off to the coffee house next month, the parents and littles will watch the Charlotte's Web movie and do some fun, hands-on activities.

So, back to Deconstructing Penguins and middle schoolers. This is getting to be a long post, but hang in there. We're getting to some good stuff yet.

I had a couple of new kids in the group this month. Kids who weren't too sure about this reading-for-fun thing. Especially, big thick books. But, they were willing to give it a try. I started out by asking them if they knew what a genre was. I explained that it was a French word meaning "style" and in this case the style of a book. I then asked what genre Inkheart fit into. Most agreed it was a fantasy novel. I then suggested that it was a mystery. In fact, all fiction could be classified as mystery. Their eyes lit up. After all, we're looking for clues in the plot trying to figure out what's going to happen in the end. We're asking questions: Why did this character do that? How did that happen? What is the author's underlying message?

We then delved into why the author used certain plot devices, introduced certain characters, ended the book the way she did. Did she have a lesson to teach us? Was there a moral to the story? We did this as though we were detectives solving the mystery and the kids were really into it.

Next we talked about antagonists and protagonists. I was surprised that only a couple of the students knew what these words meant. Following the advice in Deconstructing Penguins, I showed them through everyday life examples how to find the protagonist and antagonist.

In the end, they learned a little bit about literary analysis but not so much that they were overwhelmed. It was a very fun time together. We meet monthly, so we have plenty of time to build on our lessons. Next month we'll talk about the importance of location and maybe a little bit about character development.

Remember the kids who weren't too sure about join a reading club just for fun? I got calls from their mothers telling me that all they talked about for days was Inkheart, the reading group, and April's book, Dragon Rider (also by Cornelia Funke).

Makes it all so worth it!

10 comments:

M.E. said...

Thanks, Maureen! I just requested it through inter-library loan. We're using a program this year called "Teaching the Classics" which presents literary analysis, but this book sounds like it might be a great addition to that.

the SnowMamma said...

Maureen! I am so glad that God put you in my path, because I have learned soooooo much from you in such a short amount of time.

THIS is exactly what I needed. I have two VERY avid readers, but our discussions about the material are dry. They will love their books, but have difficulty explaining what and why. Even though I know that it's all there, I am just not a good enough teacher to bring about great discussions.

Then my other students need more coaxing, but I just don't know how. I have already ordered this book and CAN NOT wait to dive in.

I am a self-help junkie and don't spend a lot of time on real literature. That is changeing though, as a friend and I are reading Jane Eyre together. I'm nervous about my own capabilities, but, thanks to you, I have come to see the importance of this genre.

Thanks again!

Maureen Wittmann said...

You're both welcomed!

Snow Mama, I think you'll like Decontstructing because it's a self-help book!

If you want to start reading the classics, you may like Susan Wise Bauer's book, The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had. I found it at my library.

(I didn't like her homeschool book, The Well-Educated Mind.)

Maureen Wittmann said...

Oops, major faux pas. The homeschool book is The Well-Trained Mind.

The Well-Educated Mind is the one written for parents who want to give themselves a classical education through literature.

On another note, all you need to be a great teacher is enthusiasm. As you get more excited about reading, so will your kids. Your lessons will come more naturally.

the SnowMamma said...

What do you say about the Students Guide to Literature by R.V. Young? Would that one be a good one for me to study from also?
~Krysten~

Maureen Wittmann said...

Students Guide is a much smaller book and may be a good place to start. I don't have both books handy to do a side-by-side comparison at the moment. The Well-Trained Mind is more in-depth. It's a pretty thick book. It's more of a how-to for individual pieces of literature. If I can find them both, I'll write more. Or, you can just check both out from the library before making a purchasing decision to see which one works better for what you need.

Ana Braga-Henebry said...

We just finished Mr Poppers' penguins this afternoon... my 1st and 3rd graders and I. I will borrow this book, sounds intriguing. I teach Jr High Lit here, 10 students, but I wouldn't to Funke, no. We are in the middle of Oliver Twist.

Ana Braga-Henebry said...

My library had it--it's on hold! And... I didn't mean to sound negative: my comment was more a reflection of Charles Dickens's length of novels... :-)

Karen E. said...

Great post, Maureen! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

just wondering why you didn't like the homeschooling book by susan wise? someone had recommended it to me and i've perused it only briefly. would be interested in your comments.