What can you learn from a single chapter of a classic novel?

Posted on September 26, 2014

How much can you learn about a novel from the first chapter? That was my experiment in today’s literature class (for homeschoolers in grades 9-12).

I read the first chapter of Jane Eyre aloud and asked my students to tell me everything they noticed that might provide a clue to the rest of the novel. Here are some of their comments:

  • John Reed will be beaten up — at least I hope so! [Several of the guys said they would be happy to teach John a lesson.]
  • Jane will leave the Reeds.
  • Jane could be really happy later, but she could also be really devastated.
  • This doesn’t sound like what a ten-year-old would say. Is Jane a reliable narrator?
  • Jane is a bookworm and artistic. She is very descriptive and uses vivid imagery.
  • Jane will be kicked out and won’t trust people for a while.
  • Sounds like a Cinderella story.
  • There won’t be a happy ending.
  • Jane will have problems in the real world because she is an orphan.
  • I’m not used to a story told in first person. This is very different from Pride and Prejudice. Not sure I like it.
  • Where is Mr. Reed? Why isn’t he controlling his family? Maybe he’s a jerk too, or maybe he’s nice but uninvolved. I think it will be worse if he’s nice but uninvolved.
  • Jane seems strong now. Will she turn out to be a weak character? I hope not.
  • Jane is streetwise.



That’s a lot to get from 4 1/2 pages! If you’ve read Jane Eyre, you’ll know whether or not these theories were on target. I added only these observations — based strictly on the first chapter, without spoilers from the rest of the book:

  • There’s a lot of emphasis on atmosphere, mood, and setting — mostly dark and gloomy.
  • Jane has usually been “obedient” to John out of self-protection, but when she finally has enough, she turns on him.
  • The one happy bit is when Bessie (who’s not always nice to Jane) tells the children stories from old fairy tales, ballads, and novels, so we know that Jane’s imagination has been fed.

All the students were eager to continue reading. In fact, I suspect it will be hard for some of them to stop at the end of volume 1 (chapter 15), our first week’s assignment, although I asked them not to read ahead. (One guy commented that if John Reed doesn’t get his comeuppance by the end of this week’s reading, he will have to keep reading until he finds out what happens to him!)

This was a really fun exercise that sparked a lot of discussion. I may try it again with another book!

Do you have a favorite way to introduce a new book to your students?

A Melville-Mitford Monday Mash-Up

Posted on November 26, 2013

Call me Bibliophile. Some hours ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and no patience left with the incompetent and oblivious people I encountered in a long day of shopping, I thought I would travel about a little and revisit Mitford. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily becoming hypercritical and impatient, and bringing up the rear of the slowest-moving line in every store; and especially whenever my crankiness gets such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the aisle, and methodically knocking people’s carts over—then, I account it high time to get to Mitford as soon as I can. This is my substitute for psychotherapy. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the novel. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all readers in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the books with me.

Here in Mississippi, it’s been unseasonably cold for November, and a near-freezing, persistent rain has fallen all day. Not an ideal day to run about to 11 different stores for Thanksgiving groceries, office supplies, pet supplies, etc. I’ve been irrationally cranky all day, mentally overreacting to the traffic and the crowds and the S.L.O.W. cashiers.

Last week I had assigned bits of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick to my homeschool co-op literature class, so the opening paragraph was in my mind. Ishmael’s “damp, drizzly November” was both literal and figurative for me today.

As I drove from store to store, however, I listened to John McDonough’s wonderful reading of Out to Canaan, the fourth book in Jan Karon’s delightful Mitford series, and it soothed my soul.

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I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read the Mitford books. Jan Karon’s invitation in The Mitford Bedside Companion rings so true:

Just as we visit loved ones again and again, so you may go again and again to Mitford. Sometimes for refreshment. Often for peace. And always for hope.

Have you visited Mitford? If you haven’t, I invite you to experience its beauty and balm right away.


P.S. – For your reference, here’s the opening paragraph of Moby-Dick that inspired my Melville-Mitford Mash-Up on this cold, drizzly Monday:

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”

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Literature of the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation

Posted on October 18, 2012

One of the things I love about homeschooling is the opportunity for students to read whole books rather than textbook snippets. Every Friday I teach 18 students in grades 9-12 as part of a weekly homeschool co-op, and it’s thrilling to see these young people reading and discussing classic literature.

We spend most of our classroom time on discussion, not lecture. I discovered several years ago that if I let students do most of the talking, they end up addressing most of the issues in my carefully prepared lecture notes. Encouraging them to think deeply about what they read, to journal about it, and to share their opinions in class has a much more powerful impact than, for example, giving multiple-choice tests about the factual details of the books.

Our literature books coordinate with the time period we’re studying in history. This year we’re studying the literature of the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation. Here’s our reading list:

  • Confessions by St. Augustine
  • Beowulf
  • The Song of Roland
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
  • The Inferno by Dante
  • The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
  • Fierce Wars and Faithful Loves (adapted from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Book I)
  • Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe
  • Paradise Lost by John Milton
  • Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
  • Selected poetry and essays

So far, Augustine’s Confessions and Beowulf have been big hits with my students. The Song of Roland didn’t go over so well; one student described it as “a morbid Dr. Seuss,” while another called it “a sing-along murder song.” I’ll be eager to see what they think about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight this week.

How do you teach literature in your homeschool?

P.S. – You may also be interested in these posts about the literature of antiquity and modernity:





Celebrate Homeschool Freedom Day!

Posted on August 7, 2012

On the first day of public school in our town, we celebrate Homeschool Freedom Day (a term I coined years ago). Whether or not our homeschool year has started, we DON’T have lessons that day. Instead, we celebrate, usually by going to the park for a picnic with homeschooling friends . . . just because we can!

We revel in the freedom and flexibility that homeschooling makes possible. (The generally smaller crowd at the park when government school is in session is a nice bonus.)

This year we made only a short trip to the park—having a picnic in 93% humidity just wasn’t that appealing—so we enjoyed lunch in the air-conditioned comfort of our favorite Mexican restaurant, Mi Pueblo. Fajitas, fun, and freedom!

[They really were having fun…until I pulled out the camera.]

I’d love to hear how your family celebrates Homeschool Freedom Day! And if you like the idea but school has already started where you live, just pick a day . . . any day . . . to celebrate your freedom. The Specific Holiday Date Enforcement Squad will never know.

Homeschooling Today’s 20th anniversary prize sign-up

Posted on June 17, 2012

Homechooling Today has been part of my family’s homeschool journey almost since the beginning. I’m honored to write the “Literature through the Centuries” column for the magazine and still enjoy reading each issue after 15 years of homeschooling.

To celebrate their 20th anniversary, Homeschooling Today is hosting 20 weeks of fabulous prizes AND special Grand Prizes worth hundreds of dollars!


I’ve donated a copy of my time management course How Do You Do It All to the prizes.

You can enter the drawing for all the prizes here.

The weekly prize drawing is open to anyone, but only subscribers are eligible to win grand prizes. You’ll find an abundance of practical tools, encouragement, and inspiration for your homeschooling.

Join me for the Ultimate Homeschool Expo!

Posted on April 23, 2012

Looking for encouragement and practical tips for your homeschool journey? Join me for the conference you can attend at home!

There are dozens of speakers on a huge variety of topics ranging from communication to computer science to couponing! I’ll be speaking twice–once on overcoming interruptions and distractions and once on building a home library and teaching your children to love books.

Hope you can join us!

Click Here to Checkout The Ultimate Homeschool Expo!

83 Ways to Celebrate Valentine’s Day!

Posted on February 9, 2012

83 Ways to Celebrate Valentines – February 1-14, 2012. Celebrate with us by receiving a gift!

Includes history of Valentines Day, Homeschool Activities, Crafts, Special Family Activities and much more

I am partnering with “How To Homeschool My Child” to bring you a special gift on Monday, February 13, 2012.

Go to http://www.HowToHomeschoolMychild.com now to sign up on the home page for 14 February Freebies.

The Freebies start on Feb 1 with a free ebook- 83 Things to Do to Celebrate Valentines and my gift to you on Feb 13, 2012.

“How To Homeschool My Child” will also send a special gift from all of their homeschooling partners on each day of the first 14 Days of February, but only to their subscribers. So don’t miss out on some wonderful offers to keep on homeschooling the best way possible this year!

Mary Jo

ps. Sign-up now so you don’t miss a thing!

Our Christmas Traditions

Posted on December 23, 2011

One of my favorite parts of Christmas is reading aloud in front of the fire and the Christmas tree lights each evening in December.

This year we’re reading The Handel’s Messiah Family Advent Reader, which includes 28 nightly devotionals and an audio CD with related bits of The Messiah to accompany each reading. A “Read More About It” section in the back provides additional details and resources for digging deeper on each topic.

In addition to our nightly Advent reading, we often read a Christmas picture book. I’ve already posted about The Baker’s Dozen: A St. Nicholas Tale. Since we love our 6 cats, we also enjoy The Twelve Days of Christmas Cats, read/sung to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” If you’ve ever mixed cats and Christmas, you’ll understand the line about “a kitten in a fir tree”!

One of our favorite Christmas books is An Orange for Frankie by Patricia Polacco. It’s a sweet story of family togetherness and unselfishness.

In honor of Frankie’s orange, we place oranges on our mantel each Christmas (along with our cherished nutcracker collection).

What are your favorite Christmas books and traditions?

Twelve Days of Christmas with Homeschooling Today

Posted on December 21, 2011

Twelve Days of Christmas – December 26, 2011 through January 6, 2012. Celebrate with us by receiving a gift for the season!

I am partnering with Homeschooling Today magazine to bring you a special discount on January 2.

Go to www.HomeschoolingToday.com now to sign up on the home page for the Homeschooling Helper e-newsletter to receive this special offer via e-mail on the above date. Homeschooling Today will send a special discount or gift from a different vendor each day of the Twelve Days of Christmas, but only to their readers. So don’t miss some wonderful offers to get your new year started off right! Sign up now so you don’t miss a thing!

What are your favorite Christmas books?

Posted on December 7, 2011

In honor of St. Nicholas Day, my boys and I are about to snuggle by the fire and read one of our favorite Christmas books:

The Baker’s Dozen: A St. Nicholas Tale

A fair but tight-fisted baker learns an important lesson about generosity.

This new edition includes a recipe and pattern for St. Nicholas cookies. Might be time to upgrade our copy!

I'll be sharing more of our favorite Christmas books in the days ahead. What are your favorites?