5 Questions to Guide Your Classroom Novel Selections
The following questions can serve as a guide when selecting novels to read in the classroom. The explanations focus on a middle grade context but the principles easily apply to upper elementary or high school as well.
- Does this novel help create an inclusive and diverse curricular experience for students?
Do you teach To Kill a Mockingbird, The Giver, Of Mice and Men, Hatchet, Holes? These books are classic middle grades novels. Many students are indeed a fan of these novels and teaching them can be fun. Yet, if a year-long curriculum includes them all (or others like them), a students’ exposure to diverse perspectives comes up woefully short. When choosing a book to teach, create a list and note the main perspectives narrated through it. Take for example Of Mice and Men: the voice of two white males predominant. Your list is a simple step to reflect on whether the texts you are putting in students’ hands truly promote diversity and inclusivity.
- Does this novel highlight a perspective that has not been explored by students?
To piggyback on the question above, select books that capture a range of perspectives, including gender, race, age, socioeconomic status, nationality, ethnicity, religion, and more. Comprehensively review your list. What voices are heard most often? Are they representative of our society as a whole? Students are diverse and exposure to different perspectives is a critical way to help them expand their worldview and develop empathy. So, create a list of the books you want to teach over the course of the year and describe the main characters and the perspectives they capture. If you find that many of the novels are similar, it is time to mix it up and find new voices.
- What are the opportunities to connect and apply this new perspective to the real-world?
Ever get the question: Why does this matter to me, right now? Young people crave a relatable, real-world connection when reading books. The best books not only have this real-world connection but also present an opportunity for students to apply this connection to their world. They move the students from seeing themselves as passive readers to active creators. For instance, select a novel with a questionable crime and engage students in a mock trial. If you teach The One and Only Ivan, involve students in a project to advocate for or raise funds for the local animal shelter. Selecting novels with diverse perspectives is a start, but you also want your choices to give students someplace to go. Make selections that offer opportunities for students to connect and apply their themes to the world around them.
- What are the opportunities to connect the novel to another subject or discipline? Are there cross-curricular possibilities?
There are two main reasons to select novels that include cross-curricular connections to History, Science, Math, Art, Music or another education discipline. First, it is a great way to collaborate with another teacher. When students see teachers working together on a curricular experience, it generates investment. Plus, you model collaboration for them through that healthy, working relationship. Second, a novel with multiple disciplines helps facilitate an experience filled with the real-world connections and applications mentioned above. For example, instead of only doing a mock trial, the History teacher could build students’ background knowledge on the history of criminal justice system. Also, a bonus of teaching a cross-curricular novel is for the educators that are multi-disciplinary. If you are responsible for teaching ELA and History, a thoughtfully chosen novel will allow you to synthesize across the subjects and deeply engage the students simply by guiding them to make connections between each.
- Is the text rich in a way that allows for deep analysis or multiple interpretations?
Finally, literary components that make up the novel matter. Select books rich with opportunities for students to discuss, debate, and generate multiple interpretations. As they do, they will grow their love for literature. Those discussions are what make literature, literature: everyone’s unique interpretations. In short, choose novels with appropriate text complexity that help students approach issues from various stances. As they listen to their peers’ thoughts, such texts will broaden their perspective and help develop empathy.