One of my many regrets, as I look back on my former classroom teacher life, is that I never figured out how to teach a novel. I can distinctly remember wracking my brain and wringing my hands over the right novel to choose for my 8th graders–the one all of them would dearly love and without hesitation immerse themselves in for weeks. But then I would remember how diverse the interests were in my classes, how wide the gap was between my best readers and those who struggled, and, of course, coupled with the lack of class sets (or even literature circle sets) of books, my planning would end before it had even truly begun.
I remember bringing up this quandary with my instructional coach, a veteran middle school English teacher. She asked me a simple question: “What is your purpose for teaching a novel?” (I heard that purpose question quite a bit.) I managed to NOT say “because this is English class,” and instead mumbled something about plot and characters and theme…realizing as I said it that any old short story could do. So I didn’t teach novels (beyond read-alouds and student choice books), but always felt like I was depriving my students of something critical.
Having moved on from the classroom, I no longer have the option of erasing some of these old regrets by altering my practice with kids each year. This one in particular flared, like some old sports injury, when I read Jessica Lahey’s piece “Relearning the Lost Skill of Patience” in The Atlantic. In particular when she says, “Many teachers, in an effort to ease homework loads and make way for more time dedicated to problem- or project-based learning, have decided to opt for shorter works such as short stories and essays.” So was my reluctance just laziness? Utilizing novels effectively seemed like the hardest kind of teaching, because I didn’t want students languishing for weeks in a tome they were unwilling to read at home on their own (or had to endure class-length droning read-louds); I wanted full engagement with rich, literary experiences. Pity the high school junior who couldn’t care less for The Great Gatsby having to live in that fiction for a month or longer. Or even worse, the student who does care, but whose reading ability falls far short of most novels taught in high school—simply putting a novel in front of a tangled reader (well, any reader) is not reading instruction (a whole topic for another day). Is there a happy medium?
Carol Jago, author of Papers, Papers, Papers, and With Rigor for All, pushes us to think clearly about our purpose (that word again) for teaching through novels—to provide opportunities for students to slow down and learn how to think critically about “details, relationships, and structures that take time to perceive.” But also, in our planning, to strategically pair high-interest texts with these longer works, using (some) traditional novels as mentor texts around which other literary fiction and non-fiction pieces orbit as thematically connected satellites. Somewhere in this thinking is an Aristotelian mean of engaging students with “books that mirror their own experiences” AND texts that ask them for deeper levels of attention, patience, and academic perseverance (perhaps—if we’re aiming for the stars—both!) So thanks, Carol—that’s a much better answer to the “what’s your purpose” question!
As with anything, the text itself isn’t the endgame; it’s the experiential connective tissue through which kids explore themselves and worldly topics through the eyes of others. Novels work, but it’s tough to make them work in isolation, and tougher still if the reason we use them is because “it’s English class.”