The Novel Unit: Part 1

I have a colleague who consistently asks me questions that I can never answer on the spot. The answers come to me hours later, sometimes in the middle of the night. Today, he asked me how I would teach a novel. We only had two minutes to talk, and he knows me well enough by now that he didn’t expect me to answer right way, probably assuming that he would be subjected to one of my long rambling emails that may or may not go directly into his clutter box.  However, this is the first time I’ve fully developed my thinking about teaching a class novel, so I’ve turned my response into a multi-part blog post, which may or may not ramble.

There isn’t an easy formula for teaching a novel unit. In fact, the very teaching of the “novel unit” can cause some controversy in some English teacher circles with some being adamantly for it and others against it. My position is that students need to read books that are challenging, books that are at the right level and books that are “vacation books.” The only way this can be done is by providing a variety of reading opportunities where students are provided different levels of guidance and choice. So students should read independently, in small groups, AND as a class. There is no “or.” I think they need them all, which means that I need to dramatically shift the way I approach reading in my classroom.

Before I can address how I would approach a class novel, I need first to explain what I wouldn’t do. I’d like to remind everyone here that this is my best thinking about this right now. I realize that many people may approach this very differently and my post is not meant as a criticism, it is merely a reflection of what I want my students to be able to do when they are reading. My priority when teaching reading is to help readers love books and access them with a deep understanding without needing direct guidance. In short, I want them to read,  decide what they think about what they read on their own,  talk to other people about what they read and then decide if those conversations have shifted their thinking. What I don’t want them thinking about is what I, as their teacher, want them to notice in a book. I don’t want them to believe that my interpretation is the only interpretation that is worth investigating.

When I’m deciding what I want my students to learn, I have to be able to decide how I will know if they have learned it. In the past, my students’ ability to understand and interpret a novel was usually assessed through a literary essay. This is not how I would do this anymore.  Before anyone sends me an angry email, I am not advocating for the removal of the literary essay from the English classroom.  Literary essays are complex in terms of both form and content, so I would need to teach this genre of the essay using mentor texts which would be challenging to do while I am also teaching them the art of analysis and interpretation.  Students must be used to thinking and talking about texts in complex ways before they can begin to write about them. The real goal of a literary essay is to see the students’ thinking about what they’ve read, but if we already know what the content of their essay is going to be or should be is there really any thinking for them to do or have we done it all for them?

Another reason I recommend separating the literary essay from the novel unit is that when we teach both at the same time, the thinking suffers and the writing suffers.   This is because we are so concerned with having students analyze a book in essay form that we decide to control everything about the evaluation. We control the topics. We control the structure. We control the writing process. Both analysis and writing are creative acts so when we remove the creativity what we are left with is boring formulaic papers. And this isn’t good for anyone- not the students who have to write them, nor the teachers who have to read them.

Rather than combine the literary essay with the novel unit, I would leave this type of essay to closer to the end of the course when students have read enough to pick a text that moves them to want to write and think deeply.  This, of course, means that students have to read — a lot.

The last time I taught ENG3U,  my students select their own texts and topics. Some wrote about Indian Horse by Richard Wagmese, some wrote about Secret Path by Gord Downy and Jeff Lemire, others wrote about poems that were weaved throughout the course. I’ve heard the argument that this isn’t “rigorous” enough. That all my students should be writing about a novel because it is more difficult. However, which is the more complex task? Having students write an essay about Great Expectations with the essay topics generated by the teacher, or asking students to generate their own topics based on their thinking about a particular text? It may be more difficult to write an essay about a book that is hundreds of pages, but I am more interested in increasing the complexity of the task by requiring students to notice and name the patterns and points of significance that they see in texts. I’m not interested in seeing my thinking regurgitated back to me.

As a result of allowing students to perform the analysis of their choice, I learned more about my students both in terms of their thinking and their writing. This had the added benefit of being a much more interesting task to evaluate. For example, I had a student write about the function of the songs in Secret Path and another wrote about the significance of the word “glory” in Indian Horse. Neither of these essays was based on topics I would have considered.

If you are interested in learning more about the thinking behind separating the teaching of analysis from the novel unit, I highly recommend Beyond Literary Analysis by Allison Marchetti and Rebecca O’Dell. It’s an amazingly helpful book with practical teaching points for different types of analysis papers. My copy is always lent out!

Now that I’ve explored what I wouldn’t do with my novel unit, my next post will focus on a specific text and genre in order to finally answer the question I was actually asked!

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