Lightning Literature and Composition for Seventh Grade by Hewitt Homeschooling Resources was the first packaged literature program I purchased and used some 4 years ago with my older son, and this September, it’s returning to our shelves. This fall, my 10-year-old will explore fiction, poetry, and autobiography through this comprehensive program for middle schoolers that is easily used by gifted elementary children or reluctant readers and writers in early high school. I enjoyed walking my older son through the program four years back, and I’m eager to walk through again with his brother albeit at more distance, since he’ll be working on the program under the tutelage of Headmistress Guinevere of Online G3.
Lightning Lit 7 is the first of two secular middle school literature studies from Hewitt, who also published 11 high school level literature classes, ten of which are also secular (Christian British Authors is obviously not). The middle school courses are scheduled over an entire school year, although my older son easily completed it in one semester, and my younger’s class will follow the same shorter timeline. Assigned readings include The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Mark Twain), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll), The Story of My Life (Helen Keller), All Creatures Great and Small (James Herriot), along with two short stories (Rikki Tikki Tavi and The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky) and a dozen poems. The short stories and poems are all found in Stories & Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children, and anthology compiled by Harold Bloom. In addition to those books listed, each family needs a student guide (reusable), workbook (consumable), and teacher’s guide, which provides answers and a 36 week schedule. At just under $92 for the entire package, this is a fairly affordable program that leaves the buyer with a good-sized stack of fine literature at the end.
The course is divided into eight chapters of varying length. Each begins with a short biography of the author or poets and a suggestion of what to look for while reading. A vocabulary list with definitions by chapter follows, as do two comprehension questions for each chapter. The vocabulary list appears to be for reference only, since no reinforcement for the vocabulary appears in the workbooks. It may be handy for some learners to have on hand while reading, but I have yet to raise a child who will use such a list while immersed in a book. The comprehension questions are largely just that — basic checks for facts and understanding. My older son answered these aloud with me, which allowed both of us to see how well he was paying attention while reading (a serious challenge for him if he’s not interested in the reading material, persisting to this day).
The meat of the lesson follows, starting with a brief literary lesson. Throughout the course, these lessons cover plot line, rhyme, poetic structure, sound in poetry, creativity, dialogue, autobiography, and the character sketch. The lessons are sound but, in my opinion, brief and a bit shallow for a middle school course. The so-called mini lessons (sometimes as long as the main lesson) extend each chapter a bit and cover writing openings, outlining, limerick, haiku, cinquain, list poems, nonce words, choosing writing topics, brainstorming, and word choice (called “saying it with style”). More of the lessons and mini lessons focus on writing instruction than on literary analysis. I’d like to see more analysis and teaching of literary terms, but for the child who hasn’t had formal introduction to genre and literary terminology, this is a fine way to start. For my older son, this course was just that — his first introduction to learning literature and what makes it work. For my younger, who used Literary Lessons from The Lord of the Rings last year, this books seems light.
While writing, especially fiction and poetry writing, takes precedence over literary analysis in Lightning Lit 7, I don’t consider this a stand-alone writing curriculum, given it covers only fiction, autobiography, and poetry. By the middle school level (and preferably before), most writing instruction should focus on the sort of writing the vast majority of us will do in high school, college, and beyond: nonfiction, academic writing. In my opinion, Lightning Lit 7 gives some fine advice for the creative/fiction genres, which may delight budding writers, but its lack of focus on the essay irks me. (We’ll pair it with Michael Clay Thompson’s Essay Voyage to round out the writing component.) While the literary lessons are a bit scant, the writing exercises at the end of each chapter offer a chance for an instructor to choose an assignment best fitting the child’s abilities or learning needs. There are some fine assignments there, although without some outside instruction on essay writing and (for some assignments) academic writing, these assignments will be challenging to execute well.
The only consumable part of the program is the workbook section. The workbook pages are to be done after the literary and mini lessons and before the writing assignment. Plenty of writing instruction occurs here, much of it prewriting work, although Chapter Six provides an exercise on writing a coherent paragraph and another on finding topic and support sentences,which fits nicely with Michael Clay Thompson’s Paragraph Town. Some workbook pages focus on grammar and punctuation, providing reinforcement of these skills, but, as with vocabulary, grammar instruction is not the aim nor focus of Lightning Lit 7. There’s a bit a busy work, with a crossword puzzle and word search in each chapter. We skip those, and I’m not sure why they’re included in this program.
Overall, Lightning Lit 7 is a fine introductory course for the child new to literary and poetic terminology. A middle school student could certainly complete it independently, although working with a parent or other adult through the lessons would likely add to the depth of the program. Aside from some of the writing assignment questions, most of the work sits on the first two levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy: recall and understanding. A parent or teacher could easily encourage discussion higher up the pyramid, encouraging analysis, evaluation, and creation. (For Alice in Wonderland, consider adding Michael Clay Thompson’s short literature book, Alice, Peter, and Mole, which takes three classics and guides the instructor on teaching them through the upper levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. We’ve yet to use this very new addition to the MCT Language Arts line, but it looks quite promising.) Using the materials in a small group or co-op setting would also increase the chances of students making connections and using higher level thinking. Lightning Literature 7 is a sound start to examining literature, easy to implement, and easily expanded upon as needed. It’s compressible into a semester course or can be used over the course of a whole year, as designed. It’s one of very few in its field (a secular approach to book-length works), and with the caveats listed above, is a fine program.