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Teaching Novels for the Year

Factors to Consider When Creating a Year-Long Plan with Novels

After selecting a novel and answering the 5 questions posed in [this article] and 5 more questions in [this article], you’ve finally chosen a book to teach in class, right? Well, not so fast. Book selection is a meticulous process that deserves our utmost care and contemplation. There are several additional factors to consider when finalizing book choices for your students. After all, our goal is to develop an instructional plan for the entire year.

Factor 1: Thematic Arc

The first factor to consider when selecting 6-7 books to teach over the course of the year is thematic arc. How do the novels connect with one another? What lesson, message, topic, or issue do they all address? By choosing novels that loosely connect, you will automatically create a learning experience for students that is in-depth, analytic in nature, and purposeful. Just by picking the right novels, students will have countless opportunities to make connections that span an entire year. They will be able to tie links from each book to that central thread. That is challenging and rewarding work, for both of you and them.

Now, what might a thematic arc look like or entail? Thematic arcs can take on all different forms and topics. Consider the topics, ideas, or concepts you want your students to loosely focus on and explore over the course of the year. The focus of these explorations become your desired thematic arc. Examples of thematic arcs include social justice, historical fiction, finding home, identity (self and society), coming of age, morality, and many, many more. One final note on thematic arcs – beware of burnout! It can be easy to list a ton but more is not always better. A deep dive can be more valuable for students as they thoroughly examine various facets of an arc rather than one specific part.

It is also important to remember some arcs are already baked into your year-long plan. Remember Question 1: Does this novel help create an inclusive and diverse curricular experience for students? The answer is yes, which means that diversity will be one thematic arc that naturally connects to all your chosen texts. The key – with any and all arcs – will be for you to highlight the thread(s) you’ve identified for students and guide them to make connections to it.

Factor 2: Text Complexity Continuum

Your novels’ text complexity should follow a continuum over the course of the year. If possible, novels should increase in complexity as the year progresses, giving students the opportunity to grow and improve their comprehension, analytic, and critical thinking abilities. Increased text complexity is complicated by Factor 1 – Thematic Arc. You may find that in order to honor your chosen thematic arc, more complex books may need to be taught before others. That is ok! In this case, consider how paired texts can be used. A selected novel could be perfect for a read aloud where you later have a deeper hand in guiding students to apply their understanding of literary skills to it. Meanwhile, the chosen paired texts could be at a complexity level that allows students to work more independently. There are many possibilities. This makes matching a make complex, but it also can be liberating. You can get creative to forge a path on the continuum that allows students to engage at the right levels of challenge at the right moment. Then, the books will become vehicles for pushing your students to succeed at engaging ever-increasing complex texts.

Factor 3: Checking Boxes & Utilizing Paired Texts

Every classroom context is different, especially if school, district, and state mandates limit or dictate the instructional materials teachers can utilize. I have been on the receiving end of such mandates, even getting in trouble for teaching To Kill a Mockingbird one year. Why? It was not about language and content. Rather, since it was a novel; it was not a textbook. It wasn’t the words on the page that were the issue; it was the fact I wasn’t on the right page of a different, mandated text. The fact the designated textbook was designed and written at a reading level two grades below my students did not matter. I did not give in to my administrator’s demands (sorry I’m not sorry) because I wouldn’t have been doing right by my students. The whole incident only strengthened my resolve to use novels. In fact, it made me want to use more novels. I quickly found text pairing was an effective tool for students and an easily defendable alternative to the asinine policies of district mandates because kids would always be “synthesizing.”

The question became how and where in the curriculum to add these texts. The answer was straightforward: have students read two at once. In this case, more is better. The key is compatibility. The two texts should speak to each other about the thematic ideas you are exploring. You have to be deliberately in making the match in order for the connections between the pair to be possible. Having students synthesize across them is not just good teacher speak toward administrators. It is powerful learning, and it is a hallmark of a thorough, in-depth educational experience for your young people.

Factor 4: Book & Unit Length

A final, important consideration when selecting novels is text length. Remember that you are looking across the year, and you have lots of big ideas you want students to explore and amazing texts you want them to read. Ideally, novel units take between 5-6 weeks to complete. If you cut a unit short, you run the risk of not giving the students the opportunity to explore the book in the depth it deserves. If you run a unit long, you will not be able to give another book the treatment it deserves. Students also may struggle to stay invested and engaged in the work. Therefore, in selecting then planning your year, you want to be mindful of when you can accomplish what with your novels. For instance, long novel might require work to be completed outside of the classroom in order to stay within the 6-week unit length. This means its complexity should be at a level that would allow for independent work, like I mentioned in Factor 2.

And that is the point of these Four Factors. Like the year-long experience you are designing for your students, everything connects. Each factor influences the others, but you can give different ones different weights. This is the beauty of the challenge. Ultimately, it’s always up to you to decide how you want to shape your students’ learning experience. As you’ve heard me say before, you know better than anyone what they need and what will captivate them.

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