Teaching Literature: A Guide for Homeschoolers

A conversation with Adam Andrews of the CenterForLit
By Barbara Danza
Barbara Danza
Barbara Danza
writer
Barbara Danza is a mom of two, an MBA, a beach lover, and a kid at heart. Here, diving into the challenges and opportunities of parenting in the modern age. Particularly interested in the many educational options available to families today, the renewed appreciation of simplicity in kids’ lives, the benefits of family travel, and the importance of family life in today’s society.
July 27, 2021 Updated: July 27, 2021

Homeschooling parents may find the prospect of teaching their children to read a straightforward endeavor. When it comes to teaching their children literature, however, many find themselves ill-equipped.

One resource worth consulting is the CenterForLit, an organization that provides educators and reading enthusiasts tools and guides for exploring and enjoying literary classics. Adam Andrews and his wife, Missy, are the co-founders of CenterForLit, as well as homeschooling parents. I asked Andrew for his advice on teaching literature at home.

The Epoch Times: What inspired you to start the CenterForLit?

Epoch Times Photo
Adam Andrews of the CenterForLit. (Courtesy of the CenterForLit)

Adam Andrews: My wife and I founded CenterforLit in 2003. As professional educators as well as homeschool parents, we saw knowledge of the Great Books in decline all around us. Neither parents nor teachers had been trained in the basic techniques of reading and discussing classic literature; as a result, students were growing up without a sense of their place as human beings in a cultural tradition. We think this cultural sense is very important and that teaching students to read the Great Books is one of the most powerful ways to pass it on.

The Epoch Times: Many parents are embarking on the homeschooling journey for the first time this year and are stocking their home libraries. What advice would you offer a parent who isn’t a literature expert but wishes to offer his or her children the very best books?

Mr. Andrews: It’s important to note that our civilization has been producing Great Books for thousands of years. No student will ever read them all. Luckily, a literary education by our definition doesn’t require this because education isn’t a curriculum or a booklist; it’s a moment of self-realization. It can happen on book No. 50, book No. 1, or outside of the classroom altogether. At CenterForLit, we help teachers use the Great Books one at a time, as discrete opportunities to confront students with their own humanity.

Since this is the most important goal, it turns out that how you read books is at least as important as which ones you read. Focusing on the proper techniques of careful reading produces mature thinkers who can benefit from all types of literature, regardless of its quality.

These techniques include recognizing the structure of the work before them; identifying the parts of the whole and their relationships with one another; understanding the author’s style and its thematic significance; putting the work in the historical and personal context of its author and his time; comparing the themes of the work with those of contemporary works by the same author and other authors; and, finally, assessing the work’s implicit and explicit answers to certain universal questions about the nature of man, God, and reality. CenterForLit trains teachers in these techniques via its well-known seminar Teaching the Classics.

Applying these techniques to any book can yield a profound discussion, no matter what book you choose. This isn’t to say that some books aren’t better than others, of course. CenterForLit publishes recommended reading lists for students of all ages, along with teacher guides to help parents and teachers lead Socratic discussions of the best books ever written.

The Epoch Times: Why is it important to focus on literature as an educator?

Mr. Andrews: The capacity for self-knowledge is the thing that makes us human. Since education is the cultivation of mature humanity in students, we conclude that education happens when a student catches a glimpse of himself as a thinking creature. In the best-case scenario, this glimmer of self-knowledge leads him further, to understand himself as an imperfect creature—a sinful creature, desperately in need of grace. We believe that any experience, academic or otherwise, which creates the conditions for this type of self-knowledge is a worthwhile education, and that all the book learning in the world is useless if it doesn’t create these conditions.

It turns out, however, that the Great Books of our tradition have been creating the conditions for self-knowledge in all types of readers for thousands of years. They are tried and true, the most reliable educational tools our civilization has ever produced.

A literary education, then, is simply a journey into self-knowledge using the occasions afforded by the Great Books. This is the reason we focus on literature: It provides the best opportunities for self-knowledge—and thus for real education—that an educator can possibly find.

The Epoch Times: How can parents get their kids excited about reading the classics—particularly those that make for challenging reads?

Mr. Andrews: The best way to get kids excited about the classics is to realize that “classic” doesn’t mean “boring book written for grown-ups.” It turns out that some of the best books in history were written for kids. Teaching kids to read these books well will create a taste for great stories in their minds and hearts. Then, as their reading level increases, that preference for quality will make more difficult stories seem just as exciting. Always begin with great children’s stories!

The Epoch Times: How do you recommend parents approach teaching literature at each stage on the educational journey, for example, at the elementary level, middle school level, and high school level?

Mr. Andrews: The most important thing to remember when teaching literature is that the techniques of good reading remain the same as the student matures. This is because all stories, regardless of their reading level, share the same basic structure. Bedtime stories for second graders have all the same features, that is, as Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” or Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.”

This in turn means that the same teaching strategies work as well with picture books as with Shakespeare plays. In particular, the same set of questions may be asked of both types of books in order to lead the student into understanding and enjoyment. Once a teacher knows what these questions are, he or she can easily teach an elementary-level book and a high school-level book with the same confidence. The discussions that emerge from this single set of questions will vary based on the depth and complexity of the books themselves, but the teacher and her students can focus on repeating the same classroom techniques over and over again. CenterForLit has developed and published these questions as part of its Teaching the Classics training seminar.

The Epoch Times: What book have you most enjoyed studying with your children?

Mr. Andrews: With our young children, we love books like “All the Places to Love” by Patricia McLachlan and “Owl Moon” by Jane Yolen. Our middle school students love the works of Gary D. Schmidt, such as “Anson’s Way” and “The Wednesday Wars.” At the high school level, we never skip “Little Dorrit” by Charles Dickens or “Till We Have Faces” by C.S. Lewis.

The Epoch Times: If you could offer one piece of advice to new homeschoolers, what would it be?

Mr. Andrews: I would encourage new homeschoolers to remember that they have made a great decision, even when they feel overwhelmed and underprepared. Parents are by far the best teachers, regardless of their formal training or professional experience. There is a world of high-quality resources available online if subject matter expertise is needed—including online classes from CenterForLit for students in grades 5 and up—but the most important part of any child’s education is time spent with his parents. By choosing homeschooling, you have given him a permanent advantage.

Barbara Danza
Barbara Danza
writer
Barbara Danza is a mom of two, an MBA, a beach lover, and a kid at heart. Here, diving into the challenges and opportunities of parenting in the modern age. Particularly interested in the many educational options available to families today, the renewed appreciation of simplicity in kids’ lives, the benefits of family travel, and the importance of family life in today’s society.