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Minor Adjustments for Major Benefits: Using English to Teach Teens to Think

Kathryn L. Stout, B.S.Ed., M.Ed.
Published: October 2003
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As I mentioned last month, teenagers need plenty of opportunities to think critically. We can meet this need by simply adjusting the approach used to cover required high school subjects. Last month we discussed history, so let’s take a look at what we can accomplish during four years of high school English.

If it’s just a matter of completion, we can assign stories to be read, topics for compositions, and workbooks for grammar and vocabulary. We can leave our students to work entirely on their own, merely handing out their grades. While this may fulfill requirements in terms of “legitimacy,” it’s likely to fall quite short in terms of equipping our kids to think clearly. Do we want them to be easily swayed by what they see and hear? Or do we want them to become capable of discerning the point, taking a position, and defending it? If the latter is our goal, then we need to help our students identify underlying messages meant to influence their thinking.

The easiest way to do this is to discuss the stories they read (or watch) during whatever bits of time we can find—during meals, while they help with chores, during drives to various extracurricular activities. It can be done. We also need to find time to act as editors during the writing process. It’s then that we can help them refine and clarify their ideas. This is also a chance to help them expand their thinking by asking for (and discussing) more examples that will support their points. Discussions generate ideas. The writing process helps fine tune their thinking. Between the two, they can learn to take and defend a position, not just finish an assignment..

We don’t have to know all the answers—we can look at the answer keys in the study guides or textbooks. Then we just have to direct our students’ thinking with questions and comments until they come to the answer themselves. They are likely to respond readily to literal questions. Unfortunately, they are likely to respond just as readily, but with very superficial answers, to questions about motives, symbols, themes, and underlying messages. Kids generally need prompting to dig deeper in order to make connections between elements of the story and life in the real world.

If their English program focuses on the literal, we can look for study guides available for some of the assigned stories as a supplement, such as those from Progeny Press, www.progenypress.com. We can also add some general critical thinking materials. Critical Thinking Press & Software specializes in this area—www.criticalthinking.com. A study in basic logic, The Fallacy Detective, is available at www.ChristianLogic.com.

If we don’t have a program in place already, we can look for one that emphasizes critical thinking as an integral part of its course. Movies As Literature (Design-A-Study) includes plenty of help for parents as they lead discussions of seventeen movies and look over assigned compositions. For the college-bound student, For Such A Time As This Ministries carries literature courses emphasizing analysis: www.forsuchatimesasthis.com.

As a Christian, I refer to biblical standards during discussions of stories and movies. In this way, my kids and those I tutor learn to recognize the Bible as the source for practical direction in every part of our lives. We typically go beyond answer keys into talks about consequences never shown in a story—especially for questionable behaviors presented as acceptable. A textbook entitled Thinking Like a Christian can be a handy supplement to help with this training: www.lifewaychristianstores.com.

Whether they recognize it or not, teenagers are looking for a destiny bigger than finding a job and raising a family. They want a purpose larger than themselves—a niche where they can make a difference. Teaching them to reason, and to apply that reasoning to their Christian walk, enriches their lives and the lives of those around them. And we can help them on their way while meeting high school requirements. Once again, we see that minor adjustments can have major benefits.

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