Shared Reading Experiences: A Purpose for Novels and Memoirs in Family Science Classrooms

Deborah Gentry, Ed.D., CFLE, NCFR Academic Program Liaison
/ CFLE Network, Winter 2020


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I have spent most of my career in postsecondary education contemplating the nature of both teaching and learning. I have focused on the design, delivery, assessment, and evaluation of Family Science curriculum and instruction. This has usually been the emphasis of my columns in this publication. For this column, I want to concentrate on one way to incorporate the critical thinking skills of application, analysis, assessment, evaluation, and creation into college courses aimed at fulfilling the content and performance expectations for most, if not all, of the 10 Family Life Education (FLE) Content Areas: Literature circles.

Much like “book clubs” in everyday life, literature circles are a teaching strategy in which students enrolled in a course are assigned to individually read (or listen to) a novel or memoir and, upon completing their readings, come together in pairs or small groups to engage in focused discussion about the book, as described in, “Using the Concept of Literature Circles in a College,” a 2004 journal article written by O’Brian. The book serves as a complex case study. Instead of a book, an alternative device is to use an entire movie or television episode, or perhaps only a clip as suggested by Smith in “The Use of Movie/Television Clips to Teach Child/Family Theories,” a journal article published in 2001. Faculty in Family Science, as well as other disciplines, bemoan the lack of good-quality case studies to have students grapple with. Although novels and memoirs are longer than most case studies and thus require a greater commitment to read, when they are interesting and compelling, students seldom complain about the time they devote to reading and thinking about the characters, situations, issues, and challenges involved in the story. 

As APR Liaison, I have read and reviewed lots of course syllabi (I estimate, perhaps, 3,000). Fairly frequently, I see course designs that include a novel or memoir among the required readings and corresponding in-class activities, as well as outside-of-class assignments that call for students to undertake the following individually or in small groups:

  • Read a hard copy or listen to an audio version of the book
  • Reflect on and describe the impact the book’s content has had on them
  • Research the author(s) and perhaps view recorded interviews of the author(s) discussing the book
  • Read one or more reviews of the book
  • Answer a series of focused questions that prompt them to
    • apply course concepts, principles, and theories
    • analyze the dynamics of relationships between characters
    • analyze issues and situations, particularly challenging ones, that characters face
    • assess and evaluate choices characters make and the outcomes that result
    • assess the needs of characters and identify possible services that could have met those needs
    • create or formulate possible solutions to the problems people like the characters in the book contend with
    • critique or advocate for various relevant family policies, existing or future

Illinois Wesleyan University, located in a town near where I live, had incoming students read Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover (published in 2018) in advance of their coming to campus for orientation sessions before the start of the 2019 fall semester. The book has and will continue to serve as a foundation for campus-wide learning experiences in support of this yearlong theme: Fact or Fiction ( Inspired by all of this, I acquired both a hard copy and audio version of the memoir to read on my own. As I progressed through the three-part book, I began listing elements that could possibly be relevant to each of the 10 FLE Content Areas. Additionally, I have viewed multiple taped interviews the author has given while carrying out book tours and read reviews of the book. I have concluded that it would make a captivating choice if a college or university Family Science instructor wanted to incorporate a literature circle teaching–learning experience into a undergraduate or graduate course. If you have read the book, you may well agree with my assessment, although I can appreciate that some of you might have reservations.

Doubting that I can summarize the book and provide a brief biographical statement about the author any better than that of the publisher, Penguin Random House, I am providing the following publicity excerpts (

“An unforgettable memoir about a young girl who, kept out of school, leaves her survivalist family and goes on to earn a PhD from Cambridge University….
Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, Tara Westover was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom. Her family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education, and no one to intervene when one of Tara’s older brothers became violent. When another brother got himself into college, Tara decided to try a new kind of life. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge University. Only then would she wonder if she’d traveled too far, if there was still a way home…

Tara Westover was born in Idaho in 1986. She received her BA from Brigham Young University in 2009 and was subsequently awarded a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. She earned a MPhil from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 2009, and in 2010 was a visiting fellow at Harvard University. She returned to Cambridge, where she was awarded a PhD in history in 2014. Educated is her first book.”

In the past, when I taught courses focused on the history of the American family, families in later life, and family policy, I built literature circles into my course design. From these experiences, I learned that it is wise to first ensure that my purpose in doing so is to support one or more of the course objectives or student learning outcomes. Next, much like a professor of literature, I realized the importance of determining my beliefs about how a reader in this context is most likely to engage with the words on the page. I generally support reader response theory or reader response criticism discussed in Tyson’s book, Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide, published in 2006.

 “Reader-response theorists share two beliefs: (1) that the role of the reader cannot be omitted from our understanding of literature and (2) that readers do not passively consume the meaning presented to them by an objective literary text; rather they actively make the meaning they find in literature. This second belief, that readers actively make meaning, suggests, of course, that different readers may read the same text quite differently. In fact, reader-response theorists believe that even the same reader reading the same text on two different occasions will probably produce different meanings because so many variables contribute to our experience of the text.”

With this framework in mind, I also came to recognize that, should there be sensitive situations in the novel or memoir that might prompt emotional distress in some students, I needed not only to caution students about the possibility but also be ready to refer students showing any evidence of retraumatization to campus counseling services. (This is very much a potential concern regarding Educated.) Finally, best practice necessitated my giving careful consideration to what I wanted students to do after they had completed their reading. What critical thinking skills did I want them to use? What content did I want to specially emphasize? What questions did I want them to answer? What products, if any, did I want them to develop? How many students did I ideally want working together on postreading activities? Would it be best to conduct discussion-work sessions based on the book once or multiple times during the semester?

In the section that follows, I share my thoughts regarding connections between the content of the memoir Educated and key elements of each FLE Content Area.


Content:  An understanding of families and their relationships to other institutions, such as the educational, governmental, religious, health care, and occupational institutions in society.

  • Cultural Variations (family heritage, social class, geography, and religion)
  • Dating, Courtship, and Marital Choice, and Kinship
  • Changing Gender Roles (role expectations and behaviors of courtship partners, marital partners, parents and children, siblings, and extended kin)
  • Work/Leisure and Family Relationships
  • Societal Relations (reciprocal influence of the major social institutions and families, i.e., governmental, religious, educational, health care, and economic)



Content: An understanding of family strengths and weaknesses and how family members relate to each other.  

  • Internal Social Processes (including cooperation and conflict, as well as distribution of power)
  • Communication (patterns and problems in husband–wife relationships, parent–child relationships, and sibling relationships, including stress and conflict management)
  • Conflict Management
  • Decision-Making and Goal-Setting
  • Family Stress and Crises (injury, death, economic uncertainty and hardship, and violence)
  • Special Needs in Families (chronic mental or physical illness and/or disabilities) 



Content: An understanding of the developmental changes (both typical and atypical) of individuals in families across the lifespan, based on knowledge of physical, emotional, cognitive, social, moral, and personality aspects.

  • Reciprocal Influences: Individual Development on Families and Family Development on Individuals
  • Impact of Individual Health and Wellness on Families
  • Appropriate Practices Based on Theories of Human Growth and Development to Individuals and Families
  • Socio-Ecological Influences on Human Development Across the Lifespan (e.g., sexual/gender identity, trauma, etc.)



Content: An understanding of the physiological, psychological, and social aspects of sexual development across the lifespan, so as to achieve healthy sexual adjustment.

  • Psychosocial Aspects of Human Sexuality
    • Characteristics of healthy and unhealthy sexual relationships
    • Interpersonal dynamics of sexual intimacy
    • Risk factors



Content: An understanding of the development and maintenance of interpersonal relationships.

  • Impact of Personality and Communication Styles
  • Theoretical Perspectives on Interpersonal Relationships
  • Effective and Ineffective Communication, Problem Solving, and Anger and Conflict Management Strategies
  • Impact of Violence and Coercion in Interpersonal Relationships
  • Influence of Unhealthy Coping on Interpersonal Relationships



Content: An understanding of the decisions individuals and families make about developing and allocating resources including time, money, material assets, energy, friends, neighbors, and space to meet their goals.  

  • Multiplicity of Resources Families Need, Acquire, and Manage (e.g., personal, familial, professional, community, environmental)
  • Reciprocal Relationship Between Individual/Family/Community Choices and Resources
  • Effective and Ineffective Decision-Making Processes (e.g., assessment of individual and family needs, identification and evaluation of options and resources, implementation of decision, evaluation of outcomes)
  • Impact of Values and Goals in the Decision-Making Process



Content: An understanding of how parents teach, guide, and influence children and adolescents as well as the changing nature, dynamics, and needs of the parent–child relationship across the lifespan.

  • Healthy and Unhealthy Parenting from Systems and Lifespan Perspectives
  • Strategies Based on the Child’s Age/Stage of Development to Promote Effective Developmental Outcomes
  • Parenting Styles and Their Associated Psychological, Social, and Behavioral Outcomes
  • Effectiveness and Appropriateness of Various Parenting Strategies
  • Various Parenting Roles (e.g., father/mother, grandparents, and other caregivers) and their impact on and contribution to individuals and families
  • Impact of Societal Trends on Parenting (e.g., technology, fear of government intrusion)
  • Influence of Cultural Differences and Diversity
  • Strategies to Support Children in Various Settings (e.g., schools, legal system, and health care)



Content: An understanding of legal issues, policies, and laws influencing the well-being of families.

  • Family and the Law (relating to marriage, family support, child protection and rights, and domestic abuse)
  • Family and Social Services, Education, the Economy, and Religion
  • Policy and the Family (public policy as it affects the family, including tax, civil rights, social security, economic support laws, and regulations)



Content: An understanding of the character and quality of human social conduct, and the ability to critically examine ethical questions and issues as they relate to professional practice.

  • Formation of Social Attitudes and Values
  • Recognizing and Respecting the Diversity of Values and the Complexity of Value Choice in a Pluralistic Society
  • Examining Value Systems and Ideologies Systematically and Objectively
  • Social Consequences of Value Choices
  • Recognizing the Ethical Implications of Social, Educational, and Technological Changes



Content: An understanding of the general philosophy and broad principles of FLE in conjunction with the ability to plan, implement, and evaluate such educational programs.

  • Varied Strategies to Identify and Meet the Needs of Different Audiences
  • Create Learning Environments That Are Respectful of Individual Vulnerabilities, Needs, and Learning Styles
  • Sensitivity to Diversity and Community Needs, Concerns, and Interest
  • Building a Philosophy Regarding What “Education” and “Being Educated” Means [my addition]
  • Building a Philosophy Regarding How “Learning” Can Be Manifested [my addition]

Although a college Family Science instructor would be quite capable of formulating the questions for students to answer individually or in small groups after they have completed reading Educated, here is a link to the set of questions Illinois Wesleyan University posed: While they do not specifically address FLE Content Areas, they can serve as inspiration.