This week on Homeschool Highschool Podcast: Dealing with Tough Topics in American Literature. This post is running concurrently on the Ultimate Homeschool Podcast Network.
American Literature is a staple of high school Language Arts. Teens are at an excellent age to wrestle with some of the difficult concepts and topics that arise through American Lit readings. That is wonderful and tough on moms because sometimes we, ourselves, feel uncomfortable with some of the topics. So how do you deal with these uncomfortable topics?
Sabrina, Vicki and Kym join forces today for a comfortable chat about uncomfortable topics in American Literature.
Things that can be distracting and uncomfortable in literature can actually be enriching when dealt with wisely. (This is timely because, if your teens are aware of the turmoil in the world around them, you can use some of these ideas to start discussions that help them grow and become healthy adults.)
FYI: We are basing our discussion on a post that Sabrina wrote a while back but that homeschool moms have often told us has been helpful to them.
So how do you deal with tough topics in American Literature (and all Lit courses)?
To start with, when teens read something that is uncomfortable to them, most of them find it impossible to ignore. (As adults, we often have developed a skills of ignoring or shelving things that are uncomfortable so that we can go on and enjoy the story.)
Often teens will stop and say things like, “I don’t like that!”, “Why is that in the book?”, “What does that mean?”
As Vicki points out, Sabrina had lots of experience dealing with these questions, with her own teens but especially in our local homeschool group classes. When teens asked pointed questions like those, Sabrina had a way of making space for them, while maintaining a healthy atmosphere. Here are her tips:
Moms, start with acting skills and non-verbals:
- Say inside your head, “I will not freak out! I will not freak out.”
- Keep a slight smile on your face.
- Sit in a relaxed posture.
- Before you respond, take a deep breath. (Never underestimate the power of a deep breath.)
- Validate that teen for having the courage for bringing up the question.
- “I’m glad you were brave enough to bring that up. How did you feel when you read that?”
- “I’m glad you brought that up, I’m glad you notice you are uncomfortable.”
- Then, be honest, “To tell the truth, this passage makes me uncomfortable too…” (Do not jump into a lecture here, just allow a pause.)
- Often, when teens are validated and adults are calm and honest about how they feel, the young people calm down and hostility tends to fade. (Often when teens talk in a hostile way, they are doing do so because they are afraid they will be shut down or criticized for their thoughts or feelings.
- They will present their discomfort as anger (maybe even anger at you).
- If you enter into that discomfort with them and say, “I’m really uncomfortable with that too, let’s see what we can learn from it…”, teens will often say, “Oh, she’s on my side. She understands what I’m feeling and thinking.”
Sabrina never rushed into correcting teens for their viewpoints. For us moms, when we are uncomfortable (or want to spare our teens the “pain of thinking incorrectly”, we will rush into “fixing their thoughts or viewpoints”.
Avoid telling teens the right way to think immediately. Unfortunately, if we slip into this, teens will feel unheard and disrespected. Instead, find the common ground of acknowledging the discomfort. This makes room for healthy and productive discussion and growth (maybe for teens and moms alike).
Next, afford the same respect you and your teens gave each other to the characters in the story
- Ask, “When this character was faced with this situation, what do you think was going on in his mind? What did he see as his options? Put yourself in his shoes…what are your options?”
- Then sit quietly and let them think it through. Suggest they imagine being an actor trying to climb into their character.
- This is very valuable because teens (and many adults) think that things should be a certain way, but when they put themselves into another person’s (character’s) experience, and try to imagine and see what that person went through, it helps them evaluate things from a more gracious perspective.
- This doesn’t mean that they will (or should) agree with the choices the character makes, but at least, they have climbed into another’s perspective and then learned something about understanding people in context. (This is an important adulting skill!)
- This ties to literary elements (understanding characters’ motivations, needs, personalities, setting and context), so you are preparing teens for their SAT’s and being better literature studies.
- It helps teens also ask themselves, “How will this book affect me?”
- This also helps teens break free from their natural “adolescent egocentrism” (see Human Development).
- Follow up with, “How would Jesus have handled this character or situation?” “What would Jesus do or not do?” “How would He respond?” (Avoid preaching or cheesiness, help them think of the character/personality of Jesus.)
- Remember, asking teens what they think and why rather than jumping in quickly to tell them what to think, will lead to growth for them. Often, after talking for a while, teens will look at you and ask what YOU think.
- Teach teens to read with their brain and their spirit turned on!
- If teens just answer, “I don’t know…”, start with comprehension (what was happening, why, what changed), then have them perspective take.
- Give teens a written example of dealing with a tough topic. Here’s an example of an essay we wrote in response to a Harvard professor’s attack on homeschooling. We concentrated on gracious presentation of the fact and our experiences, rather than attacking the professor herself.
Then teach teens to apply this skill to real life
Teach them to sit before responding, relax and breathe and look for opportunities for perspective taking.
Kym has some wise advice:
There are a lot of things that are going on around us now that– regardless of our perspective on things–it can be really hard to learn to just be uncomfortable. And yet, sometimes, that’s where that’s where our greatest learning it. Even if all we’re doing is learning that somebody else that I know deals with discomfort even more that I do…They’ve had to learn to do this all the time. It’s a big, powerful lesson.
Like Sabrina’s teaching ideas? You’ll find her kinds of questions and literary themes in American Literature Study Guides.
What makes 7Sisters Literature Study guides unique? They concentrate on growth in inferential skills while learning critical thinking skills, in a no-busywork and friendly format. Get a feel for our no-busywork literature study guides with this excerpt from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Study Guide.
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