For Parents

What is Lit Group, who are we, what do we do?

We're all homeschooled teens, plus one parent who leads discussions, and teaches, encourages, lets, and gets the teens to lead their own discussions, when this is possible (it isn't always). We read books and meet weekly to discuss them. Approximately monthly, we meet (or just stay after) for optional book-related special events. We might go to a book's play adaptation, or write one, or attend a lecture by the author, or visit a museum or cook some food related to it. Or just watch the movie version. We try to achieve a mix of work and fun.

Lit Group itself is free; some of the special events cost money.

We read classics, teen literature, and other good books

We read a mix of classic, teen, and adult literature. We read classics because teens should become culturally literate persons, and because they need to undergo the rigor of reading more difficult works to develop and strengthen their minds and brains. We read Steinbeck and Hemingway because their books are good and, again, for cultural literacy. We read other modern books, including recent ones and some popular fiction, to help establish what we hope will be a lifelong habit of reading. We read teen literature because teens should read books like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Diary of Anne Frank, and others, too:

"Teenagers urgently need books that speak with relevance and immediacy to their real lives and to their unique emotional, intellectual, and developmental needs and that provide a place of commonality of experience and mutual understanding, for in so doing, they bring the outsiders out of the darkness and into the light of community."

- Michael Cart, quoted in Literature for Young Adults, 8th edition, by Nilsen and Donelson.

There's a practical reason to include lighter "teen reads" in our mix. Homeschool teens often stay in Lit Group for years. Maybe they wouldn't, if we read only hard classics like Euripedes, Shakespeare, and Dickens for years on end. That could get pretty heavy for a teen. Or for anyone.

In our reading, as in our other activities, we try to both mix and balance the work with the fun.

Speaking of fun...

If all we accomplish is the study and discussion of literature, then Lit Group has failed. Half the reason for the group's existence is to give smart homeschooled teens a safe, fun place to hang out, enjoy themselves and each other, talk, goof off, and just be teens.

One part is not fun

[A junior high school teacher] cautioned us against promoting the idea that reading should always be fun. Her husband is a math teacher, and his students expect to work hard even when they aren't having fun. In contrast, some of her students who have been taught to view reading as "fun," feel perfectly justified in choosing not to read if they think it would be more "fun" to listen to music or to go skateboarding.

(Nilsen & Donelson, Literature for Today's Young Adults*)

Have you ever seen a poster, perhaps in a library, blaring "Make Reading Fun!" in large letters? I don't try to do this. I do try to make discussions fun, I try to make Lit Group itself fun, I try to put a fun cast on our occasional extra lessons and "drop-ins." The content we read is also generally enjoyable - after all, these are good books.

But, the rudiments of reading (sounding out, parsing, decoding, et cetera), are not fun, but, simply, work. This you know from helping your teen learn to read when they were younger. After the rudiments come higher-level reading skills or tasks such as recognizing roots and cognates, acquiring/building vocabulary, learning to guess or deduce meanings of new words from their context, and being able to handle longer phrases and paragraphs (thought units).

These tasks can't be made fun, but through practice they can become effortless. Good readers, reading effortlessly, are able to focus all their mental energy on things like content, context, meaning, tone, implication, and correlation. It is part of the intent of Lit Group to help teens achieve this level of reading mastery. No one can do the work/practice for them, but I try to support them in their progress toward mastery by assigning works that are interesting and at the right level, and making the assignments neither too long nor too short.

The Battle

Battle Scenario One: The Shy Reader

Some teens enjoy reading a wide variety of books, including difficult ones. There is no battle getting these teens to read literature; they do it willingly. Lit Group is good for them because literature comes most fully alive when you discuss it with other literate persons. Teens share insights with other teens, build off each other's thoughts, argue, consider, convince and get convinced. They engage with each other and with the literature in ways that they can't do, and with effects that they can't get, alone.

But if the teen, even though a good reader, happens to be extremely shy, a parent who suggests that they attend Lit Group can find themselves with a battle on their hands.

Battle Scenario Two: I Hate It When You Make Me Read

Other teens resist reading literature, which can lead to battle between parent and teen. And this is one battle that teens can win, if every single reading session, suggestion, or request becomes a fight. Parents have to pick their battles, and a parent battling their teen on multiple fronts (it can happen) might simply give in, and not make their kid read Jane Eyre. It's a hollow victory for the teen because they miss out and "stay dumb" (to use the language of teens themselves). In grownup language, the teen fails to become capable of reading non-easy works, stays culturally illiterate, and doesn't develop their capacity to think broadly and deeply. In a small way it's like schooled kids who drop out. But however you look at it or phrase it, the teen wins.

Lit Group is not an antidote for teen rebellion. But this group of teens, who might characterize themselves with statements like "I hate this boring garbage!" or "This is so totally useless!", falls into two categories.

Lit Group can do this - it can lift the whole battle right off your shoulders and make it go away. To teens, the whole feel is different. They're not reading books mom or dad makes them read - they're just doing what all of the other teens are doing. Reading the assigned works, though hard, is not an outrageous offense directed at them personally. It's just the norm, everyone's doing it, including younger teens, and teens whom your own teen may consider to be dumber than themselves.

"Without Lit Group, my daughter would never read these books on her own, and I could never get her to read them without a big battle every time! But with the Lit Group, she gets the e-mail, reads the assignment, checks out the book, and reads it. There's no argument - she just does it."

- A Lit Group mom.

That mom is not alone; Lit Group works that way for most of us. Lit Group can eliminate the hassles, battles, and the disheartening frustration that might otherwise end only when we give up. It can make one part of our teens' education fruitful, easy, and gladdening.

Or, it might not.

What To Do

Coercing teens to attend Lit Group works only temporarily because they have an easy way out. Lit Group requires civility, reading, and discussion. A teen need only skip the reading assignments, to be politely asked (and required) to leave.

Instead, convince your teen, if you can, to give Lit Group a try for just two books. Explain that anyone can hate a particular book and that therefore, it isn't really a good test of Lit Group to try it for just one book. If your teen is shy, a poor reader, or says they hate literature &/or reading, privately let the Lit Group leader(s) know this - they've dealt with it before and they know what to do.

Then, Lit Group will either work out, or it won't. Maybe your teen will fit in right away. Maybe you'll need to extend the "trial period" - perhaps repeatedly. Eventually you and your teen will know if it's working or not. All you can do is convince your teen to try, encourage them to stick with it, and when the going gets rough, help them - maybe even by reading difficult parts, whole chapters even, to them aloud. Maybe get dad to do it at bed-time (yes this can work, even for older teens).

Goals

For those who like formal statements of goals, here they are (along with observed results):

  1. Reading and understanding
    • Lit Group teens read more difficult, classic works than they'd otherwise do.
    • Mere reading wouldn't make for the best understanding. In Lit Group, teens discuss books in depth and in detail, which greatly extends and solidifies their understanding. Discussing, they gain new insights, exercise their minds, engage with the literature and each other, think critically, carefully, deeply; interact respectfully - in short, they become "literate."
    • You may be thinking "Deep thinking? Respectful, reasoned interaction? That doesn't sound like my teen(s)!" It's true - teens don't come into Lit Group with all these reading, analytic, and discussion skills. They learn 'em, in Lit Group.
    • Teens also learn that:
      • different people hold different points of view about the same book, plus
      • there are aspects to a book they never thought of, even after reading it carefully.
  2. Emoting and interrelating
    • Teens get excited, amazed, stimulated, frustrated, outraged - they experience passion! All within a respectful, (semi)formal, thoughtful, structured, safe, topic-focused context.
    • They have fun!
  3. Provisioning and nurturing
    • Lit Group is a safe, comfortable, pleasant place to meet and hang out with other teens in a positive, fulfilling, intellectual environment oriented toward good growth and development.

The Lit Group is not enough

In Lit Group we read and discuss about 12 books per year. That's not nearly enough to prepare a student for admission to, and success in, a good college. Here is a list of literature read in one year by a homeschooled student who did get into a good college; it's 61 titles long. That's way more than we could cram into a Lit Group in a year.

The Lit Group isn't college

Studying literature in a homeschool Lit Group is different from studying at a university.

Firstly, some introduction to literary analysis is good. But the intricate, exhaustive, esoteric technical literary analysis as taught to some college English majors is not necessary.

Secondly, college students may be challenged to "Defend your beliefs or change them!" Professors argue in favor of thoughts, ideals, morals, and attitudes that contradict the students', and require them to argue back.

Lit Group doesn't do this. We do read the classics; classics do contain adult themes, so teens are exposed to facts, images, behaviors, ideas, and thoughts which disquiet them. We do discuss these, but we simply note that people, times, cultures and places are different. We don't attempt to change teens' beliefs, or challenge teens to defend them. They're already challenged enough by the difficulty of the literature and by adolescence. They're not adults*, they're still developing, as are their morals and ways of thinking. This/their development needs to be nurtured and encouraged, not challenged.

*With the exception of 18- and 19-year-olds

Speaking of college, and of not-college

Most Lit Group members go on to college, and a focus on classic literature is generally considered part of a "college preparation track." But think of this: studying literature means thinking about and wrestling with challenging problems of human nature, morality, alternatives, dilemmas, natural and societal forces, choices, and consequences. Teens who go to college will do this thinking there. But teens who don't? Lit Group might be their only chance to do this kind of thinking; to get practice thinking along these lines.

Rules and workings

Lit Group, like most homeschool activities, doesn't need a lot of rules. The teens are polite, they respect the material and each other, and they pull their weight. It's more often a parent that wants to know about rules. Here's a set that has worked:

Different leaders might alter these. Some forbid the use of audio books. Others have rules regarding teens "transferring" directly from public school.

About 'Mature Content'

Very nearly all serious, great, and/or valuable literature contains mature content, including moral quandaries and references to evils. It is appropriate, valuable, and helpful for teens, who are growing into adults and into the adult world, to study the lessons of literature, and use them as both guides, and as jumping-off points for discussion in developing their own morality. Mature content is integral to these lessons from literature, so we can't avoid mature content if we truly study literature. Teens who discuss mature content, including moral quandaries, in a safe, moral, positive group of other teens, make more and better moral decisions that sink in better, than they might on their own or if they only discussed the books with their own parents. And lastly, it can fall to a leader to guide this process, making sure that the discussion of mature content, and the ensuing morality-building process, does in fact happen, and doesn't careen off course.

We follow the practice of many (most?) parents and families of teens. We figure that teens are in fact gaining strength, need less sheltering than they used to, but still might need some some support and guidance. And practice! We take their "I can handle anything" bold attitude at face value, and act on it, selecting books for reading and discussion that do contain mature content. We recognize that bold attitude might not always match a teen's true strength; sometimes teens feel "this is too much for me." We let teens sit out books and discussion whenever this happens. When discussing the books, we make sure that the mature content does get discussed, right along with the rest of the book. When it's important, I as the adult leader will bring up mature content for discussion if the teens don't.

Basically, I try to take a common-sense approach to mature content, and it seems to work.

If you want to read more about just how I do so, and my further thoughts on the subject of discussing literature, including mature content, with teens, you may read more here.

About Pre-teens

I and other Lit Group leaders are often asked if we'll admit preteens to our lit groups. Quite often the request comes accompanied by the (generally true) statement that the particular preteen is an avid and skilled reader. I don't generally accede to such requests, for five reasons.

Firstly, though it's often true that a particular preteen is an advanced reader for their age, parents of preteens may not have considered that the teens in the lit group are also advanced readers for their age. My own son was an advanced reader at age 13, but when it came to Dickens, he was basically wading through it, just "reading the words" and catching as much of the meaning as he could. Now that he's 15, when he read his 3rd Dickens book, he not only fairly easily comprehended it, but actually enjoyed it. All the teens in the lit group agreed that reading Dickens "wasn't as bad as they thought it'd be." In our lit group, the reading pace can be challenging for an older teen with highly developed reading skills and experience. It can be unfair to a preteen, even a bright one who's a good reader, to subject them to this pace.

Secondly, preteen book clubs do exist, and they're far better suited to preteens than is my lit group. Even if there weren't already such groups/clubs available in the area, it'd be far better to start a book club targeted toward preteens. The needs of teens and preteens are, simply, different. Preteens learn, grow, develop, read, and discuss better in a group tailored to their partiular needs, literary interests, and stage of development.

Thirdly, there's a consideration that parents of preteens generally haven't thought of, but which I as leader face every day. It isn't only the needs of preteens that differ; preteen personalities are different, too. This is of course obvious - every parent of a teen, or anyone who's talked to a parent of a teen, knows this. It's obvious to teens in my lit group, too. Preteens can resemble teens in height and physical development, but the teens can, and generally do, tell right away when the homeschooler is a "little kid" (which is how the teens term the preteens). In teen-speak, preteens act like little kids and they think like little kids. Compared to schooled children, homeschoolers, including homeschooled teens, are famously much more tolerant of age differences, and much more able to deal with mixed-age groups and enjoy themselves in such groups. So the occsional preteen doesn't necessarily ruin the group, but their different cognitive style and emotional maturity does contrast with older teens.

Teens do enjoy and benefit from the company of other teens, and they quickly detect when the ratio of "little kids" gets too high, in their own estimation. When they do so detect and decide, they vote with their feet, generally without notice. The result of admitting too many preteens can be that all the older teens desert, which converts the teen lit group into a preteen lit group. Since my own son is a teen, I don't want that to happen.

Fourthly, there's the issue of mature content. I already discussed this in the above section, but since I've faced the request for preteen admission so many times, I've written this document specifically to give to parents who make such requests. Once they read it and realize just how mature or "adult" the material is that we read, they generally decide for themselves that it'd be better for their preteen to wait a year or so.

Fifthly, there's my own experience with admitting preteens to the lit group. In general, they are not such a very good fit with my group. In our Lit Group, I do some teaching and guidance, but my major focus is for the teens to really "put themselves into it" as they answer each others' questions and engage in discussions. "Dig deeper!" "I'm hearing too much book and not enough you in that answer! Let me hear more Jessica!" These kinds of challenges work well with teens, but not so well with preteens. Preteens in very many cases really haven't begun, or have just recently begun, developing their own personalities that are distinct from their parents' and their upbringing. Being asked to "Put more of yourself into it!" can actually be unfair, or even mean. They're putting as much of themselves into their answer as they can; but their well just isn't all that deep, yet.


*In some schooled environments, the teen is forced to read literature anyway, perhaps in the hope that some good will come from it and that they'll catch on. If they don't, they fail. This is not the place to argue the merits or flaws of that approach. In Lit Group, we accept the proposition that literature is not for everyone, and if literature is not for you, then neither is Lit Group.