Confessions of an English teacher, too

I read an interesting  post today from blogger, Mrs. Laf at Teacher Stuff That Keeps Me Awake. Love the title of the blog – that’s exactly what it is like in my life!

Her post was “Confessions of an English Teacher”, a description of how she brought back the class novel. Here’s an excerpt:

Back in the day, I taught the whole-class novel.  We read A Wrinkle in Time in grade seven, The Giver in grade eight (or maybe The Outsiders), and The Pigman in grade nine.  My colleagues and I handed out the package of worksheets with chapter questions and vocabulary.  We diligently marched through the novels, often in lock-step harmony.  The students, equally diligently, looked up words in the dictionary and wrote sentences using those words; they completed figure of speech worksheets by copying quotations from the book.  At the end of the novel, they re-imagined the ending or wrote a sequel chapter.  Let’s be honest.  I was bored.  And if I was bored, I can only imagine how my students felt.  As I began reflecting on this process, I also noticed that no one was reading books outside of our novels studies.  If I wanted my students to love reading as much as I did, I needed to change things up.
As we all do when we want to make a change, I swung the pendulum in the complete opposite direction.  I started talking about what I was reading and I was “book-talking” all the time.  My students read self-selected books and kept journals.  They read in book-club groups and talked about their reading with small groups.  They did individual and group projects.  It was absolutely awesome.  I worked with my colleagues and, before long, we had a true culture of reading in our school.  Without a qualm, I dropped the whole-class novel like a hot potato.
After a few years of this, though, I started thinking about the whole-class novel again.  I wasn’t doing a whole lot of instruction about HOW to read a novel.  I taught how to read a short story and how to read a poem and how to read a play – but not all reading is the same.  Also, some kids were consistently choosing fun books (which is wonderful) but they weren’t being challenged in their reading.  They weren’t reading the novel as closely as I might have liked.  They were reading the way I read beach reads – find out what happens and discard the book without a second thought.  Here’s what I wondered, though: How do I get kids to take their time with the novel if I don’t show them?  How can I get them to read the novel carefully and thoughtfully?
I started thinking about resurrecting the idea of the whole-class novel, but with a few key differences.  First, I would no longer rely on the books in the dusty bookroom.  I would use current and relevant and popular young adult literature and ask students to pay for the books.  This way, I wouldn’t be married to the novel for all eternity; kids would have the opportunity to make notes in the novel and read something pertinent to them.  We wouldn’t abandon our small group and independent reading; we would just add the novel study to all the great things we were currently doing in the class.  Kids still had voice and choice – just not all the time.  The biggest difference? No worksheets.

I had a similar change in my teaching a number of years back. When I first started teaching, the routine in your average English class was, in no particular order, the novel study, the poetry unit, the Shakespeare Unit, the grammar unit, the writing unit. I was never really comfortable. I was restless. I was searching for something, but I didn’t know what. I would stand in the English book room and despair. It wasn’t that the titles in there were no good. I couldn’t really put my finger on the problem.

Then, through various conversations and professional development we began to create thematic units of study instead. Our English department started to buy literature circle books that were thematically related, filling the book room with a lot of choice.

Example: Dystopia and Dystopian Fiction as a theme. I show WALL-E and we discuss the idea of dystopia and anti-utopia. We read The Chrysalids together – actually I read it to them because it is way beyond some readers in Grade 10. Then we work on a form that I developed (stole bits of from various locations on line) on the elements of dystopias. Now we have two texts in common. Then, they get to pick from three different novels: The Uglies, The Hunger Games, and Unwind. As we work through those I will often bring in other texts. Last year I used the song, Uprising, by Muse and Utopia, by Alanis Morrissette. I sometimes show the TED talk, “How the World Might End”, by Stephen Petranek, and we discuss the fascination with the end of the world. It really depends on what is going on the world, but I may bring in some other current events. Last year the anniversary of Chernobyl was happening.

My main goal is NOT to flog anything for long. I can’t stand the beating to death of a good book. I try hard to keep everything moving and focussing on the big picture of the genre, or the theme, and the skill I am also working on. In this case, I am often teaching the compare/contrast skill they will need for the English 10 Provincial Exam.

Another goal I had was that I wanted students to stop saying, “I read book X in Grade Y”. I want them to read several books in the course of a semester.

The students have plenty of choice of reading material the rest of the semester. They have choices with respect to writing genres. They have an opportunity to do an independent multigenre writing/researching project. Often I will do a poetry unit, but it doesn’t stop me from integrating poetry the rest of the time.

I direct about 2/3 of the content. I bring them to texts they would never choose, or be aware of.

Here’s the confession part. I have never managed to figure out the grammar part. I mark their grammar. I sometimes teach discrete skills, such as the use of quotation marks when we working integrating dialogue. But the grammar unit? I dropped it. Any thoughts on this would be great.