Frequently Asked Questions about Excellence in Literature
Excellence in Literature has been around for quite a few years, and there are questions that crop up almost every year, so it seems that it’s time to post an Excellence in Literature FAQ. I’ve gone through my inbox and pulled out a selection of those most frequently asked questions, which you will find below. The main Excellence in Literature information page has a lot of information and links to more articles on various aspects of the curriculum, so be sure to check there, too.
Does the curriculum utilize the entire books or selected readings from them?
With very few exceptions, I assign the entire unabridged book, as this is a college-prep course. First, they will get more out of the book if they read the whole thing. They are welcome to use audiobooks, too. It can bring the story to life for many of them, and most are available on the Amazon Prime channels.
Will the parent need to purchase all books (both standard and honors) for their students?
If you do not plan to do the honors option, you do not need to purchase the books, though they make great summer reading. Because these are classics, most will also be available at libraries or used, but I strongly recommend annotating books, so it’s better to own than borrow if at all possible. I have linked to my preferred editions
on the website, with an explanation of why I chose them. Ultimately it’s a choice to buy or borrow, but I think they get more out of the books if they own them.
How long should a student plan to spend each day on the reading and writing in a module?
A lot depends on the student’s reading speed and overall work load plus the length of the book, but most students spend an average of an hour a day on the curriculum. In the first part of the book, I tell them how to plan and manage their time by looking at the length of the book and deciding how much to read each day.
Why is the book written to the student?
Grades 8-12 is a transitional time for students, and one of the goals of the curriculum is to teach them to think and work like smart college students. Writing directly to the student encourages him/her to take responsibility for time management, turning in proofread work, consulting models and a writer’s handbook
as needed, and more. By the time they’ve done these things for a few years with EIL, they should thoroughly understand how to be an excellent student.
What happens if a link to a context resource is broken?
This seems pretty advanced for a teenager. Do students really need to read and write at this level?
The first thing I’ll note is that the literary analysis essay IS difficult, and that holds true even for students in college and beyond (one reason we start practicing it now;-)). The difficulty lies in the fact that students are being asked to do something that many have never tried or even observed — develop a clear and well-supported answer to a question that open to judgement. In addition, they are being asked to do so in a serious, formal way, as they will in college or business writing.
They’ve probably written a boatload of essays expressing opinions about something, but it’s likely that few have been required to support their opinion with evidence from a text. They are now at the age and stage of learning when thinking and communicating should be transitioning to a more mature and reasoned style, and being able to construct and convey an argument is central to doing that successfully.
Several of my students write boring, generic sounding essays. How can I help them improve?
In 8th-9th grade, there will be a few students (usually students who read a lot) who have an engaging writing style that can be encouraged, but many will still be writing bland formulaic essays. Show them what it means to have a distinctive writer’s voice by sharing well-written models by great writers. This can help students begin to hear the differences in writers’ voices, especially when you can pair a few examples of writing in the same subjects. One thing you can do is to share a variety of passages that describe the weather. Just experiencing how different authors approach the same simple topic can help students see how style impacts not just writing, but also what the reader takes away.
My students are having a hard time coming up with a thesis in response to the essay prompt.
I understand — it’s a challenging skill to learn. Have you tried having classroom discussions that begin with what students got out of a particular passage, and progressed from the what, where, and when to should or why? If they start talking about what happened in a scene, they can be moved into defending a question of why or “was it right for A to do Y?” If you can get them talking, you can usually get their minds to working, especially if they can disagree about something — should Huck have turned in Jim? Should Jean Valjean have run away from Javert? Why did Mr. Darcy make such a bad first impression?
Questions like that are designed to get brains moving, not to elicit a “right answer,” so it has to be safe for student to talk about it without feeling that it’s necessary to agree with anyone else. This type of question gives them a chance to connect what they know or believe (ethics, moral principles, etc.) with the situation in the book, which can lead them to a statement (thesis) about what they believe the character should have done.
In a co-op, would giving one or two more weeks on a module give them more time to figure out what their thoughts or opinions are?
I don’t know about you as a student, but when I had a a lot of extra time on an assignment, I didn’t always spend it wisely. I was more likely to do other things during the extra time and whack out the assignment in the last couple of days. The other thing about more time is that it will be harder to have classroom conversations as some students will be farther ahead; others behind. Keeping a regular pace tends to keep them marching a bit more in step.
Bottom line: if you can keep up the schedule, I would do it, as it’s very reasonable for that age group, and much more relaxed than they will encounter in college. However if you will have them for several years and feel that working more slowly in the first year might be helpful, that’s okay too. They don’t have many more years before college, so you’ll want to bring them up to speed as soon as you can.
With context resources, would it be effective to assign students to spend an hour a day going through the resources and journaling their responses in a free-writing form?
I like the idea of journaling responses, especially if you don’t have classroom time for talking about the resources. That will keep them from forgetting things as they work through the module, which can be a hazard if the module goes on for four weeks or the time between classes is long.
I’m preparing to teach a co-op class with Excellence in Literature, and I want to improve my own writing skills so that I can feel more confident in teaching. Do you have suggestions for books or activities that might help me learn?
I’d suggest reading Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book
and William Zinsser’s On Writing Well
as a first step (Amazon links are affiliate links, of course). Familiarize yourself with the EIL Handbook for Writers
, especially the front half on constructing essays and arguments. It’s designed to take you through college, so the examples should be helpful. You might also find it helpful to go through Teaching the Classics.
As you move through the teaching year, do one module from each level of EIL you are using. It’s a great way to get acquainted with both curriculum and books. Do the whole module, including the papers, and evaluate yourself with the rubric. You might even ask someone else to evaluate you if you are comfortable doing so. You’ll be able to empathize with your students if they tell you it’s challenging!
Throughout the year, listen to some of the Close Reads book club podcast
from CirceInstitute.org or read the book-focused posts on their blog. Those are all well written and they give you a sense of what it means to think through a book. It’s the only blog and podcast I listen to semi-regularly. Whatever you manage to get done will enrich your teaching and make you a better writer. I hope you have fun!
Evaluation and Grading
“You must expect enough of them to help them grow from where they are to where they should be.”
How do I know if my student got the right answer to an essay prompt?
The short answer is that there is not one right answer. I’ve consistently observed that when students are struggling with the writing, it’s because they have the idea that there is one right answer or interpretation and they need to come up with it. This is simply not true. The bottom line in evaluating the argument is whether it is well stated and adequately supported with evidence from the text and other reliable resources.
Once students understand that there is not one right answer, most relax and feel more confident about writing. Whoever is evaluating — parent or tutor — must be careful to evaluate with this criteria, not whether the student agrees or disagrees with the evaluator’s interpretation. For students, this may be the first class they take in which their reading of a text can be just as valid and supportable as anyone else’s, so that can be intimidating at first. But once they discover the power of citing evidence from the text, it can become empowering and a great deal of fun to develop and defend a position.
My student isn’t a great writer, but I realize I need to get him up to speed before college. How can I evaluate his papers without discouraging him?
The evaluation method I use and recommend is the triage method. You evaluate using the rubric, just as instructed in the study guide. However, you focus on the three areas of the rubric (content, style, mechanics) in order of importance so that the paper doesn’t return to the student an overwhelming mass of corrections and markings. Content (including organization) is the primary thing, so most attention and comments should focus there. Problems with style or mechanics can be marked with a different color pen so that it’s clear they need work, but are different issues and on a different level than content.
The main focus of most comments is the reader experience — will someone reading this paper find it clear, interesting, and well-written? More advanced students receive different types of comments than less advanced students, and the comments were always supplemented with a cover note about the overall paper. Rarely do I comment on every single thing that’s wrong, and for students that struggle most, I tend to include more positive comments and more guidance in their cover letter.
My student writes interesting essays, but there are usually a lot of mechanical errors. How can I encourage him to proofread?
Mechanics should be fairly well under control by now, and students should have at least one writer’s handbook
to consult for questions of grammar, punctuation, and usage. It should be requirement that students proofread before they turn in a paper, so there should not be many mechanical issues unless there is a documented learning disability. Even then, students should be required to use reference books to find and fix errors before turning in the paper, as it needs to be habit before they go to college.
If there are a great many issues, focus first on clarity of content and organization. Refer the student to the correct section in the writer’s handbook so he can fix the issues, and then re-evaluate. Remind students that when they turn in a final draft, it needs to have been carefully proofread, preferably aloud, and not just spell checked because they will be evaluated on the paper in your hands, not on what they meant to write.
How do I know if my student is making adequate progress?
The bottom line on what to expect: Each student should make progress in each of the seven areas of the rubric over the course of the school year. For the essays, the goal is solid understanding of the text and clear communication of a logically constructed and well-supported argument. Essentially, you must expect enough of them to help them grow from where they are to where they should be. I would suggest that the level of the model essays in the back of the study guide are an appropriate target level. Unless there are major disabilities or overwhelming schedules filled with AP classes, you can probably expect more from them than you’ve been getting once they realize they don’t have to find the “right” answer.
How should I calculate a letter grade from the rubric scores?
If you use the 1-5 feedback scale:
- Add together the scores for each of the seven evaluation categories (Ideas, Organization, etc.).
- Divide by the number of criteria (three for most categories).
- Add together the totals to get a final score.
- Divide the final score by 7 (the number of categories).
Base your grade on the number that remains (it should be between 1-5). You may set the grading scale that seems most appropriate to you. A 5 would be an A, of course, and other grades would follow in descending order. If you use the +/-/= feedback scale, the + would be a 5; – would be a 1; and = would be a 3. Calculate as you would with the 1-5 grading scale.
Should my student get a full high school English credit for the course, or do I need to add something?
Each of the EIL courses is a full high school English credit. If you complete the normal four-week cycle of assignments for each of the nine modules, you do not need to add anything. If your student completes the honors option
as well, he or she should receive an honors grade with weighted grade points.
Excellence in Literature: A curriculum for grades 8-12.