Thursday, September 11, 2014

How do you keep students engaged with a class novel?

I have a trick or two that seem to work every time I teach a class novel.

First, I need to explain that I am not a huge proponent of whole class novel reading. That is to say, that a teacher chosen, "classic" text, that the underfunded school library happens to have enough copies of, is usually not the right book for every student. I teach a de-tracked 9th grade class, which means one of my students is reading Dostoevsky by her own choice (in Russian no less), and others are challenged by anything written above a 4th grade lexile. I think there are plenty of things that make for great "whole class" readings, poems, plays, articles, editorials, short stories and blog posts are all great things to read, or close read, and discuss as a class. But novels? Novels take up a lot of class time, so they have to contribute a great deal of value for every student before I'm ready to use one book for everyone's learning experience.

(Pause while English teachers throw vegetables at me.)

That point being made (I hope), there are still novels that are worthy, in my opinion, of whole class study.  I previously taught American Lit for several years and the book I looked forward to reading with my students each spring was The Great Gatsby. Though not a fan of this text myself in high school, I took it on each year as a personal challenge, to show my students why it is still read and appreciated. The tricks I used though, to hook my students on this classic story can be applied to any novel. Let me break them down for you.

Before we read: Getting into the themes of Gatsby before I ever say the word Gatsby. We do an activity on paper. Students sit in groups of six and each starts with a single piece of paper with one question at the top. There are six different questions. I give them two minutes to answer their question and then we rotate the papers one person. They continue answering and rotating until everyone has had a chance to answer the question, and respond to previous answers. This happens in SILENCE. When everyone has their original paper back they can (and do) discuss the questions at length. I ask the person who started with each question to summarize the thinking of his or her classmates. Question five asks, "If your boyfriend or girlfriend cheats on you is it alright for you to cheat on them?" Every year about 80% of my students say NO! (That percentage is remarkably consistent.)
You can get a copy of this activity here for free. If you'd rather pay for it you can find it here too.

Chapter 1: Nick moves out to Long Island and we begin reading the novel. I use the Tim Robbins audio version to play the text for my students. He does a great dramatic reading. I also project five questions about chapter one and I make sure my students notice the answers in the text by pausing the recording. I encourage them to add the questions and answers into their notes. These are straight comprehension questions with very clear answers. There is no analysis or even pausing to appreciate language. We are mercenaries on a hunt for answers.  (Pause for more vegetables.)

Chapter 2: Nick and Tom go to New York, stopping first in the Valley of Ashes to pick up Myrtle. Before we read we take a quiz on chapter one, but this quiz is a gift, not a gotcha. The questions are the same ones I projected the day before and the answers are already in their notes. My students look at each other in disbelief. Everybody gets an A and they smile. Then I project the questions for chapter two and we keep reading. No one can resist an easy A, and even students who didn't jump into notetaking for chapter one begin to write things down for chapter 2. With the introduction of adultery, booze and a nasty moment of domestic violence, chapter two definitely gets their attention.

Chapter 3: Nick attends Gatsby's party. Again we begin with a quiz. Again it is a gift to anyone who was present for our reading of chapter two. The questions are the same and the answers are in their notes because I made sure they noticed the answers the day before. Tim Robbins is still reading to us and the questions are still projected, but I'm not making a big fuss about the answers. When I pause the audio now I use the time to make a point about the language or plot points they might have missed. But by now my students are trained. They know the pattern. Those projected questions will be on their quiz the next day and they know what to do. Except for one little detail. Chapter three is long. We just don't have time for all of it in class. They keep reading for homework. They aren't expecting the bonus question on the quiz that you can only answer if you read the chapter, rather than asking a friend for the answers to the given questions. And yet, over 75% of them get it right.

Chapter 4: Gatsby asks Nick to help him see Daisy. I do not project any questions. I tell students I didn't have time to type them up, or I forgot to make them, or that I want to see how they do on their own. Yet, as we read I pause and point out the things I know will be on their next quiz. I wink and nudge and make it very clear that there is a reason I am pointing out this place in the text. They take notes. They have just learned to take notes about the things the teacher points out in the text. I ask them if Nick should help Gatsby see Daisy? There is little debate. They are rooting for Gatsby.

Chapter 5: Daisy and Gatsby have tea with Nick. I continue my opening with a quiz routine and then we read, but I say, "This chapter gets a little private. I'd like you to read it on your own." Okay, I may have implied more racy details than the chapter really delivers, but my students read and the room is really quiet. We pause then for some writing. My students need to reconcile their determined support for Daisy and Gatsby with their previous statements before the novel that adultery is never acceptable, even if your husband is cheating too.

Chapter 6: Tom and Daisy attend Gatsby's party. I almost always assign this chapter as homework reading and then we hit on a few points in class. There isn't much happening here as far as the plot. I still quiz students on it, but I don't shed tears over the ones who didn't read it.

Chapter 7: The group heads to New York. This chapter requires visual aides. I find pictures of the yellow rolls royce and the blue coupe. I display them and we note who is in each car in the way into town. The climactic scene in the hotel room has most of my student hoping Gatsby and Tom will end up in a fist fight. As they leave we note again how the drivers of the cars seems to have changed. I'm focused on making sure they know who is where and when, but these characters are so vivid it's not hard to keep track of them. I forget all about making sure my students get the right information in their notes. We are all caught up in the story.

Chapter 8: You do know what happens in chapter 8 right? Students who read ahead the night before come stomping in to my room before class to yell at me because of the events of chapter 8. Often they are the students who told me earlier that they had never read a whole book before for school. I have to keep a straight face even though inside I am giddy with their passion for the characters.

Chapter 9: We know it's over, but we still linger to appreciate the way Nick wraps up the loose ends. My students write and talk about the emotional journey the novel took them on as readers. We dive back in to find favorite quotes and bonus appreciation goes to students who find quotes that seem more prophetic in hindsight. We write essays about who was most responsible for Gatsby's death. Every year a few choose to write about why the novel is terrible and should never be used in schools. Theirs are always the most detailed, analytical and interesting to read.

Whether they love it or hate it, all of my students have a response to The Great Gatsby. They all read it, or at least most of it. They all know about the characters, the plot, and the unreliable narrator. They talk to me about the book when they come back to visit after graduation. Once a former student even told me that his army drill Sargent used to grill his soldiers about The Great Gatsby during exercises. The Sargent thought it was a great book and expected all his recruits to have read it in high school. My former student said I had saved him a lot of extra push-ups because he knew the answers.

Still, as teachers, we know the questions matter more than the answers. I would like to thank my friend David Theriault for asking the question that prompted this post.

For more about how I have taught other longer texts see this post about how I used The Crucible.