Independent Reading Myth #5–I have to cover all this literature {Teach}

Myth #5–I don’t have the time.  We have all this literature we have to “cover.”

I have too much to cover.   This perception of English Language Arts in the high school classroom makes me shudder– only because I can hear my own voice echoing its sentiment.  In the course of the year I need to get my students through the Federalist Papers, The Scarlet Letter, The Crucible, Huckleberry Finn, Great Gatsby, AND a full research paper!

I feel your pain!  There is little we can do to remedy the sheer amount of literature we are expected to teach in the upper-level courses (except maybe volunteer for the curriculum writing committee).  But, I am a firm believer of teaching narrow and teaching deep.  

There are creative and intuitive ways around and through the length and density of some literature, allowing time for students to truly develop as life-long readers.  I have sacrified Hawthorne to make room for Conrad, Collins, and Draper.  And I have even found ways to bring them all together.  Balancing the canon and young adult literature can be done, it is a lot of fun, and your students will be the better for it!

There are a few practices I’ve adopted and adapted over the years that have helped me achieve an acceptable balance;  two such practices saved me from a most regrettable pattern:  killing the story.  

To begin with, we (the literature lover in all of us) need to let go of teaching everything in a novel.  I, personally, loved my literature classes where we came in and the professor engaged us in a discussion about the week’s reading, uncovering all of the hidden elements, characterization, theme, and symbols.  It goes back to the question, “Why do we teach literature?”  When was the last time you asked yourself why you use a particular title in your class and whether or not that time could be spent on building a community of readers?  In my English heart, I teach literature for the enduring story.  

It was a tough decision at first, determining which element to focus on.  I tried to choose no more than three elements that we could really dig into over the course of the novel study.  By narrowing my focus and teaching in depth, my students were able to focus on the enjoyment of the story.  All craftmanship and literary expertise aside, it’s the story that makes great literature great. During The Crucible we focused solely on character analysis, which of course ended up in a terrific examination of theme.  Students chose which character they would “dissect” early in the play.  There were no surprises or “gotchas.”  The expectations were clear and reading and writing support was in place so that students could read without fear of a looming test or on-demand essay. 

I learend to let go of my highlighter and annotations, and then I learned to shape my students’ reading experience as a filmmaker.  Think of a cinematographer in a film.  He must decide, with the director’s input, where to zoom-in tightly to focus on a detail in the scene or actor’s reaction and when to zoom-out to provide the audience with a broader understanding of the scene, context, or event unfolding.  This is how I approach my longer texts and novels.  With the author’s guidance, I consider the story line first.  One of my most regrettable teaching sins is having spent six weeks teaching my students To Kill a Mockingbird (this went on for longer than I care to share).  My chapter-by-chapter reading guides were excellent!  Vocabulary was carefully aligned with the current chapters, and all of my reading quizzes were exact.

I couldn’t understand why after such an extensive and intensive examination of my favorite text, they didn’t connect to it at all and breathed heavy sighs of relief as soon as the last sentence was read.  By teaching every literary element, analyzing characters to death, and continually asking them to ponder theme after theme, I had killed the story.  Ever heard of how in baking there’s such a thing as kneading the bread too much?  My student’s gluten strands had snapped back in chapter 13 and there inner readers were a goopy mess.  

I discovered, slowly, that my first responsibility was to the story.  Thinking in terms of film helped me to consider places in the novel where I could zoom-out to show a bigger picture or provide a context.  Zooming out might mean a shared reading where I read to the students as they followed, with no during-reading activities and very light after-reading.  It might look like assigning a particularly engaging section to students to read independently once I was certain I had supported everything they would need in class to understand and enjoy it at home.  I even employed film adaptation, graphic novel, and artwork to perserve the story but move our exploration along.  

I planned ahead of time where we would slow down, zoom-in, and take a closer look.  Oftentimes, these were key milestones in a character’s journey or plot.  If our literary focus was on tone, as it was in The Scarlet Letter, we would use multiple draft reading (Gallagher) to re-examine as discovery.  Zooming in provided the scaffolding for my students to become analytical readers while enjoying reading.  

When I began to carefully craft our exploration of a novel, I found that instructional time opened up for me.  I had time to book talk, read aloud, and even share excerpts from young adult literature that connected with the traditional literature we were studying.  

While reading The Great Gatsby we took some time to enjoy selections from Gordan Korman’s retelling, Jake, Reinvented.  As Hester suffered in silence at the hands of the hypocrisy of her town, we listened to the experiences of a high school rape victim, ostracized by her school in Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak.  Oh, the magic that happens for your students when they begin to experience and find the connections themselves!  Had I not learned to edit, zoom-out, fast-forward, and zoom-in, we never would have had the time for those moments.  

My usual response to the colleague who pleads with me, “how can I possibly add one more thing to my plate?”  is “how can you not?”  When the truth is that by adding independent reading to your daily routine not only builds fluency and reading habits, thereby allowing you to let go of practices that might not be as efficient,  but as a regular practice it further develops:

1) vocabulary

2)  critical reading/ thinking

3)  writing

4)  focus and attention

5)  stamina

6)  comprehension

7)  self-worth and efficacy as a reader

8)  sheert enjoyment of reading!

How can you not?  

3 comments to Independent Reading Myth #5–I have to cover all this literature {Teach}

  • Lisa

    What young adult literature books would you use to make connections with the Great Gatsby? I would love a list! Thanks!

    • Audrey

      Off the top of my head I’d recommend Gordan Korman’s Jake Reinvented. It’s actually a modern retelling of Gatsby set in a high school. For more Twenties era, Anna Godbersen’s Bright Young Things series is also terrific.

      You’ve inspired a new blog post! I’ll work on compiling a list in anticipation of the upcoming movie release and write a blog before school starts in August.
      Thanks for the comment!


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