The LitCompanion website offers four online literature courses for teens, with more courses under development. The courses are all created and presented by Dr. Conrad van Dyk. As he explains on his website,
Our goal is to produce a select number of great literature guides that engage with each text meaningfully, which means talking about the big ideas, pursuing detailed close readings, and grappling with the text’s continued relevance for us today.
Even though two of the courses are based on what are considered children’s books, the content of the courses is definitely for older students, beginning about seventh grade.
The four courses and suggested age ranges are:
- A Study of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (ages 12+)
- A Study of Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie (ages 14+)
- A Study of Poetry in the Bible (ages 14+)
- A Study of “Araby” by James Joyce (ages 15+) Note that “Araby” is a short story, and its study is much briefer than the other three.
How the Courses Work
The courses are presented with online videos, text, questions, and assignments. Some quizzes and the final tests are scored by the program, but parents need to record those scores since they are not retained by the program. Students need to obtain a copy of the books for the first two studies, and a Bible for the third. The short story “Araby” is included within its study.
The format for each study is different. For instance, the study of Haroun and the Sea of Stories tells students to read the entire book before beginning the study, while the study for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has students read a few chapters at a time and complete the study activities before reading further.
The studies, aside from Poetry in the Bible, devote significant time to the author’s background and the context of the story. All of the studies include video lectures by van Dyk where he uses a digital blackboard to display text, write, and draw as he talks. The videos vary in length with most of those for the first two studies running fewer than ten minutes and those for the last two studies often running about 20 minutes.
The themes, literary terms and devices, and philosophical ideas addressed differ for each study. There is a strong worldview thread running through these courses as students grapple with themes such as the nature of love, free speech, the imagination, truth, postmodernism, political corruption, psychology, and natural law. Van Dyk analyzes the literary works from a Christian worldview.
For this review, I went through the entire course for Haroun and the Sea of Stories and most of the course for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I spent less time on the other two studies, and the extent of my comments reflects the time spent in each course. The study of “Araby” might be completed within a month, but the time required for each of the other courses will vary from a few months to a semester.
A Study of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
This study is a great starting point since it can be used with slightly younger students than the other three studies and is less intellectually demanding. Some of the themes addressed in this study are the nature of fairy tales, the virtues advanced by fairy tales, psychology, free will, and morality,
The study is presented in seven units. The first unit, which is much briefer than the others, introduces the course and biographical information about the author, C. S. Lewis.
The other units each cover a group of chapters from the novel which students read before beginning the online lesson. The first activity in each lesson is an online reading comprehension and vocabulary quiz. This is followed by one or more video lectures on a topic related to the assigned chapters. The videos are accompanied by online text which generally mirrors the content of the video lecture. Some of the lectures are followed by a set of questions to be answered offline, and each unit concludes with a set of questions and assignments that take students deeper into meaning and personal reactions. For example, among the questions for the third unit are, “3. Do you ever feel like Edmund? What can you do to stop yourself from becoming selfish and grumpy?" and “5. Why do you think Tumnus became a kidnapper for the White Witch? Do you think he did it out of free choice?”
Some questions might be used for discussion rather than written work if the student has a teacher or other students with whom to interact. A few questions require lengthy, written responses.
The sixth unit includes two activities—one on allegories and the other on natural law—that are designed to help students grasp both important concepts. The natural-law activity has students evaluate several statements in terms of natural law, while the allegory activity is more complex. The allegory activity presents students with a list of characters, items, and events from the novel for which students are supposed to try to explain the allegorical meanings. Scripture references are included after some of these to help students make biblical connections, but some allegories are not based on scripture. Students need to look up the scripture references and determine how they relate if it’s not obvious. Students are given the example: “Aslan: Christ is the Lion of Judah (Revelation 5:5).” Among other allegories they must identify are “Edmund: Romans 3: 23, 5:8” and “The Stone Table breaks: Matthew 27:51.”
The last section of the course, “Additional Materials,” includes optional final assignments (creative activities), a crossword puzzle that reviews key terms and characters, an online final exam, a chapter-by-chapter glossary, an answer key, and scholarly notes.
A Study of Haroun and the Sea of Stories
Firstly, Haroun and the Sea of Stories is not really a children’s book, even though it is a fanciful tale that children might enjoy. The author, Salman Rushdie, likes to play with philosophical ideas, politics, psychology, and other topics in a way that adds a deeper layer of meaning to the entire book. However, Rushdie writes from a postmodern point of view, and readers will benefit greatly from the guidance provided by van Dyk. Those alert to Rushdie’s allusions should begin to grasp some of the deeper ideas he explores and advances. Haroun is the sort of book that can subtly influence a person’s worldview, particularly leading them toward acceptance of postmodern ideas. Van Dyk’s course serves as a primer on postmodern thought as well as a guide to reading this surprisingly philosophical book. Students will learn to recognize postmodernism and its impact on the arts, philosophy, law, and other topics. For example, van Dyk points out Rushdie’s postmodern skepticism toward meta-narratives such as those presented by most religions. This attitude leads people to dismiss the value of the Bible.
Postmodernism crops up frequently in the book, and one of the study’s seven units is devoted entirely to the topic. This unit is probably the most challenging, and van Dyk tells students that they might want to watch the videos for those lessons multiple times or even skip some of the lessons if it’s too far over their heads.
Van Dyk’s explanations about topics, such as Pakistani politics, Carl Jung’s psychology, environmental priorities, and Rushdie’s personal history with divorce—all raised indirectly in the book—make a world of difference in the student’s understanding of the story. Some passages, such as those dealing with divorce, war, and torture, limit the study’s audience to children old enough to delve into these topics and consider various situations and viewpoints.
This course is presented in seven units, much like the study of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. However, there are no reading comprehension and vocabulary quizzes. Students are given a page with a list of allusions in the Additional Materials to print out and use throughout the course. This study also requires much more research. For instance, an assignment for “An Ocean of Allusions: Activity” says:
“3. Rushdie alludes to The Conference of the Birds, by the Sufi mystic Farid Ud-Din Attar. It seems that Attar was at one point exiled for his beliefs. Please explain who the Sufis are and why Salman Rushdie might be drawn to the figure of Attar.”
Students will have to research Sufis and Farid Ud-Din Attar to be able to answer this and other such questions. Features such as this mean this course is designed for mature students who are ready to read and think at this level and who can research the topics it covers.
I didn’t have any idea what to expect from this study, but I found it to be surprisingly interesting and informative.
A Study of Poetry in the Bible
The Study Poetry in the Bible is oriented more toward literary devices and understanding various types of biblical texts and less toward worldview themes.
This study is presented in six units. The first unit is an introduction, but it focuses on the importance of beauty in the Bible, most particularly on the beauty of its language, style, and literary devices. Throughout the study, students will study passages of scripture, looking at Hebrew parallelism, poetry, and the “songs” of the Bible.
You will find more activity assignments and fewer questions than in the other studies. Other than a final test, there are no quizzes. A crossword puzzle in the Extra Materials at the end of the course helps students review key terms. Many of the activities require written or oral answers to questions, and the answer key has suggested answers as well as a key for the crossword puzzle.
A Study of “Araby”
“Araby” is a coming-of-age story about a young boy’s romantic attraction and his attempt to purchase something for the girl he admires from the bazaar known as “Araby.” The deeper thread of the story is his recognition at the end that the entire experience is one of vanity.
The course is presented primarily via five videos, usually unaccompanied by text. Within the lessons, four sets of questions are to be answered orally or in writing. Optional, lengthier assignments for essays or discussions are in the Additional Materials section, along with a glossary, answer key and scholarly notes.
These unusual LitCompanion courses offer students an opportunity to study literature with a worldview perspective at a deep level with the guidance of an expert teacher. The courses will work for either independent study or group classes.