How NOT to Teach a Novel

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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’re 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 encourage teachers to read and reread novels 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 does not 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 background information 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.

(This is a repost from my Teaching that Sticks blog).

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2 responses to “How NOT to Teach a Novel

  1. Pingback: Failing to Teach the Hobbit

  2. Pingback: Failing to Teach The Hobbit « How to Teach a Novel

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