Leading a homeschool teen lit group

You can lead a homeschool teen literature group, and do it well, just with your own good heart, native intelligence, love of literature, love of children/teens, willingness to work, and a place to meet. It's not too hard to stimulate good discussion about good literature. You will need to:

That really is all you need to get started. You don't need to read any more of this page!

But, others before you have led lit groups. They have come up with things you may be able to use.

If discussions lag and things get boring or stale, even though you're reading good books, check out some of these discussion boosters to create a little variety and liven things up.

Some folks are interested in literary analysis; sometimes homeschoolers (generally parents - not so often teens themselves) wonder about writing and written assignments.

Why recruit? Do you have to?

You may not need to recruit, if you're part of a vibrant, active homeschool community with plenty of smart teens. But most leaders of homeschool teen activities need to deal with attrition. Some teens switch to public school because they want to play organized sports; some parents quit homeschooling when their teens surpass them academically. Teens graduate. So, because of attrition, you might need to recruit.

How to recruit depends on your own situation, but I found these general principles helpful:

When I meet a parent, I shake their hand, smile, introduce myself as lit group leader, and hand them a flyer. I chat with them about my own love of literature and how nice it is to see smart teens relating intelligently, warmly, and respectfully, and having fun. I praise the teens currently in the lit group, and warmly invite the parents' teens to give the lit group a try. I make sure to mention that it does take work, that we do expect teens to read the books, and that some of the books can be difficult. I point out the "serious literature" (hard) books we've covered in the past, making this sound like a caution, but it's really a selling point to parents - they want their kids to read these books.

I tell parents that half the importance of the lit group is to give the teens a time and place to just hang out and be teens. Only the first hour of lit group is spent reading and talking through the book; for the last hour, I leave the teens to themselves (though I stay in earshot). That first hour spent discussing the book is the best "icebreaker" there is - the teens focus on a neutral topic, yet get accustomed to expressing themselves freely and openly. They establish communications and connections during that first hour, and by the end of it, most nervousness and self-consciousness is gone, and the socializing is great.

If teens are listening while I'm talking to their parents, that's great. They can tell it's a "grownup discussion" but obviously this matters to them. Homeschooled teens are often attracted by the talk of significant work and required readings, and they like the idea of the icebreaking and the easygoing, fun hanging out.

When I meet a teen, I hand 'em a flyer, tell them that we read and discuss books and enjoy special events, and that it's a fun, good group. I invite them "If you like to read, come check out the group," and I pretty much leave it at that.

Choosing books

Sure, homeschooled teens should read Steinbeck, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Dickens, Moby Dick, and other "greats". But after several years in a lit group, a diet of 100% Great Books can get a little heavy. Plus, classic "teen literature" like To Kill a Mockingbird really should be read. So should other, more current, teen literature. In our teen lit group, we mix classic literature with easier "teen stuff," with modern classics like Steinbeck and Hemingway, and with general fiction.

I suggest you make your own choices, though you might find it not so easy. What are good books for a 13-, or a 17-year-old? What's appropriate for whom? What are the "Great Books?" What do college students read? What should you read to get a head start in a liberal arts program? Or to be prepared for college? What should you read if you're not going to college?

These lists may help you find some answers.

Not choosing - When the choice is made for you

If your homeschoolers all come from a particular religious background, or use a standardized curriculum, you may already have available a list of approved/acceptable books, and maybe even an assigned schedule. Some communities have an annual event, generally managed by a local public library and school system, in which one particular book is chosen for the whole community to read.  Here's an example.  You may simply follow their choice, in which case you may also be able to use their discussion guide.

Let the teens choose their own?

Some authors (such as the Moellers, or Daniels and Steineke) insist that students choose their own books, saying "you absolutely can not fall in love with a book that someone stuffs down your throat." Well said, good point. But I've found that teens do enjoy, and sometimes even fall in love with, books I select. I just have to do a good job of selecting! And of knowing the teens.

When Moeller says "students choose their own reading," he means "from a short list." Quoting him: "In my classroom, students are allowed to choose from the books that we have available or are easily obtainable..." and, "Later, I get kids into Literature Circles with a limited list of books from which they can choose and want to read in a group setting." This might work for you and your teens.

Why (and how) it works to choose for the teens; choosing from a menu

In my own lit group, I choose the books. I alternate between serious books like Pride and Prejudice, followed by easier "teen reads" like Number the Stars. I give only a week's notice of each new title, so I can pick books that match what the teens need right now. I know them, their moods, and what they're ready for. Sometimes I'm wrong! But teens stay in our lit group for years, so I enjoy a reservoir of good will. The book's a dud? They put up with it - the next one will be better, and it doesn't happen too often.

Homeschoolers, with good reading skills, can handle difficult books. The quality of their attention and interaction will likely be high, and their behavior good. If your teen readers are like mine, cynicism and "free-floating opposition" will be low, they'll respect the material, and admit (perhaps grudgingly) the value of reading such books as Great Expectations. So, you have a lot of latitude in choosing books.

If your group grows large (say, to 20 teens), you might break it into smaller subgroups; though you must first teach teens the leadership and discussion skills they need. Leading 8-12 teens works well for me, but when teens lead their own groups, groups of around 6 work better. With multiple subgroups, teens can choose from a menu of 2-4 books, and you can organize the subgroups around their book choices.

Mature content

Real literature deals with real life, including real-life issues, painful to even contemplate, much less ponder and discuss. If your own teen years are very far in the past, you might be surprised, upon re-reading anything that might be considered "good literature," how much mature content these books actually contain. Since a teen lit group might include 13-year-olds, a leader is faced with the decidedly uncomfortable issue of discussing some very mature topics with some pretty young folks. It's terrible to think of corrupting teen minds and morals, and it's completely valid to question whether it's beneficial and/or morally correct to encourage teens to discuss certain topics and think along certain lines.

You might think that I'm talking about such topics as sex, death, and slavery. That is true but it's only the tip of the iceberg. Real literature deals with evils as intense as child sexual slavery, and questions as fundamental as whether prostitution might be a perfectly moral/acceptable trade.

This question kept coming up so often and so powerfully that I wrote a separate treatment just of it; so you may read my ideas about mature content with teens here.

And what about pre-teens? Here things get even stickier. Depending on what other groups are near yours, you might get requests from moms to admit their 12-year-old to your group, even though the child is, obviously, not teen age. Typically the mom will say that the child's an avid reader and advanced in reading ability for his/her age. Parts of the answer to this have to do with mature content, so here is what I wrote about this topic, for your information if you want it.

Discussions and leading them

You can tell when it's going well.  If the teens are asking and answering questions, that's good. If the teens are bouncing ideas off each other, presenting different opinions and interpretations, challenging and even arguing and trying to correct each other (while focusing on the book), that is perfect.  Passions may run high, and as long as it doesn't get hurtful, and no one's getting shut out, this is good, not bad.

How to achieve this? There are at least two ways that work; "You Lead" and "Teens Lead."

"You Lead": Leading the group yourself

You may actively lead the group, talking through the week's assignment, noting important points, asking questions, and stimulating discussion. First, you need to carefully re-read the book, noting important points (especially things a teen reader might miss or misunderstand), and coming up with discussion questions. You may also gather supplemental material, such as this about Hitler Youth. It's a lot of work.

There are resources that can help you with this. You can refer to the bibliography, and you can get help from other lit group leaders. Some of these resources provide you with ready-made questions and notes - you could skip reading the book, ask the questions, and use the notes. Kind of like popping open a can of soup; just open and use.

But don't do it. Canned questions make a stale lit group! To be any good, you need a vital and personal relationship with the books you present. Obviously you must read the books. Less obviously, you really should come up with your own questions and ideas for stimulating discussion. But, just as you'll use your questions and ideas to to help teens stimulate their own thinking and development, you may use other people's questions and ideas to stimulate yours.

"Teens Lead": Teaching the teens to lead their own literature discussions

Lit group teens are smart. Rather than you talking through the week's selection, hitting the high points, asking questions, and stimulating discussion, wouldn't it be better if the teens did those things?

Yes, of course. But only if they can. Teens don't come pre-equipped with the ability to lead discussions of literature. You will need to teach them the leadership and intellectual/cognitive skills they need to lead and participate in a discussion of literature. Here are some resources and ideas to help you, including forms you and the teens can use or adapt for your own use, plus ideas for how to teach their use.

"You Lead" versus "Teens Lead":  Which is better?  When?

Teens learn more and develop better when they lead their own discussions, but sometimes they can't. In a new lit group, teens won't know how to lead, so you'll need to. Even after you teach, and teens develop, good discussion and leadership skills, when the book is very difficult, they'll need handholding, with you presenting the book chapter by chapter, summarizing, clarifying, and explaining. If they're tired or having a bad day, and unable to effectively lead a discussion themselves, you may step in and lead it (which lets the teens see you modeling the good reading, discussion, and meeting skills you're teaching).

Nobody Hurt: Spirited discussion versus personal attack

In my experience with homeschool teen lit groups, a vigorous, spirited discussion of a book doesn't degenerate into mean-spirited personal attacks. Homeschooled kids are generally polite and focused on learning. But they're human and teen-aged, so of course make the occasional wisecrack and putdown. Generally this is all in good fun; enjoyed as part of the social aspect of the group. But it is possible for someone to be mean, and a leader must of course eliminate meaness from the lit group.

Lead by example. Be kind and respectful of others, focus on the book, solicit ideas, opinions, and analysis. Don't belittle teens when they respond, even if you privately think that their response is nonsense. Carefully, use gibes and "prodding" jests yourself, exemplifying the difference between mean and fun teasing. You'll set a tone which most will follow.

If someone does step over the line, you'll need to bring them back. I conceive the lit group to be a safe, comfortable, kind zone; you might explain that hurtful personal attacks wreck this zone and are not OK. Or explain that intellectual inquiry is a collaborative process. You may mention and discuss them 3 principles of the New Games movement: Play Hard, Play Fair, Nobody Hurt. Teens do understand these, which translate nicely to a lit group discussion. I especially like the last one, which ambiguously means both "Nobody (causes) Hurt" and "Nobody (gets) Hurt."

Or, depending on your personality, morals, and situation, you might quote the bumper sticker: "Mean People Suck."

If a situation seems intractable and a participant continues to be a detriment to the group, you may have to exercise your authority as lit group leader and disinvite them.

Different lit groups, and even different meetings of the same lit group, vary depending on the book, the teens, the leader, even people's moods that day. Yet, good lit groups have in common:

  1. good social interaction (respectful behavior, fun)
  2. a focus on the literature, and
  3. good stimulating discussion among the teens themselves.

If your lit group has all these, then you're probably doing just fine.

What about analysis and interpretation?

There's a natural limit to how much literary analysis to include in your lit group. Some teens could learn the kind of intricate and esoteric (and very dry, even soul-less) literary analysis practiced in English Literature study at the university level. But most find it boring, don't seem ready for it, and don't seem to benefit from its study. They may actively resist it.

In my own lit group, I focus on reading and discussion, but, from time to time (and only if the time seems right), I drop in a lesson about studying literature &/or literary analysis. Here are some resources that might help you, if you want to give this a try.

What about writing and written homework?

Should teens write book reports or other book-related artifacts?

Writing does improve understanding. The process of composition - formulating your thoughts and setting them down formally on paper/in writing - is invaluable. But it's a lot of work for a teen, and if they do it, their hard work should be reciprocated. A teen who puts heart, soul, and significant effort into a written assignment, should not then witness that assignment fall flat into the bottom of the trash can, or dismissed with a one-line comment. A good written assignment is half of a contract; it says "This is where I'm at and how I'm thinking. Am I on track? What should I do now?"

Fulfilling the second half of the contract - that is, reading, responding to, making suggestions about, and correcting written assignments - takes a lot of work. In our lit group, that's more time than I have to spend. If you're going to include written assignments in your lit group, make sure you either have the time to respectfully, carefully, and helpfully respond to them, or set up a support structure to help you. Get teen's parents, or (trustworthy, kind, smart, reliable, timely) "significant others," or maybe even volunteers, to read, evaluate, and respond to teens' output. What these "helpful others" lack in professional English language training, they can more than make up for in enthusiasm and caring.

If you don't integrate written assignments into your lit group, parents may, of course, give their teens writing assignments based on the books.

If you do want to give written assignments, and you don't want the assignment to consist of the 4 (dreaded, detested) words "Write A Book Report," here are some ideas for written assignments that you may be able to use.

Is that all there is to it?

The answer to this question is both yes and no.

At the top of this page I wrote that leading a Lit Group can be simple. All you need are smarts, your love of literature, books, teens, time, and a place to meet. You can start with just those, make your Lit Group up as you go along, do it well, benefit the teens, and have fun all around.

On the other hand, you could run Lit Groups for a lifetime and still be learning more. If the information on this page has whet your appetite and you want to know more yet, then this document will probably not just satisfy your appetite, but kill it. It's an expanded version of what's written on this page. Happy reading!