SELECTING NOVELS TO TEACH: ARTICLE SERIES
Goals and Takeaways for the Series
I lived day-to-day during first year of teaching ELA in 7th and 8th grades. You know that feeling too. Some days I was unsure if I would make it to the next. A large reason why is because I planned day-to-day. It was awful, especially for a type-A person that thrives off structure, plans, and schedules. Without those in place instructionally, I grew exhausted. Lessons rarely connected. The work I cobbled together for students in the wee hours the night before rarely challenged them the next day, but of course I was challenged daily just to see through the next 24 hours of my teaching life, a narrow view indeed.
I made it through all the days, and joyfully committed to the next year (and the next and the next…). The turning point was being able to look beyond any single day. Specifically, I received a novel and unit resources to go with it in the back-half of my first year. Suddenly, I had a long-term plan. More importantly, it showed me how a book could be a vehicle for learning. It provided an example of how lessons can and should connect over time to deepen students’ learning. In preparing a sequence for longer lengths of time, it also freed up precious minutes for me to do all the other tasks that come with teaching. It changed my teaching life. The enriching and rewarding experience I shared with my students during the course of study confirmed I was in the right field. I just needed to look beyond a repetitive day-to-day cycle and think bigger. That was the beauty of the unit: I was inspired to think big.
From that unit on, I devoted myself to teaching novels. The textbook offered short stories, but novels offered so much more. At first, book selection was based on students’ interests and my best guess of what they would like. But these selections were not always the best texts for their learning needs. I knew I had to do a better job of selecting texts that balanced their interests with their educational needs. Over time, I also came to recognize and value that the novels also needed to acknowledge and elevate the diversity of life experience. Simple to write, difficult to do. The key then became to think even bigger.
“The novels were the vehicle, but the underlying themes and ideas were omnipresent mainstays.”
The only way to truly accomplish all I sought for my students was to start year-long planning. The transition from day-to-day planning took place over a year, but the transition to year-long planning took place over several years. Knowledge and experience contributed to making the shift possible. I collected a vast range of novels and created countless units. From that bank, I could then execute a thoughtfully designed year-long learning experience. Even then, I knew those experiences could never be the same. My curriculum changed each year. I would swap out books, add new titles, and always was open to changing a plan laid in July after meeting students and classes to best suit their needs. Still, the overarching goals for the year-long plan remained, and these were goals that we always met. The novels were the vehicle, but the underlying themes and ideas were omnipresent mainstays. The goal was to create a unique experience for the students that helped them see the bigger picture I was seeking to project.
My teaching experience transformed when I adopted a new perspective about planning. Now, I want to share the steps I took to design and develop a year-long curriculum for the middle grade ELA classroom. Over the course of these articles, I hope to help you develop plans that will be transformative for you and your students. I will provide a set of questions and factors to help guide your novel selections, a template to outline a year-long curriculum with novels, and a variety of sample novel groupings with explanations to use as a reference as you design your novel study curriculum. In addition to these concrete items, I also include additional readings that I hope will inspire, motivate, and help you reflect on this exciting but challenging process. It is the work of teaching, and there is power in it. When I stopped winging it, I could take flight with my students. We saw broader horizons, and I hope you join me on this journey now. It can take us wherever you choose.