I hear so many teachers asking for help with teaching novels. I am starting [fill-in-the-blank with any title] next week and need ideas for how to make it engaging to my students! My student isn’t allowed to read [fill-in-the-blank] and I need an alternate text for her to read–and how do I even manage that?! Part of this struggle comes from that tendency to teach the way we were always taught. Everyone in the class gets a copy of the same book. Everyone reads (or is supposed to read) the same chapters and take the same notes. You lead a discussion to make sure students notice all the deeper meaning and beautiful language in the text. Is that how it works in your classroom? It doesn’t have to be.
There is incredible freedom in not being tied to a particular text. A few years ago, I was beginning a unit centered around America’s foundational documents, when the news feed suddenly lit up with this NFL player protesting during the National Anthem. Well, that inspired a shift in my plans. Instead of reading Johnny Tremain or My Brother Sam is Dead or some other historical fiction, I pulled a set of Avi’s Nothing But the Truth from our book room. Since my lessons were based in the standards, I only had to make minimal adjustments to use a text that gave students a framework for analyzing and discussing current events. Even though I was still “teaching” novels, that ability to pivot inspired a mindset shift. It was the beginning of my move away from teaching texts and toward teaching the standards while allowing students to choose their own novels.
Ultimately, we can teach the English standards with almost any text. The literature we choose to read with our students is based on many factors: personal preference, district mandates, the canon, current trends. We could just as easily teach the same skills with any number of different texts. When we accept that and become willing to mix it up a little, the fun begins.
We could just as easily teach the same skills with any number of different texts.
Here are four good reasons teachers use whole-class novels and my ideas for how we can achieve even more without teaching novels.
We want to expose students to great literature.
Very true. Building your curriculum around standards rather than teaching novels allows you to bring in samples from lots of favorite texts. Poems, short stories, speeches, essays and even excerpts from novels are perfect for spotlighting a skill. By teaching with these shorter texts, we can expose students to so much MORE great literature.
Here are some of my favorite sources for short texts.
- Poets.org – Great for just browsing, but also check out the Find Poems tab where you can search by occasion, theme, or poem form.
- AmericanRhetoric.com – Famous speeches in mp3 and PDF format.
- This I Believe – Essays collected by NPR, some by celebrities, most by ordinary people. Also available in book format from amazon.com.
- For relevant short stories beyond the classics, I turn to a set of anthologies by Donald Gallo. They include short stories specifically for and about teens by well-known young adult authors.
If you absolutely love a particular book and want to share it with your students, you can. Find the perfect sample of figurative language or characterization or whatever you need to teach and make it a mini-lesson. Then share with the students about the book and why you love it; maybe do a read-aloud of a few pages; and at least some of them will surely choose to read it.
BTW–I fully believe students should read novels. Independently or in book clubs or 1:1 with you if that’s what it takes. But our literature classes shouldn’t be structured around “teaching” novels.
We need to build students’ stamina for reading.
Ugh! Spending six weeks or more on a book, taking notes on every page, is not stamina–it’s torture. Seriously, in real life nobody reads like that!
I can still remember highlighting every example of symbolism in Lord of the Flies, and I hated that book as a student. As an adult now I love it, but 1) I wasn’t ready for that darkness at 13 years of age, and 2) if I had loved it then, I would have finished it in one night and still been sick of it by the time the teacher analyzed and discussed every. single. paragraph.
Helping students choose the right text for them–something they want to read–will do a lot more for their reading stamina.
Students benefit from discussing a shared reading experience.
A good discussion where everyone is engaged and contributing and excited about what they’ve read does warm my teacher heart. Guess what? You can achieve this by reading poems, short stories, or articles together with your class.
You can share even more amazing and transformative discussions when students have read different texts, though. Imagine a small-group discussion of how setting shapes characters or plot (RL.3) when one student is reading The Maze Runner, one is reading Long Way Down, one is reading The Hobbit, and another just finished Monster. Suddenly, instead of a one-dimensional question with basically one right answer, you have a rich discussion with multiple viewpoints and examples. Everyone has something to contribute because each brings something new and different to the table.
Of course, that leads to the final reason teachers prefer teaching novels.
Whole-class novels are easier to manage.
Really? This is not what we should be basing our instructional choices on. If giving up that control of everyone-reading-the-same-thing-at-the-same-time is difficult, though, you can make the shift with some baby steps.
Little ways you can shift from teaching novels to teaching standards
1 – Start by gathering some short texts that can supplement your novel units by focusing on a specific standard. Build a file for each standard (here’s how I did that) that you can refer back to later.
2 – Let go of some of that analysis in the novel unit. What’s worth teaching? Zero in on one or two standards you need to teach and choose several segments of the book for close reading that support those standards. Look for segments of text that fully illustrate the concept you are teaching. Then let students enjoy just reading the story for the remaining portions.
3 – Plan a 2-3 week period in which students will choose and read different books. You can try small group thematic “book clubs” with four, five, or six different novels students can select from. Or you could do a genre study in which each student selects a different book. but everyone is reading historical fiction, for example. Include planned discussion time for students to talk together with a set purpose (focused around the standard you’re teaching!) in small groups or in conference with you.
I use a set of genre-based reading journals to keep everyone accountable when students are reading independently. Students like them because each daily assignment is focused and not too long. I love them because the questions often lead to rich discussion after students have read and reflected. You can preview the whole set or download the nonfiction reading journal to use in your class now.