When my boys were younger, my approach to literature was tied to a complex education philosophy called Let’s Just Read. I’m sure you’ve heard of it. It’s where you find books you’re interested in and you read them. Very hard to implement. Took years of practice!
But as my boys approached high school, I naturally began to feel pressure to do more than Let’s Just Read. Sure, it worked great for growing a love of books, but what about the new mission of preparing them for Lit 101 and 102 in college?
I floundered for a couple of years trying to find a literature program that fit. We’re secular homeschoolers so that alone shortened our list of potential homeschool curriculum programs. Even if I considered secularizing a religious-based curriculum, many of the literature programs were heavy on the classics. While I’m all about some classics, I don’t believe in all classics. There are too many wonderful books out there to limit our exposure.
I finally found Brave Writer Boomerangs. It had the variety I was looking for, it’s nonsectarian, and its approach to English just felt right. Not to mention Brave Writer encourages eating brownies in your school day. An English program after both my heart and my waistline.
Even though the English curriculum stars finally aligned, I admit I still struggled my first year with how to teach efficiently with Boomerangs. I like knowing the Big Picture, but I also like a more detailed road map of how to get there. It’s how my brain organizes information. The details are definitely in the Boomerang guide, but I want to know where I’m going before we dive in. Symbolism? Figurative language? Plot? Character analysis? I want an overall outline before starting so I can figure out what I need as a teacher to create a quality learning experience.
What can I say, I’m a planner. I like outlines and syllabi. They help me see (in my mind) the information I’m working with and then I can play around and change things to suit our preferences.
One day I stumbled across Kimberly Campbell’s approach to teaching short stories and found her planning process interesting. I tweaked Ms. Campbell’s approach here and there to see if it would help me wrap my mind around a Boomerang guide. So far it’s working well this school year. For the first time in the teen years of homeschooling, I feel confident about what we’re covering in literature. This planning process has become my compass as we navigate deeper dives into novels.
Below is my Boomerang planning process where I essentially break down the parts & features found in the Boomerang and then analyze how I’m going to coach it. I hope you’ve sharpen those No. 2 pencils because I’m about to get wordy.
Brainstorm a list of all ways to explore the book
Once I’ve purchased my Boomerang, I read through the guide, jotting down each literature element or teaching topic mentioned as I come across it.
For example, in week one of Flowers for Algernon’s Boomerang, I wrote down opening lines, theme, genre, author’s use of language/breaking writing rules, target audience…and others. (See picture below.)
Make a list of what you see covered in each week.
Narrow Down the List
I don’t try to teach ALL THE THINGS with one book. No beating a book into the ground allowed here! I look through my brainstorm list and select only a few concepts to focus on. I focus on two big aspects, three max. For Flowers for Algernon, I chose symbolism and theme. Maybe next time I’ll focus on character development or some other big literature thingie.
This doesn’t mean I don’t cover the smaller concepts in the Boomerang. Some are simple to fit into the day and don’t need pre-planning. When it comes to opening lines or point of view, I can whip out the Boomerang page where that’s covered and go over it. But understanding symbolism or how to discover theme takes more forethought for me.
Now Expand the List
So I selected two or three concepts. Now what? Where do I want to go with it? What am I to do with this stuff? At this point I want to pin down details and goals, so I ask myself some prompt questions…
What is the enduring understanding to gain from this book?
What do I want my kid to remember from it?
What do I want them to be able to do?
What should they know about the concepts on my short list?
Ask what I need to coach, mentor, or teach for this text
What is the goal with this text? I look at my expanded list and decide. What kind of support does my kid need to reach the goals?
For example, do they need support in selecting their own golden lines? How will they know it when they read one? What does it mean to be a golden line? What types of golden lines are there?
Basically I’m evaluating what my kid needs to know about the concepts selected and then creating a succinct list to keep me focused on a path.
For Algernon I listed that I needed to coach the characteristics of symbolism & how to recognize it, plus how to determine theme with the help of annotation.
Is there any background knowledge needed before starting the book?
Do they need any historical context before beginning the book? Cultural context? I list it out now. You can look to picture books (yes, picture books work for high schoolers too) as quick & easy ways to build background knowledge.
I decided to show my son a Rorschach Test and give a short background on Chaucer & Plato. I also noted to talk about the cultural mindset in the ’50s and ’60s towards the mentally retarded.
What additional teaching resources do I need?
Now that I have a good idea of where I’m going with this literature study, I make a list of everything I need, including things like mini-lessons, library books, Ted Ed videos, etc. This is the time to decide what supports or supplements you need as the teacher.
I hated symbolism when I studied literature in school. Hated. It. Obviously I need to find teaching information on symbolism. Same with theme. I can detect themes when I read a book, but how do I tell someone else to do it? I need help with the HOW. Ain’t no shame in that.
Select Discussion Questions
If you’re using a Boomerang, this is already done. But I still look at the end of my Boomerang now and see which Think Piece questions I may want to focus on in particular. I’m not talking about micromanaging the learning experience here, but usually there’s a question or two in particular that will reinforce my overarching goal(s) for this text. I highlight it to make sure it’s included in discussion or freewriting at some point. It could even serve as the topic for a literary essay paper, if you’re at that point.
Since I include a weekly freewrite journal in our lit studies, I’ll also note which chapter or page each Think Piece questions falls under. (Some are generalized and won’t fall into a specific chapter/week.) I found my first year of Boomerangs that if I waited until the book was finished and then tried to use the Think Piece questions, I got a lot of shoulder shrugs and “I dunno” responses from my boys. Not because they aren’t attentive readers. But let’s admit it. It’s hard to remember a detail found on page 76 of a 300+ page book. So we discuss them when we hit that section of the story instead of the end of the book.
Because I’m all for keeping it genuine about our homeschooling, below are pictures of what my planning pages look like. Prepare to be underwhelmed.
Old school pen and paper. No fancy spreadsheet happening. There are probably misspellings in there. Abbreviations that make sense only to me. Messy handwriting for sure. Who cares? If the grammar police get a hold of my notes, well, I have an inappropriate doodle I can show them too.
Since I started using this process, I feel much more grounded when it comes to guiding my teens through literature. I even did the planning for our first two books over the summer, had a big out-of-state move and subsequent STRESS BRAIN, and when it came time to start school, my planning notes made it incredibly easy for me to get back in the saddle quickly. So far this process appears to be the compass that keeps us heading north.