Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Excellent Education from Excellence in Literature

We recently had the opportunity to review Excellence in Literature by Janice Campbell of Everyday Education. EIL is an intense, college-preparatory writing curriculum for students in homeschools, private schools, and charter schools. This program is based on carefully chosen great works of classical literature, and instructs 8th through 12th grade students (and their parents!) on how to write many useful types of literary assessment papers. The course encourages students to view studying literature as more than just reading a book. Rather, students are challenged to read each work with a mind for the worldview, history, and experiences of the writer, to see how each of these things impacts the writer's expression of themes and characters in their stories.

Having been public school educated, I have to admit that at first glance, the program looked as if it would be daunting. I will admit that we never did anything like this in my high school classes, not even in the honors courses I took. When I got to college, I was sadly unprepared for writing a college level paper, especially since I AP-tested out of Freshman English, where they might have shored up a few of my lacking skills. I entered my first English class completely blown away by the quality of work that was expected (not that I was a slacker...I just didn't understand what they wanted from me), not mention the content that was expected. Not only was I ill-prepared to write a reasonably well-researched, thought-out literary analysis paper, but I also lacked in my ability to contribute anything useful to classroom conversations because, to be brutally honest, my understanding of "worldview" and "historical context" was almost nonexistent. I had spent most of my high school years either chasing activities to add to my college applications or with my nose buried in a book. It was sad.

I can look back on those moments now without hyperventilating in panic, though I had many a bad dream about them in the years following college. I did eventually learn what was needed by talking to one of my professors and going to the library and reading books full of literary analyses. I must admit to you, however, that I am quite an accomplished mimic. I was very good at reproducing what was wanted (once I knew what it was), and fully capable of doing so without completely understanding why I did it (example: me and college Calculus...by the second time I took it, I could do it, but I will never "get" it).

Now, as a homeschooler, one of my big mantras is "teaching for mastery." In other words, I want my kids to do whatever it is they need to learn to do until they truly understand what it is they are doing, why they are doing it, and how to do it. This especially holds true for the upper levels of teaching. I do not want my kids to be good mimics, like I was, and just to be able to produce a passing product that looks good on the surface, but lacks substance and true ownership and comprehension of the subject.

Sometimes this means approaching topics in diverse ways, so they can manipulate the data, get to know it well, and absorb it. Other times this means sending them out to have real experiences with what I want them to know, because we know that experience is the best teacher. Many times it means that we go over the same information more and more deeply, with consideration, and from many sides, over and over again until there comes the day that they "get it" for real...the words become theirs and not mine, the ideas come from what they know, not from what I think, the truths are revealed without constant prompting and guidance from me, the teacher.

All that said, I want you to know that as a certified English teacher in my state (and that was certified, not certifiable!), this curriculum is well above and beyond any I ever experienced as either a student or as an English teacher. There is no comparison in my experience, not even my own classes. Yes, I did just say that this is better than what I taught, and what I taught was good. Many knowledgeable people said so (like my mother, my father, my husband...no, really, there were lots of non-relatives who thought my classes were great...really). I taught age and level appropriate literature of the same quality as what is taught in EIL, I feel the kids got a good grounding on understanding the composition of literary works, and we developed their analytical and creative writing. We did challenging and interesting projects that were FUN...but, as far as my students being able to produce papers of this quality that truly analyzed the literature they were reading and connected it to their worldview and the author's experiences, well, let's just say that my expectations were more broad in scope, which left lots of room for many levels, and honestly, left enough room that students could potentially leave not really being in touch with what they'd read. Sigh.

Well, enough about me. I just wanted you to understand that when I am recommending this program to you that I mean it. This is good stuff. It will work. If you complete even two or three years of this program, your college-bound student will have a very good head start on writing for college (and a better chance at doing well on those scholarship forms and college applications). Your non-college bound student will write better tech manuals for the new robot they designed, better newsletters for the publishing business they started, better essays for their missions applications, and better letters to their future spouses who are away.

There is nothing wasted in this program. Every resource that is suggested is valuable in so many ways. For instance, Janice Campbell recommends that you might want to watch Adam Andrew's Teaching the Classics series, to get an initial idea on what literary analysis is all about. You can see what it is all about in this pamphlet. She also asks students to read "How to Read a Book" by Andrew Pudewa of the Institute for Excellence in Writing.

I can tell you that my son and I LOVED watching Teaching the Classics (I had it from when Bubba was in HS). It is truly fascinating. I saw Adam Andrews speak at our homeschool convention a few years ago and was amazed at how effective the way he teaches literary analysis is. I remarked to him that I wished he'd been my teacher in high school (for the reasons I stated above), and he said he gets that comment a lot. There must be a large number of ineffective English teachers out there...but with these two programs at your disposal, you do NOT have to be one. If you'd like to see a sample lesson so you will understand how thorough this program is, then check it out here.

Here are the objectives of the course we did, taken directly from their website. 

By the end of the course students will be able to:
  • 1. Understand the process of writing, including the use of tools such as a writer’s handbook, dictionary, and thesaurus.
  • 2. Have specific understanding of selected representative texts by major authors of the periods studied.
  • 3. Have a general understanding of the historical and cultural contexts of the works.
  • 4. Be able to analyze literary texts and present thoughtfully developed ideas in writing.
  • 5. Demonstrate competence in essay organization, style, and mechanics.
  • 6. Be able to analyze literary texts and present thoughtfully developed ideas in writing.
  • 7. Demonstrate competence in essay organization, style, and mechanics.

Here are the stories included in course one, the level I was given to use with my 14 year old son, Tex:
  1. Short Stories including: “A White Heron," "The Diamond Necklace," "The Ransom of Red Chief," and "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"
  2. Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne 
  3. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain 
  4. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë 
  5. Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw 
  6. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson 
  7. Animal Farm by George Orwell 
  8.  The Tempest by William Shakespeare 
  9.  Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift 

Each course also includes:
  • An Overview and Objectives for the course
  • an introduction to each work of literature
  • "Something to Think About" that gets your student focused on the author and/or history behind the book
  • "Be Sure to Notice" section which helps guide your student's observation skills and thinking as he/she reads
  • Author information, including hyperlinks (in the downloadable e-book)
  • Comparison and Companion texts
  • An honors selection by the same author
  • Links to information about the book and historical background
  • Often a link to the audio and or text version of the book online for FREE!
  • Suggested videos and audio visuals to supplement your study
  • Assignments broken down by week, with the expectation that each selection can be thoroughly covered in about four weeks (though it is stated that organizing and maintaining a schedule that is appropriate for you student is up to  them, and you, as facilitator).
  • A style sheet and rubrik, explaining how the papers are to be graded.
  • Sample papers in each of the expected formats (Approach Paper, Author Profile, Historic Approach Paper, etc.). See an example of an Author Profile at the bottom of this page.
  • Valuable advice for both you and your student on how to get the most out of your literature studies.
  • A glossary
  • Selected resources to supplement your studies
If you like what you see, Excellence in Literature can carry your student all the way through high school. There are five levels, and it is up to the parent to decide which is the most appropriate for their students. Each level increases in difficulty, and while level one might be about right for my 8th grader, it might be too easy for a 10th grader, even if they have never done anything with the program before. On the other hand, a 10th grader with minimal writing skills might find it just right.

Excellence in Literature: Reading and Writing through the Classics
Introduction to Literature (English I--8th) 
Literature and Composition (English II--9th)
American Literature: A Survey Course (English III--10th)
British Literature: A Survey Course (English IV--11th)
World Literature: A Survey Course (English V--12th)
Here is a complete listing of the books students will study at all levels.

You can purchase Excellence in Literature in book form for $29.95 + 4.95 shipping and handling, or for $27.00 as an e-book (but then you have to print it all yourself...I wasn't thrilled about this part...but if you have a student with his/her own computer who could reference it without printing it, you could just print a few pages like the grading rubrik, and leave the rest on the desktop).

If you are on the market for a flexible, thorough Literature and Writing curriculum for your high school students...one that will not only help shape them into accomplished writers and experts at literary analysis, but will mold them into self-directed learners, too...then look no further. This is it. 

A bit intimidating at first glance, once you and your students dive in, you will know that this is the English course you missed getting in high school (and maybe even college), and be grateful that you can give your kids the gift of a quality education...at home.

All that said, I think I would give the wrong impression if I failed to admit that doing this sort of course day in and day out is not our currently preferred teaching method. We generally choose writing assignments of a more practical, day-to-day nature, such as writing something for a blog or a presentation, creating a family newsletter, penning letters to relatives, and the like. You can see an example of a study we did on our Blessing Academy blog based on one of the books covered in EIL: Level One...Around the World in 80 Days. Tex wound up liking it so much, he's read it a few times since we did this unit, and he also used it when we studied unit 2 of EIL. He read the honors text selection, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, as well, and loved it.

However, I am fully acknowledging right now that I realize how valuable this sort of study is and we intend to work the rest of the units in this EIL study into his plan over the course of this school year and next (with plans to get the second course once we are done). We may do other things between the more serious analytical studies (like writing novels during National Novel Writing Month in November), but since Tex is an amazingly fast reader, each unit will not take us as long as the suggested month. I am so glad we had the opportunity to review this curriculum because I was afraid (just a wee bit) that I'd miss out on teaching him what he needs to know when it comes time to dual enroll or apply for college. Now, I've got it covered...with the help of Janice Campbell and Excellence in Literature. Thanks!

There is just one small thing I would add to this curriculum, and that is a suggestion for a very short book I would love to see added to the list of supplementary materials. About six months ago, I came across a book that made me wish I had read it years ago, because I can see how much it would have added to my lifetime experiences as a reader. EIL is all about reading and interacting with what you read on an analytical level. That is wonderful, and sorely needed today, but there is another dimension I think is so important to reading, and which goes along with the EIL goal of developing self-directed, lifelong learners...that is the idea of making sure than reading is something you do not just as a job, but as a joy. 

I am not saying that the EIL program in any way turns literary analysis into drudgery...in fact, its thorough coverage of the topic opens analysis up to being easy, which is a relief. The increased understanding you gain by using this program has the potential to make even books you don't particularly like (such as Moby Dick, for me) enjoyable, or at least appreciated, because you truly "get" them. However, a risk you take with developing anything into a set pattern is the danger of the activity becoming rote. 

That's where The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life by Steve Leveen (founder of Levenger's Catalog of items for people who love to read) comes in. It is an amazing collection of easy to read advice on how to make reading good books a personal lifelong goal, for the simple enjoyment of reading as well as for the enrichment they add to your life experience. If only I'd had the EIL program and that "Little Guide"  years ago...I think I'd have been a better teacher, read better books, learned more, and even been a more accomplished conversationalist. So, if you read this review and decide to go with EIL, consider finding a copy of Mr. Leveen's book and looking it over, too (it's out of print, but available cheaply online). It is an easy read and would add to, not take away, from the EIL program.

If you'd like to read more Crew reviews about Excellence in Literature, check HERE.


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