Making One Lesson Count

What if you only have time to read one book with your student this year? Should you throw your hands up in despair and enroll him in the local government school?

Well it’s up to you, but you might be missing a great opportunity. You would be surprised at how powerful that one lesson can be. In fact, a well-designed discussion of a single book can dramatically affect the way your student reads all other books for the rest of his life.

This is because a good discussion focuses not only on the content of the book at hand, but also on the structural and stylistic elements that the book shares with every other book in the world. This means that engaging in a good discussion of a single great book can equip a student to grapple with a dozen others unassisted.

Remember the adage, “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish and he’ll never go hungry?”

In a way, a good lit discussion teaches students to fish. By asking thought-provoking questions about the basic elements of fiction, you’ll show your students how to think for themselves about any book whatsoever.

Here are a few examples:

  • What does the protagonist want most in this story? Is this desire shared by all people, to some degree? In what way do you, the reader, share this desire?
  • What is the central conflict in this story and who or what are the main antagonists (In other words, why can’t the protagonist have what he wants)? What other stories have you read that feature the same type of conflict?
  • What is the climactic moment of this story’s plot? How does it resolve the main conflict?
  • How does the setting of this story underscore the author’s theme? How is the setting uniquely suited to the author’s purpose? (In other words, could this story stress the same theme if the setting were different?)
  • What changes does the protagonist undergo during this story? Is he humbled or exalted? What causes these changes? Based on your own experience, can you identify with these changes?
  • Does the author use literary devices such as symbolism, metaphor, imagery, allusion or juxtaposition to emphasize the story’s themes? How effective are these devices?
  • If you had to summarize the main idea of this story in a single word, what word would you choose? What other stories have you read that could be summarized with the same word?

Questions like these can be asked of any book, of course, and they yield a thoughtful discussion every time. The best part is, you can introduce them in a single lesson. No need to send your kids to the school down the road, then, unless you just want to.

While were on the subject, though, take another look at the list above. Can you imagine any of those questions leading naturally into a discussion of worldview assumptions, life-changing decisions, or questions of identity, purpose and meaning?

If so, do you really want a stranger helping your student answer them? Wouldn’t you rather teach him how to fish yourself? Once he learns, he’ll never go hungry again – even if you only taught him one book.