Not all literature courses are created equal. Some seem to have selected reading material to meet multicultural or social goals rather than as examples of good literature. Others seem to focus on simple comprehension questions (e.g., identify the protagonist and the antagonist) and never get into meaty discussion questions that really engage students.
The BJU Press series for grades seven through twelve does a great job on both literary selections and worthwhile questions, especially if you are interested in developing a strong Christian worldview in your students. Courses in the series for grades seven through twelve are Exploring Themes in Literature, Excursions in Literature, Fundamentals of Literature, Elements of Literature, American Literature, and British Literature.
They feature an interesting mix of reading material. Many reading selections authored by non-Christians are included both for literary value and to help students learn how to identify different perspectives authors bring to their works. However, literary analysis and enjoyment are taught from a Protestant perspective; so much so in American Literature and British Literature that those with other religious beliefs will have trouble with some of the selected readings, discussion questions, and the Scriptural Application part of the lessons presented in the teacher editions. Application sections at all levels almost always relate the reading selection to biblical ideas or principles.
One of the main purposes of this series is to help students progress beyond reading simply for pleasure to enjoying reading for inspiration and wisdom. Discussion questions are one of the primary tools used to make that happen.
The discussion questions are particularly good in this series, and they can be used for either oral discussion or writing assignments. The courses teach literary analysis, helping students recognize the literary elements at work in a piece of literature and grasp the fundamentals of critical interpretation. For instance, in Exploring Themes in Literature for seventh grade, students read "The Strangers that Came to Town," and then answer a series of questions. Three of those questions focus on justice. The first question asks what the author communicates about justice. The second question asks students whether the author effectively communicated that message (and why or why not). The third question has students compare the author's message with three passages from the Bible. The critical thinking questions gradually become more challenging. For example, the American Literature textbook for eleventh grade includes a short story “The Minister’s Black Veil” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Among the discussion questions are the following: “In your opinion, does Hooper’s self-imposed isolation represent self-denial for the edification of others, or is it symbolic of misdirected religious zeal? Discuss Hawthorne’s theme in light of I John 1:8-10” (p. 254).
Parents and teachers need to be familiar with the readings so they can lead discussions. While students can do a certain amount of work independently, parents will need to invest some time preparing for each lesson. Teacher editions provide background, analysis, and suggested answers, so even teachers without a background in literature can teach these courses. As with all literature anthologies, parents and teachers are not expected to use every selection. Choose some from each section to fit your own goals and time schedule.
Each course includes a student text and a two-volume, spiral-bound teacher edition. Teacher editions have images of reduced student pages. Valuable teaching information is below the images of student pages and in the side margins. Also, words, sentences, or paragraphs in the reduced student pages of the teacher’s edition are highlighted in different colors to match corresponding colored margin notes for the teacher. These highlighted sections can indicate a point of discussion, a definition, an example of a literary element, or a cross-reference.
The teacher editions for British Literature and Exploring Themes in Literature provide reproducible, supplemental activity pages and teaching helps located at the back of the book. Teacher editions for Excursions, Fundamentals, Elements, and American Literature include a Teacher’s Toolkit CD-ROM (inside the back cover) with teacher support materials, such as worksheets, graphic organizers, reading quizzes, writing rubrics, and standardized test practice in reading and vocabulary.
Tests and answer keys for each course can be ordered separately, but subject kits for all courses include tests and answer keys along with a student text and the teacher edition.
Exploring Themes in Literature, Fifth Edition
The fifth edition of Exploring Themes in Literature has been significantly revised from the fourth edition. This course for seventh grade has units corresponding to the themes of love, community, transformation, justice, perseverance, and purpose. Students learn to analyze literary works and evaluate them in light of a biblical worldview.
The course features a broader assortment of genres than did the previous edition. In addition to short stories, excerpts from novels, poetry, autobiographies, and memoirs, this new edition adds folk tales, myths, fantasies, a comic strip, biblical narratives, a coming-of-age story, and science fiction. It has also added non-fiction pieces such as an interview, narrative non-fiction, an opinion piece, speeches, informational texts, and a persuasive essay. This course has different writing assignments than did the previous edition, and oral presentations (from the teacher edition) have been added to most units.
Selections are by a wide variety of authors, such as Joan Aiken, James Thurber, Li-Young Lee, Ray Bradbury, Anton Chekhov, Mildred D. Taylor, and Rudyard Kipling.
A novel study of The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis is presented in the teacher edition. You need to obtain the novel for this study.
Excursions in Literature, Third Edition
The unifying theme of this eighth-grade text is a Christian’s journey through life, including choices he must face. Illustrations from scripture appear at the end of each unit. Units are titled Choices, Friends, Viewpoints, Adventures, Discoveries, and Heroes and Villains. Some authors and writings (or excerpts) included are Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, "The Banks of the Sacramento" by Jack London, The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald, and "Make Me Thy Fuel" by Amy Carmichael. A short novel, In Search of Honor, is studied in the final unit; it is included within the textbook.
Lessons in the teacher edition follow a format of overview, objectives, potential problems (e.g., objections to authors portraying animals as having human qualities), introductory discussion, the reading, analysis, application, and additional activities.
Suggestions for journal writing are given. Vocabulary words with definitions are inserted right into the text of each piece in the student text. There are questions at the end of each literary piece (or section of a piece for lengthier writings), and these are preceded by an insert called the “Thinking Zone.” Thinking Zones are visually-separated inserts that might take up about a third of a page. Thinking Zones highlight key literary elements and show how they have been implemented in the selection students have just read. They feel more like sidebars than instructional material although they accomplish the latter’s purpose. The thought-provoking questions that follow address literal, critical, interpretive, and appreciative elements.
Each unit has a review in the student textbook. Reviews are tests that include multiple-choice, true/false, matching, and short-answer questions along with one or two essay questions.
Fundamentals of Literature, Second Edition
Suggested for grade nine, Fundamentals of Literature is the foundation for the study of literature throughout high school. It teaches conflict, character, theme, structure, point of view, and moral tone through both traditional and contemporary selections. Representative authors are Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Shakespeare, Carl Sandburg, Sir Walter Scott, John Donne, and Saki (H.H. Munro). The drama Cyrano De Bergerac is also included within the text, but an optional DVD presentation of the story is available separately.
Elements of Literature, Second Edition
Elements of Literature, suggested for tenth grade, teaches literary analysis at a more challenging level than does Fundamentals of Literature. It delves into topics such as imaginative comparison, sound and syntax, allusion and symbol, and irony through literary selections from genres such as fiction, poetry, biography, and drama. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is included for study within the text. You might want to use the optional DVD of selected scenes from a BJU Press production of Romeo and Juliet. The DVD also has the director’s explanations of what has happened leading up to each scene.
American Literature, Third Edition
This text, written for eleventh grade, covers American literature from the colonial period up into the twenty-first century. Representative authors are William Bradford, Benjamin Franklin, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, James Thurber, Thornton Wilder, and Amy Tan. Selections are organized by historical literary periods while addressing some of the philosophical movements that influenced literature. There is significant discussion of the worldviews reflected by authors and their works.
This edition has expanded its inclusion of American subcultures with a number of prose pieces such as an excerpt from "How the Word Began" from the Iroquois Confederacy, "How It Feels to Be Colored Me" by Zora Neale Hurston, and "Two Kinds" by Amy Tan. Similarly, poems representing diverse cultures are included such as "Dream Variations" by Langston Hughes, "If We Must Die" by Claude McKay, "Rosa" by Rita Dove, and "Eating Alone" by Li-Young Lee.
Brief writing assignments are presented throughout the textbook, and there are six major writing lessons: narrative essay, persuasive essay, short story, historical report, poetry, and literary analysis essay.
British Literature, Third Edition
This twelfth-grade course covers British literary periods from the Middle Ages to the present. Selections are often chosen to illustrate philosophical and cultural issues from various perspectives. Religious developments receive far more attention here than they do in secular British literature texts. Representative authors include Edmund Spenser, Geoffrey Chaucer, Thomas More, John Milton, Ben Jonson, Jonathan Swift, Mary Wollstonecraft, Robert Browning, Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, Virginia Woolf, and Seamus Heaney. Shakespeare's play Macbeth is also included for study. An optional DVD of Macbeth is available.