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JenniferCourtneyLeading Literature Discussions

By Jennifer Courtney


A vibrant literary discussion is crucial to the Challenge seminar day.  Although discussions are spontaneous—and therefore difficult to script--some basic tips and skills can spark great conversations.  The Words Aptly Spoken (WAS) literature guides (published by Classical Conversations MultiMedia) help students at home to complete the preliminary analysis of a work which will lead to rich discussions on the day of seminar.  Let’s take a look at these resources as well as some tips for leading discussion in a quiet, reluctant class or even in a class that has missed the most important points.  Finally, we will end with some tips for focusing conversations around the really important issues: truth, goodness, and beauty.


In Challenge A through Challenge II, students read through books quickly. During seminars, tutors do not have the luxury of discussing every detail about the plots and the characters in the books that students have read.  Students should be expected to answer the questions about those elements from the WAS study guides at home so that they are fully prepared to get the most out of seminar discussions.  If they wish, tutors may assign the WAS questions as home assignments, and then quickly check to see that students have written answers to these questions at the beginning of each seminar. 


The WAS guides provide students with rich resources for each novel, poem or short story. Each section begins with a biographical sketch of the author. This helps the students understand the author’s intent for the work and sheds light on how the contemporary issues of the author’s day informed their work.  The guides are designed to serve as a springboard for students to read critically and to think deeply about the texts they read.  The WAS guides do not have an answer key but rather take the classical approach of using questions to help the students form their own logical argument about a text and then encouraging them to articulate that argument to their peers.

The next section includes review questions and thought questions. The review questions draw out information about the “who, what, when, and where” of each literary work. Using these questions to understand the story builds on skills that students have already encountered in their Institute for Excellence in Writing courses in the afternoon Essentials program.  In Essentials, students learn to analyze short passages using the story sequence chart:  

1. Background (including characters and setting)

2. Conflict (also known as plot or rising action)

3. Climax

4. Resolution (also known as denouement or “unknotting” the problem)

5. Theme.

Students should continue to practice this skill in Challenge. It can be helpful for students to keep a note card with the above information on a 3 x 5 index card for each book that they read. A file box with these cards for each work studied from Challenge A through Challenge IV will preserve a personal treasury of literary knowledge.  Once they have answered the review questions and digested this basic information, students are ready to move on to the thought questions.


In other words, the review questions guide the student through the grammar stage of a piece of literature as they record the facts. The thought questions move students to the dialectic stage by encouraging them to evaluate the text, to consider a character’s motives, to think about how a character has changed through the course of the novel, and to consider how the theme of the novel should impact their own life.


During seminar, tutors should lead the students through discussion of the big ideas from a text.  The thought questions in WAS help to focus the seminar conversations around these big ideas. Tutors can prepare for the seminar by reading the thought questions in advance of reading the Challenge literature.  Some of the big ideas include:  courage, duty, good and evil, justice, beauty, prudence, love, liberty, truth, honor, and self-sacrifice.  Look for examples of both moral triumphs and moral failings in the characters and focus students on the moment(s) of choice for each character. For example, in Challenge B, students can use the seminar on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to discuss why Edmund would succumb to the temptation and follow the White Witch. They can then be encouraged to think about their own temptations.  


In Challenge II, students can be asked to contemplate Jane Eyre’s heart-wrenching decision to leave when she discovers that Mr. Rochester has a wife. Skillful tutors will guide students to consider an individual’s decisions and then continue to widen the application until students use the literature to consider society as a whole.  For example, see the progression in these questions about Jane Eyre:  Does she make the right decision? Is his marriage vow sacred when he had been tricked into marrying a mentally ill woman? Why are there so many laws and customs related to marriages? How does the institution of marriage relate to the rest of society?  


With younger students, a Challenge director will want to prepare four to six thought questions for each seminar period.  (WAS includes four to six questions per chapter for each novel, so there are plenty to choose from). By Challenge I, tutors should use one or two of the thought questions to launch into varied discussion.  


Great novels turn on the momentous decisions faced by characters. Find these moments and focus seminar discussions around them.  One question from WAS: Children’s Literature about the Bronze Bow could be applied to almost every Challenge B novel:  “Are all lies equally bad? What about a situation in which a lie could save a person’s life?”  Similarly, consider these WAS questions: “In your mind, what sets kings and queens apart from other people? What additional responsibilities should they have?  What additional privileges?” These questions can be used to analyze every Shakespeare play in Challenge III and to compare/contrast the plays with one another.


If students are reluctant to participate in discussions, tutors may need to employ more artificial means of guiding the discussion.   A workshop at the 2009 CiRCE conference demonstrated one effective method.  Assign three students to participate in the discussion at the front of the class. Number the students 1, 2, and 3. This number indicates the order in which they must speak. Take one of the thought questions and ask student 1 to respond. Student 2 responds to Student 1 and so on until this topic is exhausted. Then, choose a new group of three and start again.  If tutors do wish to use the WAS thought questions, they can involve students in designing their own questions.  Students may be asked to give the names of three characters and three actions that each of them take. Then, the tutor can choose the most interesting character and action combination and start the three-person discussion.


Another effective method is to take the opposite side or play “devil’s advocate.”  Quiet students may be sparked into a lively discussion by a tutor who takes the wrong position.  In the examples above, a lagging discussion of Edmund and the White Witch might become lively if students are asked to list all of the reasons Edmund should follow the White Witch (as opposed to examining why he should not follow her).  Their understanding of their own tendency to succumb to temptation will be deepened by seeing the list of her attractions and the reasons she is a temptation to Edmund.  Similarly, Challenge II students can be asked to turn things on end by discussing why Jane and Mr. Rochester should marry.  Then, they can consider the potential consequences of her making the wrong choice.


Use questions like these to help students make connections between the works in any given Challenge year.  Help your students to see truth, goodness, and beauty (and their opposites—lies, wickedness, and ugliness) in literature so that they may recognize them in life.    


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