A big reason people don't enjoy literature is because they don't understand it—what it is, what it's for, and why anyone would want to read anything other than sports stats and the TV Guide. Sharon Watson has the answers to all these questions and more, and she presents them to high school students (perhaps the most recalcitrant of all literature readers) calmly and without complication.
Illuminating Literature: When Worlds Collide isn't your typical survey course. Watson's goal is not to expose readers to the scope of the literary canon, or to hit all the highlights of Western literature. Rather, the eight books students read all exemplify the "colliding worlds" motif, which becomes the lens through which important literary concepts and themes are inspected.
This also isn't full of long lists of terms to memorize or rubrics to which great stories and ideas can be reduced. That's not to say Watson doesn't present important terms, or that she doesn't offer objective criteria for evaluating stories, but the focus is on understanding the big picture in context rather than picking the flesh off the bones and losing what magic a story may hold.
How Does This Work?
There are three volumes in this set: a student book, a teacher's guide, and a quiz and answer manual. Students read the student book and do the exercises, teacher's facilitate discussion and grade written work with the teacher's guide, and the quizzes evaluate reading comprehension, understanding of terminology, and opinion about what is read. In addition to these three texts, you'll need to procure the specified editions of seven novels and a memoir (most of them inexpensive) for each student. The course is designed for one school year.
Illuminating Literature: When Worlds Collide is best used in a classroom or co-op where discussion can take place, though homeschool families can use it, too. If you're a parent using it with a single student, though, realize that you will have to interact with them fairly extensively as much of the student book is designed to foster conversation and collaborative reflection. Everything you need is in these books, however, so you don't need to worry about prepping lessons or finding resources.
The eight literary works are: Pudd'nhead Wilson by Mark Twain, The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, The Friendly Persuasion by Jessamyn West, Peter Pan by Sir James Barrie, Warriors Don't Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. Since this is a nine-month course and most of these books are relatively short, this should pose no problem for getting through everything.
All the usual elements of a literature course are present here, from discussions of theme and plot to the use of symbolism. There are also discussions of historical background, film adaptations, genre, rhetorical modes, and too much more to even begin to list. Students will learn about the structure of literary works, the hero's journey, setting, point of view, etc. None of these things are simply conjured out of midair, however; all of them are taught in context as Watson helps readers move through the various texts.
Each of the eight primary texts gets a chapter of its own in the student book, and each chapter is further divided into 7-10 lessons each with their own quizzes, exercises, writing assignments, and supplemental activities and readings. The "Yes, I read it" quizzes measure comprehension; the Literary Terms Quizzes are multiple choice and matching and simply evaluate student retention of terminology; and the Opinion Surveys help students apply what they've learned to their own literary analysis.
Students will keep a "Novel Notebook," either in a blank notebook or on the 101 free downloadable pages at the author's website that simply include the writing prompts and journal questions for each entry also included in the student book. This is basically a commonplace book where they can write down observations about the novels they read and reflect on the worldview assumptions of the authors. Prompts include simply writing down favorite quotes, recording examples of foreshadowing, and noting things you disliked about the book.
For those who want to read more like the book being studied, there's a list of similar titles. There's also a list of activities at the end of each chapter that range from doing extra historical research to cooking recipes found in the book to watching a film adaptation. Students are prepped for each book with a "Before You Read the Book" section with insight into the book and a weekly plan for completing the chapter; an "After You Read the Book" section helps students recap what they learned and their experience.
This is a Christian course, but of course not all the authors covered were Christians. Rather, students are taught to understand the basic ideas present in the text and to evaluate them according to Christian principles and a biblical worldview. The approach is organic—there's never a "this is the worldview of this author" section—which helps build this kind of thinking into the student's reading experience rather than importing it as something extra later on.
Watson's literature instruction philosophy, however, is fairly unique and clearheaded among Christian educators. She sees literature as artistically valuable, an effective communicator of ideas, and a way for disparate human beings to share life experiences. In short, she subscribes to the dictum of the Roman poet Horace that literature should delight and instruct, and this becomes her approach to clarifying the sometimes murky literary waters.
She also doesn't hold to the near-religious fanaticism with which many view the Western literary "canon" (if such a thing even exists). Writers, she points out, are flawed people who fight with or succumb outright to their sin nature just like the rest of us, and this struggle inevitably affects and taints their literary output. The classics should not be held up as sacred texts, but as valuable sources of insight and enjoyment. Students don't need to like the books they read, she says, they just need to understand them.
There are a number of checklists and questions near the beginning of the student text to help kids evaluate their own relationship to and views of literature, and to help them understand why they even need to be taking this course in the first place. You'll find no panegyrics to the great writers of the past here, no "RAH-RAH-RAH" enthusiasm to get kids psyched to read—just a refreshingly realistic attitude and an acknowledgement that not everyone likes books, and not everyone will.
Our Honest Opinion
Illuminating Literature: When Worlds Collide is the first in a projected four-volume high school literature curriculum. We can only hope that the other three volumes become reality because this is one of the most no-nonsense yet engaging literature programs we've seen. Watson doesn't bog students down with unnecessary information, but she also doesn't insult their intelligence or leave them unchallenged. She gives them the tools to understand literature better, and thereby to appreciate and enjoy it better.
Many good literature courses, especially those that emphasize understanding the ideas and worldview present in books, are extremely teacher-intensive and can be difficult or time-consuming to implement. Sharon Watson's course is not of this stripe. While teacher interaction is required, it won't take too much time or lots of preparation. Lessons aren't scripted, but there are scripted teacher helps in the teacher's guide, and the lessons in the student book are directed to kids themselves.
It's important that kids realize books aren't just portals into entertainment. Good stories are undeniably entertaining, but they exist to promote or explore ideas which affect peoples' lives and attitudes. Being able to discover a book's message is essential to not being negatively affected by it, but is also helpful for bringing readers more enjoyment. Illuminating Literature: When Worlds Collide will give kids this skill and hopefully lead to a lifetime of intelligent and productive reading.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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