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How to build an English course

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There have been several threads over the past few days that have asked questions about choosing books for high school literature courses, what the contents of an English class should be, and how to build specific skills. My thought is perhaps we can create a thread somewhat like High School Chemistry thread stickied at the top of the page. However, unlike that thread, perhaps we could leave comparisons of curriculum to another time and just talk about specific resources we find indispensable and the methods we use to customize our English classes to meet the needs of our specific students.


Let's take some of the mystery out of building an English class from scratch or semi-scratch and pool our resources and ideas.


Perhaps we all can use the topic tags and label if we are talking about implementing TWTM, or if we are talking about composition or Shakespeare? Whatever! Let us know if you are working towards the AP level or teaching a reluctant 15yo boy or a combination of both.What's your philosophy? What have you sworn to never, never do again? What was your most inspired moment?

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I have three children ages 15-20. This is my 6th year of homeschooling and I have taught 9th, 11th, and 12th grade English/Literature/Composition. I have also had one or more students in a public high school English class for the past six years so I have formed strong opinions about what works and what doesn't work - at least for my kids.


My primary goal for high school English courses is to teach my children to think for themselves and to be able to articulately present and defend their opinion. After that, I will settle for a life-long love of reading good literature and scintillating dinner discussions.


My teaching style is very hands-on. I need to read what my students are reading, work the math problems they are working, and dissect dog sharks alongside them. Homeschooling has opened new doors in my areas of interest and I am no longer satisfied to be just a "language arts kind of gal." That said, English classes are still my specialty - my best chance of excelling at teaching. Nan in Mass once advised to pick one subject to teach "thinking" in and I chose English class. Now, a couple of years later I am better at extending logic and analysis to other subjects but still find literature that fastest way to teach my kids critical thinking.


While I had one or more middle school students, I was always on the hunt for the "perfect" composition program and sometimes feel that I bought and sold more writing programs than Imelda Marcos had shoes. I am not quite as zealous on the shopping end of things for high school.


When my youngest decided to return home after a semester stint in a 9th grade English class, I had to check with the board to see if it was really possible to read and understand all those challenging titles for ancient history that TWTM lists. Voices that I respect said"yes!"


I can now speak from experience and give TWTM rhetoric stage Great Books plan a thumbs-up. So the basic, must-have resources that are at the top of my list are:


1. A good library - personal or public

2. The Well-Trained Mind - for reading lists, how to outline, and how to talk and write about great books.

3. The Well-Educated Mind - the discussion of genres, the annotated discussions of great books (cheat sheet), the "Fifteen Minute History of Histories," and SWB's recommendations for translations even if I disagree with her on Gilgamesh and the Inferno. ;)

4. A list of Socratic-type questions like those in Appendix A of the Teaching the Classics syllabus.


While I feel that studying Great Books along with the appropriate history certainly is an efficient way to build context, I am not married to the chronological history/literature combination simply for the reasons that I have a lot of other literary interests, we are interested in a global, not strictly Western Civ orientation, and my son's interests and abilities are unpredictable at best. The beauty of most of my favorite resources is that they can be rearranged into any order to meet that particular year's needs.


Besides versatile resources, I look for routines in teaching that make my day-to-day planning easier.


We use a book of literary terms as a road map that shows us where we need to go and where we have been. My son routinely adds to a Word document that shows all of the major terms, definitions, and examples of the terms. By the time he graduates from high school, he should have a handy guide for upper level college literature classes.


5. Essential Literary Terms with Exercises - this isn't the only book out there; it just happens to be the one we use.


I usually limit our discussion of literary elements to a couple per work studied. If it isn't obvious to you which ones to discuss, check online with PinkMoney or individual teachers' websites for ideas. For works from the ancient time period, be sure to mine the introductions for teaching ideas. Benjamin Foster does a great job in providing you with a lot of material to work with in his translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh and From Distant Days: Myths, Tales, and Poetry of Ancient Mesopotamia. He covers such topics as direct speech, parallelism, narrative contrasts, figures of speech, wordplay, and use of fantastic numbers as well as other distinctive features of Mesopotamian literature. While I prefer George's translation of Gilgamesh, Foster's notes really increase your understanding and appreciation for what you are reading.


We have been working towards creating a strong foundation for the rest of our literary studies. Our routines include consistent progress in the following three areas: developing a familiarity with classical mythology, studying the Bible from a literary perspective, and inhaling as much Shakespeare as we possibly can. These are the resources we are currently using:


6. Classical Mythology-

-Teaching Company lectures of same title

-Classical Mythology by Morford and Lenardon and it's companion book. This is a classic text that goes well with Vandiver's lectures. If you don't want to read works like Theogony or the Homeric Hymns, there are enough excerpts in here to give your student a good feel for them. Artwork that is inspired by the myths is included in the text and movies and music are included in the companion. We are using this for 9th grade and will finish it up at the beginning of 10th grade


7. The Bible

-The Jewish Study Bible - books recommended by SWB for 9th grade, Vandiver lectures from Western Tradition series

- King James Bible - books recommended by SWB for 10th grade - Western Tradition lectures

-The Bible and Its Influence by Schippe: Chapters 1-20 (9th grade and summer), Chapters 21-40 (10th grade)


8. Shakespeare - we do a couple of them each year and our choices are usually dictated by what is available to see locally on stage.

- We like the individual Oxford School Shakespeare volumes

- Cambridge School Shakespeare: Discovering Shakespeare's Language by Rex Gibson

-Teaching Company - Shakespeare: Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies lectures


I am into long discussions and short lessons. The Cambridge Shakespeare book is one of my favorite resources recommended to me on this board. So if we read and discuss Romeo and Juliet, we'll watch the corresponding lectures and pull a few of the lessons from the book. We can choose from verse, lists, antithesis, verbal irony/dramatic irony, oxymoron, soliloquy and so-on. These are short lessons, not rocket science. We tend to just enjoy Shakespeare and not over-analyze. There is a section on Shakespeare and the Bible in the Bible and Its Influence text.


I don't claim to have any answers as I am still working out what works for us. These are just suggestions if you need some.

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Not sure if this is what you are looking for in a response but...

This year for 11th grade DS we are not using any English Curriculum of any sort. I feel he has had all the grammar instruction he needs and has written all the different types of papers expected from a High Schooler (literary analysis of many different literary components, compare contrast, and so on). So for him we are in the "put all that to some use" stage. My plan is to have him write his big Term Paper, work on a Blog, write letters to different statesmen, focus on writing scientifically for his experiments, and he has been working on writing a book so I am letting him work on that (I bought a cool book that has organizing your thought for a book with pages on setting, character development and so on). Of course all these will be proofed and any grammar errors will be discusses...so here will be some Grammar review if needed. For literature he has the SL books plus I am adding in some Shakespere and a few books he will not get from SL that I feel are necessary reads for a High Schooler. He will read and we will discuss but unless he wants to we are not going to do any other thing with them.


I am considering adding in How to Read a Book for him to go through using the study guide for help...I will do this alongside him so it will be interesting.


After reading your post I am going to reread The Well Educated Mind and see it can add to our literary discussions to make them have more merit.

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I am also not quite sure what you are looking for......


I have built a lot of English/comp credits for my kids over the yrs. The "what" is really dependent on the student and my particular goals for the course. For example, this yr with my 11th grader who wants to be an astrophysicist we spent a lot of time focusing on the relationship between philosophy, theology, and modern science. He and I chose this focus specifically. One of his most in-depth courses this yr was a philosophy course. His English credit was a "spin-off" of that class.


For example, some of the books he read this yr (i can't remember all the titles, so these are the ones that stick out in my memory) Lewis's Space Trilogy, Til We Have Faces, Paradise Lost, and Dante's Inferno (we were supposed to read the entire Divine Comedy, but we fizzled the last few weeks.) As you can see, all of the titles have faith/religion in conflict themes.


In addition to the lit, we also worked through grammar, spelling (he is dyslexic, so spelling never ends!), and writing. His essay comparing Lewis's view of an "Eve" via the Green Lady in Perelandra and Milton's Eve in Paradise Lost totally blew me away. The kid definitely developed some deep philosophical thoughts this yr!


In the past, I have developed traditional courses like American lit which included your basic standard American lit titles.


i have also developed more fun courses like a study built around the movie Inception (an idea I got from Elegantlion/Paula). For that we watched the movie several times along with the script, researched Christopher Nolan, and then read books that built off ideas in or similar to Inception (is what you see reality or illusion):


Allegory of the Cave (Plato)

Through the Looking Glass

Labyrinth of Reason

Myths centered around the labryinth, minotuar, and Ariadne

Fahrenheit 451


I am creating a study next yr around Tolkien and LOTR and it will take me all summer to "complete my vision." ;)

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I find myself a hesitant to answer because there are so many questions to answer, and goals to consider, before designing an English credit for a given student in a given year of their high school experience.


English is a language, thus spelling, grammar, fluency (vocabulary), diction, syntax, connotation, form, function and also understanding dialect differences and uses formally versus informally are all part of the "matter of the subject" (turns of phrase, idioms, puns...so, so much).


Effective communication includes (but is not limited to) learning and practicing nonverbal/verbal skills, organizational skills, persuasive skills, conventions, listening skills/reading skills, process skills, word craft, audience assessment, bias identification...and on and on.


Literature also varies greatly in terms of skill development and goals. Learning to read is a process that ranges from basic decoding and recognition to complex analysis. What may be needed to learn to tackle the demands of the reading effectively for academic courses, may well be different from what builds an enthusiastic life-long consumer of fiction. The issues of depth and breadth constantly seem to battle with one another as choices for a given purpose are made.


Logical reasoning and creativity consistently present as requirements in the various domains.


There are the broad goals and very situational specific goals. For example: preparing for the specific demands of the SAT writing section versus learning to present a wide variety of effective rhetoric. Another example: learning to produce a resume, memo, professional email versus learning to write an article, letters to the editor, thank you note or speech. A research paper requires different processes from a lab report or opinion essay.


Thus, the vast array of skills, content and esoteric or practical goals coverge in the development of an English credit.


How you go about even beginning to cover so many areas and goals in 4 years of high school level study begins with meeting the student where they are and planning based on where they need to be (this may be differently focused for those seeking a life in the technical areas versus one bound for the arts).


I am likely to forget some, but the following are resources we consult from time to time or use extensively along the journey:


Writers INC and Write For College (by Great Source Publishing)

Bedford Guide for College Readers and Writers combine volume

Oxford English and American Heritage Unabridged Dictionaries

Strunk and White, Elements of Style

MLA Guide 7th Edition

The Lively Art of Writing

IEW The Elegant Essay

IEW Windows to the World

Various Norton Anthologies

Hamilton, Essential Literary Terms

How to Read Literature Like a Professor

Perrine's Literature Structure, Sound and Sense

Kirszner and Mandell Reading-Reacting-Writing

The Art of Poetry

Art of Argument, Discovery of Deduction, Argument Builder

Edith Hamilton's Mythology

Roget's Thesaurus

The Reader's Companion to World Literature

The Well Educated Mind, Susan Wise Bauer

Harbrace Writing Course (1967)

Hake Grammar 8

Warriner's Grammar

The Blue Book of Grammar

Wordly Wise 10-12

Vocabulary Cartoons 1 and 2

Word Roots

Weston, A Rulebook for Arguments

Various Teaching Company Lectures

Emily Post

Sparknotes How to Write Poetry

Schmidt, The Great Modern Poets (w/CD)

Shakespeare, Complete Poems

Baron's The Art of Styling Sentences

Adler, How to Read a Book


This is not a complete list and doesn't include the vast array of literature and non-fiction that comes from a life of reading and collecting. It does represent a sampling of what is on the shelves and pulled regularly. We also have AP guides, several high school English texts, Literary Lessons Lord of the Rings, Analytical Grammar, Write Shop, Lightning Lit Shakespeare....particular Cliff Notes...


The web has a load of resources that could work just as well (Purdue Owl, writing clinic websites at the universities, AP resources...)


I put a lot of time up front in designing each year for Dd and adjust/adapt as we go. However, it ultimately boils down to having her read a wide variety of literature (fiction and non-fiction) and work toward being an effective communicator (composer, speaker, presenter, listener). She doesn't have to be thrilled and awakened by every task, but always in the back of my mind is how I can share with her the enthusiasm for reading and communicating I think helped me weather the way.


The one thing I do stress when talking with new to high school homeschoolers is to take the student where they are and remember you have four years to build toward a goals. It can overwhelm you and the student if you try to accomplish every goal in one year.

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Down_the_Rabbit_Hole and 8FillTheHeart, thanks so much for your great replies. That is exactly what I am looking for. There are as many ways to build an English class that results in a thoughtful, articulate, well-read student as there are students to take those classes. I thought maybe if we could compile some of those ways, members that are struggling or who are burned out could find some inspiration. Every time my youngest has stood my plans on end, I have found a way to recover thanks to some creative suggestions from board members.

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