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Book Reports

by Ginny Seuffert

I live in Chicago, but last fall I spent some time at the Seton offices in Front Royal, Virginia. My trip was a terrific opportunity to speak to Seton counselors and find out from them exactly with which part of the Seton lesson plans parents have difficulties so I could tackle them in my column. Book reports seem to be right at the top of the list. I find that interesting because when I first enrolled my children in the program, almost twenty years ago, we were told to pick a good book and have the child write a report following some general guidelines. The present assignment—to read a given book and write the report following a provided outline—seems like a much simpler task.

Why is such a straightforward assignment causing problems? After hearing specific complaints, it seems to me that parents sometimes do not fully understand the educational purpose of book reports. Perhaps addressing the questions parents commonly ask will help.

My child has already read the assigned book. Can’t we get an alternate?

Often the lesson plans do provide some choices for the first two quarters, and the children may pick an appropriate saint’s biography for the last two quarters, so there is some flexibility. As time goes by, I suspect Seton will provide outlines for even more choices in each grade level, to allow for differences in interest among our students.

On the other hand, book reports are not intended to provide new reading experiences for students. Rather, they help the child learn how to analyze some excellent fiction in terms of important elements such as characterization, theme, and conflict. It would actually be a big benefit if the student is already familiar with the work.

My son prefers to read non-fiction. Wouldn’t he learn even more by reading about the solar system or ancient Egypt?

Reading non-fiction teaches different skills than those learned by writing book reports. While assigned books often provide a vivid glimpse into a particular time and place in history, and half are accounts of the lives of the saints, they are not primarily intended to impart factual knowledge. Instead, students read a story chosen to present important ideas about virtue and values, and then the lesson plan leads them to consider this human experience in terms of what they know about Church teaching. At the same time, the assignments encourage children to think about various literary element—especially characterization—formulate ideas about them, and express those ideas clearly. Books about dinosaurs or wildlife in the Serengeti are certainly valuable for your son to read, but are not really appropriate for book reports.

My daughter has trouble reading dialogue which is written in a dialect. I suspect the book is above her reading level.

While we try to choose grade-level appropriate selections, students vary tremendously in their ability to adapt to various elements like dialects, or unfamiliar situations and settings.

Remember, increasing reading fluency is not the main purpose of book reports; the students have their readers and reading workbooks for that. By all means, read the story with your child and even read the more difficult passages to her, if necessary. Look up and discuss the meanings of words that are not standard contemporary American English. Many of the greatest authors of the English language wrote in dialect (Mark Twain), or used words that have fallen out of use in our own time (Shakespeare and Jane Austen). Even Laura Ingalls Wilder, who lived as recently as 19th century America, used “mosquito bar” when speaking of a window screen. Understanding dialect can be tremendously enriching for a young reader.

Seton requires students to use set ideas, and even sentences, in the lesson plans for book reports. Doesn’t this stifle my child’s creativity?

Book reports are not creative writing assignments. The outlines in the lesson plans guide students in gaining a Catholic understanding of important themes in the assigned books, and help them to express these ideas in a clear and organized manner.

On the other hand, if your child has an additional related insight into the novel, and can tie it into the assignment, by all means do so and just write an explanatory note to the Seton grader. For example, let’s say your 8th grader is reading The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Our lesson plan outline encourages the student to think about the main character Jody’s sense of responsibility in three ways: first, how it helped him care for his pet fawn; second, how it helped him assist his family on their farm; and finally, how it aids him in resolving a conflict between his love for his pet and his family’s need for survival. Perhaps your student feels strongly that Jody gained his sense of responsibility from his father, and would like to include this idea. It would be perfectly acceptable to insert a paragraph, perhaps with the opening sentence, “The young boy Jody learns about responsibility from the words and actions of his father.” The student could then give several examples from the book that illustrate this point. Of course, this new idea would need to be introduced in the first paragraph and summed up in the concluding paragraph.

Expanding an assignment, rather than seeking to replace it, is a good way to encourage creative thinking in your students.

Why don’t the lesson plans give outlines for the two saint biographies for quarters three and four?

We may at some point add outlines, but for now we hope students will apply the skills they learned writing book reports for the first two quarters. Because these books are based on the lives of holy people, it is not hard to come up with an outline. By all means, help your children if they are struggling. Two fairly simple plans serve as general guides. Let’s illustrate by using a biography of St. Thomas More of London.

The first plan would be to identify three virtues that St. Thomas possessed and give examples of how he practiced them to a heroic degree. For example, we might say, “St. Thomas possessed a brilliant intellect, which he humbly submitted to the teaching of the Catholic Church,” and give examples from his personal life, from the books he authored, or his legal decisions while a judge. The next idea might be introduced, “Despite his numerous professional and family obligations, St. Thomas had a vigorous spiritual life marked by many pious practices,” and give examples of these practices. Finally, we might say, “St. Thomas had great courage which caused him to lose his standing in society, his money, his family, his freedom and even his life, rather than deny the Catholic Faith.” St. Thomas’ three virtues: his humility in submitting his intellect to Church teaching, his piety, and his courage are the three main ideas of the report.

The second plan would be to focus on only one of St. Thomas’ virtues and apply it to different circumstances. For example, “St. Thomas’ courage allowed him to decide important cases with strict fairness, no matter the consequences, while he was a judge.” Another paragraph might open with, “St. Thomas had the courage to defend Church teaching even though that meant he would lose his place at King Henry’s Court and the source of his family’s income.” A third paragraph might begin, “St. Thomas’ courage endured even to the final moments of his life,” and give examples of his words and actions on the day of his execution.

Just follow the formula of introducing your main ideas in the first paragraph, focusing in on one idea in each of the detail paragraph by giving examples from the text that support it, and by summing it all up in the final paragraph.

Book reports are often time-consuming for both students and parents, and I believe they can be a source of frustration for harried moms. Nevertheless, learning how to analyze literature in the elementary years is terrific preparation for high school and college. As always, Seton counselors are only a phone call or email away.

Tip of the month: When young people enjoy reading a particular piece of fiction, parents often will try to find other works by the same author, and this is a great practice. Exercise caution, however, when looking for a biography of the author, or even books about the same time and place. As a general rule, you may depend on books written before 1970 to be wholesome, but even books directed towards children written after that date may not be appropriate. Take the time to skim through a book yourself before giving it to your children.