A Tale of Two Cities and an Example of “Other Ways of Using Books” In a CM Education

Victorian family of homeschoolers

Disciplinary Devices must not come between Children and the Soul of the Book.––These few hints by no means cover the disciplinary uses of a good school-book; but let us be careful that our disciplinary devices, and our mechanical devices to secure and tabulate the substance of knowledge, do not come between the children and that which is the soul of the book, the living thought it contains.~Charlotte Mason

writing with quill vintageRecently my youngest two read Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities because it was assigned.  They had previously read The Hunger Games because they wanted to.

After they had finished reading, I found two online study guides for TTC, fiddled with them a bit and combined them into one shorter document.  I shared it with them with the following note:

“To search out a matter is the glory of Kings.”

“I am giving you the following material to go over both to help you come to a better understanding of this book, and also to help you learn more about how to analyze your reading.   This is something you will called to do in college, and something that is an important part of being an informed individual, somebody who can ‘rightly divide the word of truth,’ as well as accurately assess any other book.”

Keep in mind that we did all this work with the study guides after they had already read and narrated the book on their own.  I did not want the study guide to influence how they perceived the book before they had a chance to work with the book on its own terms.  I wanted to use the study guide for various reasons:

1. They both have expressed an interest in college, and I wanted them to see what sort of things a teacher might expect of them in a college course.

2. Once they had formed their own opinions of the books, I wanted them to see what others thought about the same book.

3.  I wanted them to experience the idea of digging a little deeper with a book, and to understand some basics of literary analysis- we don’t do a lot of formal ‘schoolish’ stuff until high school, so this was their first introduction to some of these ideas. Incidentally, I have college students who had their first exposure to research papers in college, and they both had their professors rave over their writing and tell them they really enjoyed reading their papers, so I think our approach has worked just fine for us.

4. There are probably other reasons I did this, but I can’t think of them at the moment.;-D

I can’t give you my edited redaction of the two study guides because that would be plagiarism and copyright violation.  But study guides are study guides, you know?

They did the following assignments over a period of about six weeks (it was supposed to be four, but houseguests intervened), not all at once, and we were working on other things during the same time frame.


The kids read some background information on who Dickens was, when and where he lived, what he and others had said about TTC.

Put Charles Dickens on your timeline in your notebook as well as the dining room timeline.  (they have a century book and a timeline)

They had also just finished studying the French revolution, so I had them give me an oral narration of the historical background to TTC, and they read a further summation in their study guides and narrated that.

Make a small book cover for this book, and place it on the timeline in the dining room, and on the timeline in your notebook.  Also put the French Revolution on both timelines, and choose 3 real people or events from this time period to add to your notebook and the dining room timeline.

I gave them a character list I had compiled from the study guide and asked them to give me (in writing)  one sentence of description to each of these, or find a memorable quote of something the character said and copy that.   Giving them a list of characters in advance and asking them to add descriptions of that character as they read is something we will be doing with their next huge read- Les Miserables

Each of the two study guides had a ‘plot overview’ section, and there were some interesting differences.  I asked my students to read each of the plot overviews and tell me two differences and two similarities between them.

I gave them this assignment: Now that you have read two different synopses of A Tale of Two Cities, think about the way they are organized and write a short synopses of another book you’ve read recently- I suggest The Hunger Games or Ender’s Game, but if you want to choose a fairy tale or a story you’ve read to one of the nephews/nieces, that’s fine, too.  Use another sheet of paper to do this, or you may type it and print it out if you prefer.

The study guides introduced them to such literary terms as protagonist, antagonist, conflict, archetype, etc, and identified those elements in TTC.  After they read this part of the study guide, I gave them this assignment:

Look up protagonist, antagonist, conflict, and archetype in the dictionary.  Rewrite the definitions in your own words.

Thinking about other stories- who is the protagonist in The Hunger Games?  Who could be described as the archetype?  What does the conflict appear to be in the first book? What do we learn is truly the conflict in the third book?  What would you say is the theme of The Hunger Games?

I chose the Hunger Games partially because they had both just read it and they enjoyed it so much, but I also chose it because I think there are similar themes in both books.

Both study guides, as is typical, also go through the book chapter by chapter, giving a summary of each chapter.  Again, I would never give a study guide like this to a child before they have read the book for themselves.  And in this case, since we had already finished the book and I considered this just an introductory lesson, I didn’t want to go through the whole thing.  So I just picked the first and last two chapters, had them read the summaries for those chapters in both study guides, and then asked them to note the differences between the two.

I explained:

I am not asking you to be able to write synopses and analysis at this level yet, but this is the goal (and beyond). So use this to build your understanding of how to read books, and apply what you learn here to the narrations you give for your next readings.

And then I asked my favorite narration question:

Do the themes and ideas in A Tale of Two Cities remind you of anything else you’ve read?

What?  How are they similar?

Does all this seem to you to be  foreign to a Charlotte Mason Education?

Narration is an important part of a CM education. It is foundational, and we never stop using it.  But Miss Mason also explained:

Other Ways of using Books.––But this is only one way to use books: others are to enumerate the statements in a given paragraph or chapter; to analyse a chapter, to divide it into paragraphs under proper headings, to tabulate and classify series; to trace cause to consequence and consequence to cause; to discern character and perceive how character and circumstance interact; to get lessons of life and conduct, or the living knowledge which makes for science, out of books; all this is possible for school boys and girls, and until they have begun to use books for themselves in such ways, they can hardly be said to have begun their education.

More about that here.

The two study guides I used were Cliff Notes and Spark Notes, both online and free.

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  1. MotherLydia
    Posted January 14, 2014 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    I remember Tale of Two Cities (Barely)

    I LOVED the ending of that book. But it was a really hard slog to get through it. I absolutely KNOW I would not have finished it if I had not read it in the context of the class. its one of those things that have made me interested in book clubs, since. To discover there are books worth reading that are hard to get everything out of if you do it on your own. But when you do it with others, especially with a guide to getting all there is to get, its like a whole new world opens up.

  2. Stacey
    Posted January 14, 2014 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    I’m curious – how was this study guide received? I’m curious for a variety of reasons – most of them being related to teaching, and how different techniques are received and/or whether they are effective (since being well-received and effective are occasionally two very different things), since I hope to teach college eventually, I do teach bible classes, and I might homeschool eventually.

    • Headmistress, zookeeper
      Posted January 16, 2014 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      I don’t know that how my two received it would be a good indication of how other students would. Parts of it were tailored specifically for them, something easy for a homeschool mom to do, not so simple for a teacher of a larger group of students who have no other connection to her outside the classroom. I chose the Hunger Games as comparison, for instance, because they both have read and liked the books, so it would be easier for them to remember details. I chose some aspects of the study guides because I knew it had information they did not know, and eliminated other parts because that would have been a waste of their time.

      For us, I am not particularly sold on the need for college, but our kids can go for free, and they both have said they really want to go, so the connection with college is pertains directly to them- they can’t dismiss it and tell me they aren’t going to college anyway, since they both had recently said they want to go.

      As for being well received or not- it’s not like a public school classroom- they don’t really have the option of just deciding not to do it and then slipping through the cracks because the entire class has to move on. They are the entire class.

  3. Rebekah
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    I don’t have big kids yet, but this is so help and chalk full of rich ideas. I’m not a fan of college for a lot of educations, but realize my kids may need to be prepared for it( I remember how it was). I love how you used both the CM style and a schoolish style. I’m sure that they got both enjoyment and depth from this exercise. This is so practical.

    I’m bookmarking this for later!

  4. Anita
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    I knew there was something I liked about you! 😉 We are beginning, beginning CM-ers. My oldest, 5 1/2, started homeschooling about four months ago. A little early, I know, but he only started speaking about nine months ago. And he doesn’t understand much of what we say to him. So our distance coach (who is a PhD SLP and behaviorist — she’s AWESOME and a mom of seven) stressed that he needs extra help to “create new neurological pathways” for speech and comprehension. He does not have autism, but Childhood Apraxia of Speech (cause unknown — we’ve had him tested thoroughly) and I guess what you would call a receptive language disorder, blah, blah, blah. We’ve steered away from labels and crazy treatments. Took him out of speech therapy (because it wasn’t working) and within a week he was talking (I KID YOU NOT). Since we turned off the TV, enforced more structure (aka Habit Training) and started interacting more (I quit my ministry position at our parish to give the Hubby and kiddoes my full attention) he’s been talking nonstop and picking up consonant sounds and new words like CRAZY. His little sister, almost four, also has receptive issues. The baby, 19 months, is so far hitting all his milestones.

    My biggest challenge is: where do we really start? He knows his ABC’s and can count to 35. He also knows about a dozen sight words. We are currently reading Dr Seuss, Curious George, Biscuit, Angus the Dog (from the 1940’s), etc. etc.. We are Catholic and attend Mass Wednesdays and Sundays. He knows his prayers and some songs in Latin. I could go on…

    What I want is for him and his sibs to know Bible verses, pieces of poetry, and books that are visually enjoyable (a MUST for us since that big comprehension piece is missing). But they can’t be long, wordy or complicated. An eight-word sentence is about as far as he can go and even that is a bit of a stretch. Do we start with Proverbs and “A Child’s Garden of Verses”? Do I cut and paste abbreviated passages from longer works? How can I do this with minimal work? I have a house to run (and a husband running around here somewhere — I’d love to see him too! LOL!).

    I know I have to “spread the table so they can eat”… As a mom, my biggest fear is… will they?
    A mom-to-mom word of encouragement would be a great help! 😀

    • Headmistress, zookeeper
      Posted January 16, 2014 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      Try year 0 for him at AmblesideOnline. Mother goose before Child’s garden, and MG is naturally shortened.

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