Step Away From The Book Room
Okay, not exactly ditching the novel, rethinking it--YES, and ditching this:
"This book needs more D'Jango"
Kacie is my daughter and she is in 7th grade; or at least she was when I first drafted this post two years ago. At the time, she had gotten strep throat twice in the month of February and missed quite a bit of school. She informed me that she had to stay after school and read her book. The discussion that followed was a catalyst for the change in my thinking about "teaching novels". It's two years later, and I am still thinking about it. It was my Ah-Ha moment in a way.
We were talking about staying after school to read and I said, "Can't you read it at home to get caught up?" No, they aren't allowed to take the books home. Okay, no problem, I probably have the book. The next day I looked on the bookshelf in my classroom, and sure enough I have two copies of "Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry" and there were many more in the book room. So I brought the book home and we had a conversation about it over dinner that was somewhat disturbing.
Apparently she hates this book and it would "be better if it had more D'Jango"; a reference to a Quentin Tarantino movie that she likes. "It is so boring and they say the 'N word' a lot, but we're not supposed to say it when we read out loud in class, we just skip over it, even though lots of boys say it on the playground. One boy said it when he was reading and he got a referral and got suspended!"
I can only respond with "Wow!" Oh the Hypocrisy! I don't even know what to say about this. I have more questions than answers. I don't want to share my feelings and pollute how she thinks of her teacher, so I pause, and quietly reflect on it. This exchange really got me thinking about the role of the whole class novel. Suffice to say, I was thinking about other issues too, but in the interest of brevity, I am going to stay focused on the topic of novels here.
She didn't like the novel before this one either, it was "Things Not Seen" by Andrew Clements, and it was worse than "Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry." More than halfway through a school year, she has read two books in class-both of which she did not enjoy. When a teacher has their heart set on teaching a novel what happens when 28 of the 30 students in the class hate the novel? If I am reading a novel and I don't really get into it, I put it down and move on. What happens when you are forced to read through an entire novel you don't like? What I gather, based on my conversations with Kacie, who never has anything good to say about English class, is that kids start dreading your class; or worse, they hate reading. Not to mention the phrase teaching a novel just makes me cringe. Are you teaching a novel? Are you teaching standards, reading strategies, skills and themes that will help students to solve problems and deal with issues that they encounter in their own lives? The novel can be a vehicle for teaching these things, but the novel itself is not what you are teaching. So what happens when you choose to teach a novel that your class does not identify with?
I understand the desire to teach the subject of civil rights and social justice, as I am sure was the case with "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry." I feel like the point may have been lost due to the focus on, and the response to the "n word". The reaction could have led to a teachable moment, and maybe it did. Maybe Kacie's retelling of what happened in school was colored with a motivation to create a preemptive excuse for a poor grade that she anticipated. As a teacher that's also a mom, I often have a different perspective on these conversations, because I see both sides. I have not read the book, so it would be unfair for me to pass judgement about a book I haven't read, or a lesson that I did not observe.
It did raise some questions for me. What if you were to design your reading curriculum around the theme of social justice, rather than a single novel. What if you used shorter texts and a variety of them? What if students had choices in what texts they read related to this theme? My favorite unit that I teach is a social justice unit. We learn about Gandhi as the founding father of non-violent protests and then look at Gandhi's influence on Nelson Mandela in his struggle against apartheid. Then we move on to Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez's similar struggles during the civil rights movement here in the US. We read articles, primary sources, listen to speeches, look at images, watch documentaries and read short stories and poems that are all part of carefully planned out "text sets". It's all very powerful and the students are really engaged, based on my observations of their discussions and the level of effort that they put into their essays and assignments.
This book by Beverly Naidoo is a favorite of mine. It's a collection of short stories, but we read only one. If someone hates it, no big deal, we are done in a day or two. If someone loves it, the book is there for them to continue reading on their own.
I tried assigning students to certain novels that I had multiple copies of, so that we could occasionally have book club types of meetings to talk about our reading. I didn't have a class set of novels that I thought everyone would be engaged in, and I wanted to offer choices. The choices on the book list spanned different themes and social conflicts from different countries, time periods and perspectives. Students could choose which novel they wanted to read. I thought it was going to be great, but it was an epic fail. In most groups there was an issue with only one or two students reading what was assigned for the book group. In some groups, "The House of Dies Drear" for example, everyone hated the book and didn't want to read it. I was short on copies of books and pulled that from the book room to fill in the holes. No one wanted to be in that group. If you've ever been at a book club meeting in which the majority of the participants hadn't actually read the book, then you are familiar with what this can look like. I do really like to have a shared text that we can all discuss, but assigning these for independent reading didn't work out so well. While they had choices; it was still multiple choice and some may have wanted a "none of the above" option.
I had to ask myself, what is my goal here? I want my students to enjoy reading. More importantly, I want them to compare the themes in their books with the overarching theme we are learning about through the short texts we read in class. I want them to bring up their book when we are talking about text in class and make connections and comparisons. I can observe this in class, so there is no need for a diorama or a wanted poster or some other kind of book report type of project, when my goal is to have them be readers that talk about text. I thought I finally had it all figured out.
The next year I tried something different. I had a list of novels that connected in some way to our theme of social justice. Students could choose a novel from a long list that included titles from "Bamboo People" to "Boys Without Names". Students can also suggest novels that they want to read that would relate to this theme and I would add those to the list. We read short stories, like the one from the lesson I included above, and other types of short texts together in class and students had discussions about how the themes connected to the book they were reading. We were sharing shorter texts, and still sharing novels, just in a different way. This also helped to get students interested in reading other books that had been discussed by their peers that they may not have picked up on their own. Still, everyone was not engaged. I discovered that the problem with this method was that the reading of novels was expected to happen outside of school, and if given the choice most of my students would not choose a book over their gaming system.
But wait, your site is all about teaching novels. What are you saying?
Yes, I "teach novels" still. I am still trying to figure this out and continue reflecting, rethinking and readjusting every year, hoping to finally get it right.
I did not want to be stuck using the same novel every year. Each class is different, new books are published, and using fresh texts that students are interested in is a priority for me. But again, I am limited by the book room.
Then I learned about Hyperdocs and my thinking evolved once again. What if we shared a novel as a read aloud and I created these digital, interactive lessons (Hyperdocs) around the text? Through paired texts and close readings of short passages from the novel, students could be engaged in a novel that was interesting to them, without having a class set, and they could be spending time on a variety of texts. This is where I am at now. It started with "The One and Only Ivan" and it was such a great success, with regard to student engagement, that I spent the following summer creating novel Hyperdocs, as well as a professional development workshop to get other teachers interested in creating them too.
When do you break up with a book?
A couple of years ago, I started reading "Fish in a Tree" with a small group of students. One day a student shared that she thought the writing was full of cliches and the topic of the book was one that a teacher would choose-not students. After more discussion I realized that the whole group felt that way and they were just going through the motions because they liked reading and meeting with me at lunch. Think about it, the struggling reader that finally has an amazing teacher that gets her, and it changes her life. The students that I was reading the book with were meeting with me during their lunch because they love reading that much. They weren't struggling readers and they just couldn't connect with the character. They were lovely kids, model students, but I could tell they were just playing along to please me. We stopped reading the book that day-and that's okay. Not every book is the right book. This wasn't the right book for these students, so we broke up with it. Student choice is important.
Having built a library of lessons for several novels, and not having made a financial investment in a class set of paperback books, I no longer feel the need to be married to a class novel. I work in a school with limited resources. The picture above is of my school's book room. The choices are very limiting; the books are very old and not in the best shape. I can't just get new class sets of novels every time we break up with a book. This limitation was a big part of my motivation for beginning the work that I do here on The Book Sommelier and in creating novel Hyperdocs. In order to be able to use new texts without a class set, I decided that when we do read a novel as a whole class, it would have to be a read aloud.
How can we teach the standards when we are just using read alouds?
Students need to hear good reading, and through a shared text they can have important conversations about themes, as well as connections to our world. Spending time on text to work towards meeting standards is equally important. Not only do students need to be spending time on text, but they also need to be spending time on various types of text. In previous years, I had taught reading strategies for types of texts in isolation; a novel, biographies with reports, a poetry unit, etc. What I love about the novel Hyperdoc units that I have been creating is this: no more teaching genres in isolation. I don't feel guilty for spending so much time reading a novel, because throughout the novel we analyze various types of texts that have been carefully selected to deepen the students understanding of characters, setting, conflict and theme. Read more about Paired Texts.
When you spend months planning a unit around a novel, it is hard to break up with said novel when you are halfway through it and you realize that your students are not engaged in it. What about all of the time that you invested in planning? You can't just switch to something else, and there is no time to plan something new. That is my hope for the work that I have been doing here. There are a handful of teachers that have also been creating novel Hyperdoc units and I have been watching for these lessons and adding them to an online bulletin board called a Padlet. Sean Fahey, Michele Waggoner, Karly Moura, and Kevin Feramisco have created Novel Hyperdocs for multiple texts and have been pioneers in the creation of digital lessons. If you are a Twitter using teacher, I highly recommend following them. More and more teachers are beginning to create Hyperdocs for novels and share them online.
THIS IS THE NEW BOOK ROOM:
I hope that this bulletin board of collective resources will continue to grow, making it easier for us all to take a risk and try out new book that doesn't live in that dusty old book room; or to have options when it's time to break up with a book.
I am not by any means dissing the "classics", even these books that may be harder for some students to identify with can be made more relevant through text pairings that connect the conflicts or themes to our modern culture. I'm not really familiar with "Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry", but I can guess based on what Kacie has said about it, that there could have been some connections made to what is happening in our world today with regard to police brutality and the #blacklivesmatter movement.
I have been working on a project for J.M. Barrie's "Peter Pan" that has some amazing text sets related to cultural appropriation and the conflict over how Tiger Lily is portrayed in the various renditions on stage and in film. I encourage you to rethink the class novel, and would welcome your thoughts. I am still conflicted over the right way to "teach novels" and am not sure that there is a single path to student engagement. It's been a topic of great interest to me for quite some time. I'd welcome your thoughts about what has worked for you and your readers. How can we engage all readers in a shared text when our students have such diverse needs and interests? How can we make the classics more relevant?
I can't read every new book that comes out, and I know you cant either, but together we can create a shared library that helps everyone out! I urge you to use the resources on the Padlet, but also to donate something too.
I am an English teacher, Curriculum Designer, and Instructional Coach that is passionate about literature.
In each post I will offer a review of a young adult novel and suggestions for text pairings. These posts will often include links to digital resources for teaching the content referenced in the post, as well as digital lessons (I use Google Docs) which you can download for free. Subscribe to my blog so that you can get an email notification when a new book is highlighted.