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Saturday, April 11, 2009

How NOT to Teach a Novel

Some teachers, with all the best intentions, treat novels like pinatas, beating them with sticks until every last piece of sweet candy falls out. Those of you who caught my How to Teach a Novel session at the New England League of Middle Schools (NELMS) Conference know I use that metaphor frequently. For good reason, trust me.

As Kelly Gallagher points out in his recent book Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Readig and What You Can Do About It, teachers underteach books; that is, they assign chapters in extremely difficult books for independent reading, and students either choose not to read the selection, or they read it with little understanding. On the other end of the spectrum, however, are those teachers who overteach novels; they are not satisfied until the pages have been wrung out like dish rags, emptied of every teachable vocabulary word, allusion, metaphor, and simile.

In my How to Teach a Novel sessions I certainly point out that every novel should be read and reread with pencil in hand, in order to decide, "What's worth our attention?" or, more practically, "What's worth teaching?" (see How to Teach a Novel for a synopsis of this topic). That doesn't mean, however, that the teacher needs to teach it all!

Imagine that you're listening to the Motown classic My Girl on the radio. How frustrating would it be if every twenty seconds the DJ interrupted the song to examine its language, or to "enlighten you" with some historical background which places the song or group into a historical context?

I've got sunshine, on a cloudy day

(Does the singer literally have sunshine? Is this an oxymoron alone, or is it meant to, in some way, be metaphorical?)

When it's cold outside, I've got the month of May

(Who knows the origin of the name Motown? Right, it's related to the fact that Gordon Berry established his record label in Detroit, which is also known as the Motor City. But who can tell me the nickname Berry gave to Motown Records itself? Why don't we continue to pause the song while our listeners look that up?)

I guess you'd say, "What can make me feel this way?"

(Note the use of sentence variety here, and the way in which the singer directly addresses his audience. Is he expecting an answer? What do we call a question in which the speaker does not expect to receive an answer?)

I think you get the idea. When it comes to teaching novels, I wish everyone did.


Anonymous said...

I agree that this is a good read. At the same time, it's hard to achieve a balance when you are constrained by some many factors (scheduling, testing, colleagues, syllabus, parents!)

Del in RI

Kristen said...

Thanks so much for this reminder. Teaching novels -- picking and choosing our battles. The way I try to teach significant works is from the top down. Without reviewing any of my own personal notes on a book, I ask myself -- What major feelings did this piece evoke -- in me and in society? What praise or change was the author trying to create with these feelings? (And finally) What techniques did the author use to get his/her message across?

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