Early in my career, I remember rolling through a novel chapter by chapter with PowerPoint slides and handouts. It always drove me crazy that I couldn’t talk about the end of the book or, for the sake of context, the events that occur immediately after a passage. Discussions relied heavily on plot and the unfolding of events, instead of the development of ideas and characters. I also stressed about how often to assign and grade reading checks which I knew had little to no educational value.
So, one year, I decided to teach topic by topic instead of chapter by chapter. My students now read the novel in its entirety, at their own pace, so every day we can track one topic, motif, or symbol from the beginning of the novel to the end. This approach allows students to answer one question at a time by examining any passage in the book.
When I introduce a topic, I mention relevant events in the news that might get my students interested. The structure of a unit functions as a kind of model for the organization of an essay: before they write, they are prepared to weave the web of their ideas in words. The guided notes they complete in class help them write the essay, so they have around fifty quotes to use as evidence.
It takes anywhere from one class period to a week to cover a single topic. Here are the topics I cover in four weeks in the novel To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf:
point of view/free indirect discourse
love and immersion
It’s fun to think about how to order the topics. I often try to start with foundational topics that lay the groundwork for the essential questions of the unit. These topics often explore the external world of the protagonist. I then cover topics concerning their internal motivations and processes and I end with positive and uplifting topics that bring all the ideas of the novel together.
For instance, it’s important to start To the Lighthouse by talking about the narrative mode – free indirect discourse where the narrator jumps between the consciousness of multiple characters – because the point of the book is to figure out how to spiritually connect to the feelings and thoughts of another person using art and imagination. Then, we’ll talk about the philosophical questions the book raises. We end with the symbolism of Lily’s painting because it brings all the ideas of the novel together and leaves the hope that art could solve the problems of the First World War and answer questions relating to time, space, identity, and meaning.
Students take notes on the passages related to each topic individually, as a class, or in small groups that present their findings verbally or visually. I might choose a few passages for a close reading or ask students to create a one-pager or a group poster like a mind map or sketchnotes using quotes and interpretation. Students could also create posters out of their assigned quotations using Canva or a Google Drawing. When I unit plan, I try to differentiate and switch up activities but I always prioritize reading the passages out loud because it’s important to pay homage to the emotions behind the words.
For Beloved by Toni Morrison, I assign groups a single topic. They are responsible for presenting their interpretation of five or seven of the most important passages from a list of around ten to twenty. I also ask groups to find a source (article, essay, historical event, video, song, poem, etc.) that relates to their topic. Just like in an essay, they have to introduce their topic, answer a question, and then draw a conclusion. This approach allows coverage of more topics in the same amount of time. Here are the topics:
ghosts and the dead
The point of Beloved is to experience the extreme mental effort it takes to uncover the truth behind history or a headline. For that reason, Beloved has a complicated timeline of events and it’s more appropriate to make sense of it after reading the entire novel. Before my students start to read Beloved (or any novel that might be difficult to follow), I give them an outline of each section so they don’t feel lost and confused and then give up. During the five or six weeks they get to read independently, I will check in from time to time to answer their questions before I collect their notes.
Beloved explores similar topics that appear in To the Lighthouse: place, intimacy, time, consciousness, identity, grief, love. In some ways, Morrison’s novel builds on the ideas in Woolf’s. Covering topics allows for a kind of beautiful entanglement: when one thing happens in a story, it becomes entwined with something somewhere else.
You can learn more about my whole-novel approach and see my handouts and class activities in my online course.
English language arts teacher
Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers