Teaching The Classics {Review}

As you know, we use literature and the classics for our core curriculum in any given subject.  Up to this point I have used literature primarily as the jumping off point–the starting line of our educational adventure.  We start with a story and then just follow whatever path our questions lead us down.  While I already knew that literature was the very best way to teach language arts and history, and that reading was the best way to learn creative writing; it honestly never occurred that literature was also the very best way to teach… well, literature.

Some of my oversight can probably be attributed to the fact that I can recall a whopping two lessons about literature in my entire life.  In one of the lessons we were being taught about foreshadowing.  I broke from my natural inclination to be a wall-flower and raised my hand in order to give an example of foreshadowing that I had seen in a recent episode of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.  My teacher said I was wrong; it wasn’t foreshadowing it was IRONY… I thought she was being stupid.

In one other lesson, this same teacher and I argued about whether or not it was possible to have a REAL person be the character in a FICTIONAL story.  I insisted that it was, she said it was impossible.  “You can have your fictional character be BASED on a real person and have the same name and experiences but your character can’t actually be a real person.”  I thought she was being stupid and that her argument was semantical at best.  Is it any wonder I don’t relish the idea of teaching literary structure?

Institute for Excellence in Writing

Fortunately for me, Institute for Excellence in Writing has made available a fabulous resource for those of us still carrying middle-school literary baggage.  

Teaching The Classics

Teaching the Classics ($89) was born out of a community need.  Adam and Missy Andrews are a husband and wife team who created this course in response to a need in their community.  Parents in their homeschooling community wanted to learn how to  love, appreciate and teach literature.  Teaching the Classics is comprised of a set of four DVD’s and a workbook.  During the lectures, you will learn how to teach literature using the Socratic Method.  The lectures cover the following:

  • Introduction – Why Literature
  • Lesson 1 – Preparing For Literary Analysis
  • Lesson 2 – Plot and Conflict
  • Lesson 3 – Setting
  • Lesson 4 – Character
  • Lesson 5 – Theme
  • Practicum – Casey at the Bat
  • A Curriculum for Literature
  • Appendices: including The Socratic List (questions for critical thinking), Reading Lists, and a Glossary of Literary Terms

Among other things you learn how to create story charts using the five elements of fiction, and how to appreciate different literary styles.  There is a section explaining why we use the Socratic Method and how to adapt your teaching in order to use it effectively.

Every work of fiction, from Dr. Seuss to Tolstoy, shares the same basic formula.  By learning how to identify these elements you can better understand the value of the work in question.

Adam is the presenter of this lecture series.  During each lesson he explains the definition and importance of each element of fiction (plot, setting, etc.).  He then goes on to read a short story.  After he reads the story he and the audience discuss the story and the element in question.  In the discussion other important factors such as the author and historical context are also addressed.  Each chapter addresses how to apply the teaching for children as well as adults.  For example, lesson 2 is about plot and conflict.

The different stages of the plot are listed and explained (introduction/exposition, rising action, climax, denouement, and conclusion).  The five different types of conflict are also listed and explained (man vs man, man vs nature, etc.).  Adam then reads The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter.  After the reading he and the audience discuss the plot and conflict of The Tale of Peter Rabbit while filling out the story chart.  The lesson goes on to a discussion of plot and conflict for To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  The workbook contains additional examples of story charts for other adult literature such as Macbeth, The Iliad, and Great Expectations.

Each lesson follows the same basic formula.  Once the lessons regarding the elements of fiction are finished, Adam and Missy have some words of wisdom for us homeschoolers.  They must read my blog, how else would they know to warn me NOT to jump in head first and demand detailed story charts for each and every story I read to my kids henceforth and forever?

The workbook follows the DVD’s very closely (though they do overlap a little bit) and includes the text of each of the stories Adam read as well as completed story charts.  It also includes sample lesson plans (complete with a big bold “IMPORTANT: It is not necessary that a formal literature lesson happen every day“… seriously, how do they know me so well?)

The first appendix is The Socratic List, which has questions for each of the elements of fiction in order from easy to hard.  It is set up in this way so that you can expect your young child to answer the first question (“In what country or region does the story happen?”) and you or your older children to be able to try and answer the last (“Is the setting of the story important because of historical events which may have taken place there?  How does this link help you understand the themes of the story?”).  There is also a note that says “It is not intended that the Socratic List be photocopied and passed out to every student as a worksheet.” (perhaps they have had my house bugged).

In addition to the elements of fiction, Adam spends a while talking about literary tools that author will often use to help engage the reader (word play, metaphors, etc.).  The theory is that a child who can easily find alliteration can more easily find metaphors when they are a little older and deep themes in literature when they are even more mature.  I remember specifically one instance where Adam says something along the lines of “teach your kids what onomatopoeia is once and they will forever be looking for onomatopoeia.”

The day after I finished listening to these lectures I put it to the test.  I picked up a picture book that we had read many, many times.  After I read the story to them I explained what onomatopoeia and alliteration were.  The second time we read the story they were able to pick out every single instance of each (sometimes even when I would miss it).  Since that time they have each been quick point them out whenever we come across them.  Adam was absolutely right :)  Ever since then I have been pointing out literary tools so my children will be able to more easily recognize them.

I really enjoyed this lecture course and wish that it was also available in MP3 format.  I put the DVD’s in my computer and listened/watched while I worked in the kitchen.  I can see why it would be handy to have the visual, but I don’t think it’s necessary, especially for those of us who enjoy listening to these types of things over and over again.  In general Institute for Excellence in Writing seems to be a company that fully supports and encourages a leadership and literary education.  Adam specifically mentions Oliver DeMille and a Thomas Jefferson Education (which is where I get most of my educational ideas).  They have several products that I am interested in for my children as well as myself.  I can see both Lucy and myself really benefitting from their writing courses and I think my boys (and Emma) would appreciate it if I listened to Teaching Boys & Other Children Who Would Rather Make Forts All Day.

More than anything else, Teaching the Classics arms you with the tools you need to begin teaching the beauty of literature with the books you already have.  Plot, conflict, similes, and metaphors are all just arrows in your educational quiver that will have you and your children well on your way to loving the great works.


Click to read more reviews from the Schoolhouse Review Crew


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Dad says:

    You might want to check out the Great Books Foundation also (http://www.greatbooks.org/programs-for-all-ages/junior/parents-homeschoolers/).

    I wish I were younger.


    1. So that you could be homeschooled or be a homeschooling dad? LOL!


  2. cyrie says:

    Thank you for your wonderful review of Teaching the Classics. I came upon both your blog and this product today from two separate avenues and I instantly fell in love with both. So I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered your review. So my question to you is this…I have four young children ( 6, 5, 3, almost 2) and wondered if this would be a good resource to help me teach them through classical literature or if there is something else better suited for the young ages? I love to read the classics with them but need some guidance in asking the right kinds of questions (more than “what can we learn from this character”) Thank you for your blog…you are truly touching lives!!!


    1. Hi Cyrie,

      I absolutely think it would be valuable for your children. It’s so easy to keep it age appropriate as well (and they give you ideas on how to do that). For your children’s ages it would likely be best to use it as a way to teach parts of speech (“let’s find the nouns in this story”) and different literary terms (alliteration, rhyming, onomatopoeia, etc.). Then when they are older you can use it to teach them about similes, metaphors, allusion, and other literary tools authors use to teach interest. You can literally use the same story over and over again at different ages and teach them different the things that literature has to offer.

      With the ages of your children I would couple this with the Brian Cleary “words are categorical” book series. It’s excellent and fun for the kids :)


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