Introducing the Class Novel

One of the great joys of being an English teacher is the freedom, to an extent, to take any book you’ve read into the classroom and teach your lessons around it. I could read a short story on the Sunday night, have an idea, and construct a lesson around it first thing on Monday. I very often tear a page out of the Sunday paper and ask my classes to analyse the language. Other teachers may look on enviously but seeing the learning potential in everything I read does bring its own problems. So, how do you approach an introduction to the novel in class?

Ask anyone in the English Department and they’ll agree that teaching your favorite books in class is never a good idea, despite the temptation. It is almost guaranteed that your students will not like it as much as you do and, more often than not, you’ll resent each other because of that. So, first piece of advice would be to keep that book to yourself. I’ve never taught The Great Gatsby because I’ve been aware of disasters occurring in other classrooms. Choose a book which will allow you to tackle the language areas they need and will, hopefully, resonate with their lives in some way. Now, that doesn’t need to be modern or contemporary – teenagers in Scotland do get Shakespeare and enjoy the plays when they are taught well – but think carefully about what you want them to take away from the book.

Crucially, you should read the book again in its entirety. It will be fresher in your mind and you will without doubt find some new gem of wisdom in there, even if you have read it every year since forever. I teach The Catcher in the Rye almost every year and read it every summer. The book may not change but I certainly do. And I find a new angle almost every time. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that you know what’s coming. You will almost certainly miss something.

Your book has been chosen. You have reread it. You’re ready to go. How do you approach the first lesson? Think carefully about what you want them to learn from the book. At the end of the process what will be the knowledge and skills they have acquired? Returning to The Catcher in the Rye, as well as studying the novel’s symbolism and narrative stance, I want my students to think about the origin of the teenager from the time of the novel up to the present day. We may read about James Dean and Elvis, about teenage rebellion and its post World War Two roots. We end up discussing the difficulties of the teenager in the modern day. So submerge yourself in sources. Newspaper articles, film clips, anything you can get your hands on.

The danger now is to charge meaningfully into chapter one; but readers don’t always work like that, do we? We can judge a book by its cover. So start by asking students to predict what the book may be about from the front cover, or even the covers from a series different editions. As a class, write twenty questions about the first chapter which we need to answer as we read. A new class novel can be an intimidating thing for some kids but embrace the confusion, use that to your advantage. We need teach kids to be persistent with challenging reading and predicting is one of the main skills good readers possess.

Now you’re ready to read. Reading out loud is one of the greatest pleasures of my job. I very rarely ask students to read out as they don’t always get the emphasis right and I want them to appreciate every word. However, depending on the ability of the class, I start to pull back after the first half of the book and ask them to read sections at home. They can’t always do that from the start so my job is to show them what to look for and allow them to find their way to the end.

I love it when I overhear students talking about the novels we read in class. Taking that little bit of time before you start, should help them get there.

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