Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Don’t look now, but summer is just around the corner. It is almost time to engage in that most ridiculous of all homeschooling rituals: planning next year’s curriculum while simultaneously trying to finish last year’s curriculum. It’s totally unrealistic and invariably overwhelming, but most of us do it anyway – or at least feel guilty for putting it off.

No matter when you get finally get started, however, plotting a scope & sequence for your homeschool can be a daunting task. Those of us who attempt it in reading and literature always confront the same basic question sooner or later:

How many books is enough? 

What qualifies as a full term of reading? Is it OK to pick a number of books at random? These are disheartening questions for most of us, because they bring up a deep-seated insecurity: We are most likely not doing enough, and there’s no realistic way to do more.

Missy and I have wrestled with this very insecurity for years, especially when it comes to literature. The homeschool lit teacher is stuck between a rock and a hard place – no question about it.

The Rock

The first problem is that teaching and learning from literature requires thoughtful oral discussion. It turns out that talking about the books you read is the only way to learn anything from them. This is because every author writes for the express purpose of sparking thoughtful discussion. If, as a teacher, you don’t attempt a thoughtful discussion of a book, you are not teaching that book – and your student probably isn’t learning anything from it.

Additionally – and here’s the worst part – you cannot thoughtfully discuss a book you have not read yourself. I wish this were not true, and I would love to announce that there is a shortcut to being a great lit teacher, but I would be lying. There is no easy way around this mountain. Leading your student in an intelligent discussion of a book requires that both of you read it first.

The Hard Place

The second problem, of course, is that you cannot personally read as many books as you want to assign to your students. Even if you are teaching only a single class, there is no way to keep up. Too many books, not enough time – simple as that.

Missy and I have six children, with no twins. That means six different grade levels at all times, in all subjects. The burden of teaching Math alone is staggering, to say nothing of the other subjects. Add in the myriad non-homeschool activities involved in raising a family of eight, and it is a wonder we ever sleep.

But it’s not just the crowded schedule that makes this impossible – it’s the fact that reading is slow, time consuming work all by itself. Even if all we did was sit and read ahead of the kids, we couldn’t possibly read everything we assigned to them. It would take both of us studying literature 24 hours a day. We love literature, but not that much.

So I get it. We all want to do something valuable and worthwhile with literature, and maybe we even know what it is, but the limitations of our situation always prevent it. There’s just not enough of us to go around.

Good news – we found a solution.

The solution is as simple – and as difficult – as telling the truth.

Here’s how you do it:

Begin by deciding how many books you can realistically read in the course of a school term (a month, a semester, a year, whatever). Be honest and specific. Ask yourself when you can take time out to read and how much time you can devote to reading each week.

Can you read for a few minutes before bed at night? Can you read when the little ones are napping? Can you listen to books on tape while driving the kids to soccer practice, or while folding the laundry? If these snatches of time became part of your consistent routine of teacher preparation, how many hours per week would they add up to? How many books could you read if you used these snatches of time consistently?

DO NOT overestimate this number. Instead, underestimate it. Make this number small enough to be absolutely realistic, given the demands on your time and attention. Come up with a number of books that you can read next term, come hell or high water.

Got your number? Good. Now you are ready for the tricky part. Here goes:

Whatever your number is, plan to discuss exactly that number of books with your student in the upcoming term – no more and no less. Assign additional books for your students to read on their own, unsupervised.

That’s it. Discuss exactly as many books as you can read yourself and let the student read the rest on his own.

I already know what you’re thinking. “You cannot be serious, or you don’t know my situation as well as you claim. I did your little calculation, and do you know what number I came up with? ONE. That’s right, my number is ONE. Are you saying I can teach my kids literature adequately by having ONE discussion with them in the upcoming term?”

Yes – exactly!

If you invest the right kind of attention and preparation into a single discussion, you will be amazed at its effect on your students. The lessons you can teach about how to handle literature and ideas in that one discussion will dramatically affect how they read the rest of the books on their list, and can permanently affect how they read for the rest of their lives. When it comes to designing a book list, it turns out that the important question is not how many books you discuss, but how well you discuss them. In a future post I’ll explain some key techniques to help you lead great discussions every time.

In the meantime, I encourage you to continue telling yourself the truth when it comes to curriuclum planning. Set realistic goals. You have already been honest in calculating the number of books you can read for next term. Why start lying now because the number feels too low? Stick to your guns. Tell the truth. You may not be just like that brilliant overachiever down the street who apparently has 36 hours in every day. Instead, you are the one God has appointed to teach your students – and therefore, you are the one they need.