Monday, August 17, 2015

What Does it Mean to "Teach" a Novel? (Part 2)

1991. It was the wild west, and I was a twenty-three-year-old gunslinger at Dudley High School in Greensboro, North Carolina. We had state ELA standards, but testing was low stakes, and my interest in aligning my lesson plans was even lower. When I "taught a novel," the novel was itself was the means and the end; I wanted students to love the chosen piece of literature and connect to allusions they would encounter in the future. That was about it.

Fifteen years later, I experienced a profound paradigm shift. No Child Left Behind created a need for curriculum coaches, and I began working at the district level to help teachers come to grips with state standards. I had joined the standards movement, and a novel simply became a means to an end. I advised teachers to think of a novel as a way to teach standards. (I'm sad just typing that sentence.)

I snapped to the middle pretty quickly when I went back to the classroom and remembered why I love teaching Things Fall Apart, why my students really get the angst of Okonkwo's son Nwoye and the fire of second wife Ekwefi. To me, to teach a novel is to ignite a love of language and build skills at the same time.

I asked some friends from to answer this same question, and I love their responses. In fact, I told all of them that I wish I had been their students. Here are a few ideas from them:

Room 213
When I "teach" a novel, I want the students to have the responsibility for analyzing the text.  I avoid chapter questions, because they just tell the kids what they should think. Instead, I expect students to take notes as they read (after they've been shown how) and then, after they have read a section of the book, they meet in groups to discuss their notes.  Each group needs to decide on the five most important events from the section as well as important quotes.  At the end of that class we have a full class discussion where students will defend their choices.  They will also chart character development - again, on their own and without chapter questions to guide them.  Almost always, the kids come up with the same things I would have asked them about, but this way, they've done the thinking themselves.  If they miss something, I will read a section to them and get them to figure out why I'm reading it, what I'm looking for.

We also read every novel with a guiding question in mind, something that will show them how the lessons in the text connect to their lives.  With To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, we try to answer these questions: "Where does intolerance come from?  What can we learn from TKAM about how to be more tolerant?"  In the end, they do a "Mockingbird" project where they have to reach out to a mockingbird in the community and find ways to teach others to be more tolerant of this mockingbird.

I want my students to take ownership for their reading and learning, so they will build their own understanding. 

Last school year I spent a lot of time developing whole-class reading discussion activities, and I have created strategies that were very successful.  My "novel study" gives students tools and guides them toward more meaningful discussion.  As they read, they use graphic organizers to take notes on their reading: summarizing, paying attention to author's craft and language, and providing text support. 

On discussion days, they follow procedures that take them step-by-step to whole-class discussion.  First, they start with a quick write and set a goal; then they progress to partner rehearsal.  When students have moved into their inner and outer circles, they start with a "whip around."  Students in the outside circle improve their listening skills by taking observation notes, and they can also move to the "hot seat" if they want to comment on discussion from the inner circle.  Finally, after discussion, students write a short reflection.  My Discussion Tools would be a helpful resource.

Spark Creativity
When I teach a novel, it is so different every time. In the same way different people will view an art exhibit, the path of the discussion for each group of students varies hugely. That's what keeps it interesting for me. I use the Harkness method of discussion, developed at Exeter. What it means for me is that I work hard from the start of the year to cultivate listening and risk-taking and responsibility for the discussion amongst my students. We sit in a circle and chew on the text, and I pay almost as much attention to trying to help guide the dynamics day by day (not interrupting, remembering to reference the text, not dominating, not freeloading, staying on topic, asking intriguing questions, etc.) as I do to helping guide the themes for discussion. This way, students learn how to access the deeper material from each other, and at the same time, learn how to have a respectful and balanced conversation, a skill I tell them will be equally important in every job, family reunion, dinner with friends, etc. as it is in my classroom.

I put up a video on YouTube a while back when I was presenting Harkness to some peers, and it gives a nice intro to the method for interested teachers. 

I have found that starting a discussion cold is not a good idea. Students just have too much going on in their lives to rush in from lunch or science class or a huge fight with their best friend and simply begin discussing the text. So we always do a short Discussion Warm-Up Activity to give the kids a chance to remember the reading before we begin discussing it. 

There are more teacher responses to come in Part 3 of this series!


  1. Thanks for sharing. So many wonderful ideas! I love the collaboration on TpT!

  2. Thanks, for sharing Angie! Looks like we're the same age and started the same year.

  3. Great ideas here. I looked for the Discussion Warm-Up Activity mentioned in Spark Creativity's comment, but the link took me to an unknown page. :(