scenic travel guide that helps students discover the literary, artistic, and historic influences that shaped the book. Context
resources can include poetry, art, music,
a bit of the author’s life, important events
and ideas of his time, and other relevant resources. Because literature is the focal point
of the study, context resources should be
brief, yet interesting and relevant.
To provide easy access to context, it is
helpful to have some reference basics in
your home library. In addition to the usual
dictionary and thesaurus, it is helpful to
have a chronologically-arranged encyclopedia of world history, a copiously illustrated art history book, an atlas, and a set of
Norton anthologies of American, English,
and World literature. Certain elements of
context information are also available on-line, but it is wise to use a carefully curated
group of context links rather than browse
through whatever comes up first.
Write With Purpose
Once students have absorbed the story and
studied context resources, they should be
ready to think deeply about the text. One of
the best ways to do this is to write responses
to carefully crafted writing prompts. Francis Bacon said that “Reading maketh a full
man; conference a ready man; and writing
an exact man,” and he was right. The process
of writing through an idea captures initial
thoughts and impressions, eliminates logical
inconsistencies, leads to deeper insights, and
provides practice in clear, exact expression.
In order to encourage deep thinking,
writing prompts should engage students
at the “why” level. This is not the time for
trivia questions, such as “What was Cosette
doing when Marius first saw her?” (Les Miserables by Victor Hugo). That type of trivia
belongs in a game, not in a high school curriculum! A good essay prompt is specific,
and tends to address things such as the
overall theme of the book, character motivation, the author’s intent, or the reliability
of the narrator.
Narrow, deep prompts guide students
down a path of focused thought, but a
loose, general prompt such as, “Write about
the idea of justice in Les Miserables” tends
to result in a shallow, unfocused essay, as
the topic is too broad.
A better question would be, “In 750
words, consider how the classical virtue of
justice shapes the lives of Jean Valjean and
Inspector Javert. Discuss which of the two
men is more just and more virtuous, and
explain why, using quotes from the text to
support your thesis.”
Reading great books is a bit like time
travel, and writing can be a voyage of dis-
covery. Enjoy the journey!
Janice Campbell is the author the self-directed, college-prep Excellence in Literature
curriculum that teaches classic literature and
writing, as well as Transcripts Made Easy and
other resources. You can find her online at
.com, and Excellence-in-Literature.com.
Allow the book to speak directly to the student, and they will be
encouraged to speak directly back during the writing stage of literature study.