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A Novel Way to Teach the Novel

Updated: Jun 5

Teaching the novel will always be one of the biggest challenges any secondary ELA teacher faces. Think about what we’re asking them: read Emma by Jane Austen instead of going on Instagram, read To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf instead binging on Netflix.

Every English teacher works tirelessly to instill a love of reading in their students. We convince them that literature matters. That fiction has an important place in our society. That imagination is the root of all things. Our drive to understand human nature will hopefully inspire our students to be better at conversation and be better at understanding. To be listeners as well as talkers. Sometimes our classroom routines have nothing to do with any of this, but we have to keep trying out whatever works best over and over and over again, because it matters.

Here’s my approach:

1. Independent reading

My students read and take notes on an entire novel independently. I start the year with a unit on poetry or short fiction to give students at least four to six weeks to read one novel. We then study the novel for four weeks in class. That gives my students at least four weeks to read the next novel at home. I know what you’re thinking. They study one novel in class and read another at home? Yes, because this allows them to read at their own pace. If they have a soccer tournament or family trip one weekend, they can plan to read at some other time. They can decide if they want to read in one long sitting on the weekend or break up the reading every night. Occasionally, I will check in to answer questions about the plot. At the end of every year, I allow my students to provide me with written feedback about my course and they always tell me how much they love reading at their own pace.

I ask students to take notes on every book they read. My notetaking activity allows me to avoid quizzes and reading checks. Students must learn the valuable skill of notetaking and learn to find meaning on their own. I define “notes” as a combination of short quotes, interpretation, and summary. My students take a note every four or five pages of text and submit at least one page of single-spaced notes for every one-hundred pages of text. They must write the page number that corresponds to the note. Students can take notes while they read, after a chapter, or after finishing the novel.

2. Introduction to the novel

After distributing the book in class, I talk about the historical context of the book, the narrative mode of the book, and the writer’s style. For instance, when I introduce Emma, I tell them that Jane Austen revolutionized the institution of marriage and talk about Clueless or the ABC series The Bachelor. They will know that Austen uses limited omniscient narration and what that means. If it’s my favorite book (To the Lighthouse), I’ll tell them. If I think it’s the most important book ever written (Night), I’ll tell them. If it’s written in the stream of consciousness, like The Unvanquished by William Faulkner, I’ll tell them to embrace their confusion, because it’s like pressing record in your brain. If there’s something particularly challenging about the text, like the number of minor characters, or the relations between the characters, I’ll provide them with a character tree or list of characters.

3. Topic-based activities

Because my students read the text before we study it, we can track one topic from the first page to the last page. For instance, when I cover the topic of crime in Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, we can look at the first scene where Magwitch threatens to eat young Pip’s cheeks, liver, and heart, and one of the last scenes, where Pip watches a judge sentence Magwitch to death alongside thirty-two other criminals. We can have a rich, lengthy conversation about the Magwitch on the first page because we can talk about the other Magwitch that Pip gets to know. We can also talk about Pip’s innocence on the first page and the scene where he gets arrested for debt at the end of the story. We track the development of an idea, and at the same time, the development of a character.

I can cover one topic in one day or in two weeks. At the beginning of the discussion, I can ask questions related to the topic or talk about incarceration rates, justice, law, or even Dickens’s experiences visiting his father in Marshalsea Prison. I typically have fifteen to twenty passages related to each topic, so I have the option of at least ten possible activities like a class discussion, group work, stations, a student created PowerPoint or Google doc, posters, a handout, a close reading, a one-pager, lecture, or seminar. At the end, I can have each student write an argument or paragraph that answers a question related to the topic like, How does Pip develop a sense of what it means to be a criminal? I try to arrange the order of topics so that we move from speaking about external or cultural influences on the characters to more internal, or psychological factors that account for who they become. I try to end each unit on a positive topic like imagination or love. My final essay question gives the students the option to use the topics we covered in class, or their own ideas.

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