Teaching a Novel or Play with Excerpts: Please don't! - Room 213

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Teaching a Novel or Play with Excerpts: Please don't!

It's a trend that I find, quite frankly, disturbing: teaching a longer text by focusing on excerpts and not expecting kids to read the whole thing.

There appears to be two reasons for this: we don't have time and kids won't read it anyway. I know that these statements have a great deal of validity, but I'm here to make a plea for why we English teachers should fight this idea -- and then I'll have some suggestions to help you do that.

Time is always an issue.

I know that full well. I've been teaching with one eye on the clock and the other on the calendar my whole career. However, a wonderful thing happened part way through my career when our district switched to an outcomes-based curriculum. We teach skills and not texts, and therefore can map out our year focusing on lessons that teach kids how to think, learn and communicate. Once I released myself from the chains of having to do a certain number of short stories, poems and novels, the time issue lessened (let's be honest; it'll never completely go away). 

Now I know that not everyone has the freedom I have in my classroom, but I believe there are ways that we can carve out time for what's important. More on that to come.

The kids won't read the whole text, so why bother?

I get it. I know that struggle is real. But, there are a number of problems with giving into this idea, the first of which is that the tail is wagging the dog. It's kind of like when you're a parent and you know it's easier to pick up the dirty socks or take out the garbage than nagging your kid to do it. It's easier to just give in to their very normal teenage attitude. But, if we do, we keep picking up the socks, taking out the garbage...and teaching excerpts rather than novels. More importantly, our kids don't learn a sense of responsibility, a work ethic or a love of reading.

I'll leave the work ethic thing for another post, because I'm writing today to implore you to fight this excerpt trend and try instead to foster the love of reading in your kids. I know that our fast-paced, social-media driven, sound-bite society has changed us all, even English teachers. Attention spans have shortened and many forces compete for our focus. But that doesn't mean that reading has lost its importance or meaning. And if we don't do our part to show students that, what does it matter if they can write a topic sentence or use a semi-colon properly? They won't likely analyze a poem or parse a sentence ten years after they leave us, but hopefully they'll want to read a book.

 Let's get real.

Ok, I know that you love to read and you get what I'm saying. But you live in reality, not between the pages of a book. You have a ticking clock in your ear and a bunch of teenagers in front of you who don't want to read, especially at home. You just can't take the time to read the whole novel in class, so what's wrong with focusing on the highlights, giving them Atticus' wise words and Macbeth's soliloquies, then catching the rest in the movie?

While this might seem like a great alternative, I just don't see how a student can really understand the nuances of a text by jumping through the highlights. Some teachers at my school have started doing this with Shakespeare. They don't want to give him up completely, but they don't want to deal with dragging the kids through it. My own kids have been in those classes and they don't get why I love Macbeth so much. They did not get to understand the character and plot development because they focused on a few soliloquies that did not have the important background information propping them up. They watched a movie with characters speaking a language they didn't understand. Yes, they got the soliloquies, because they'd gone over them in class, but the rest was just gobbledygook to them. What's the point? Is it just to inoculate them with Shakespeare?  Give them a quick shot and say it's done? My students read the whole thing, but we make it relevant. They don't all love it, but many of them actually enjoy it, and all of them get the satisfaction of making it all the way through.

I promised some solutions.

I know my ranting still hasn't changed your reality, so I'll stop and get to my suggestions. I was about to write solutions and changed it because we can never totally solve this problem. There will never be enough time and some students will never read the texts. However, these ideas just might help you improve the situation.

I think we need to ask ourselves: What does "teaching" a novel actually mean?  Traditionally, we gave students chapter questions that ensured they "got" every little piece of the author's message and technique. Think of yourself: if you had to stop reading after every chapter or two to answer a bunch of questions, would you still enjoy the experience? The answer is obvious: doing so would not enhance your enjoyment of the book and it won't entice kids to read either.

So what's the solution? We need to spend planning time zeroing in on the most important parts of the text. We don't need to pick all of the meat off the bone for the kids to get what they need from the novel or play. Decide on the highlights, those things you would use as excerpts, for example, and create some lessons or activities around those. I've actually written a post already about the strategies I use to get my kids to read, so you can check that out here.

The strategies I wrote about in that post also deal with the time issue. When we focus on skills, rather than all of the content, and avoid questions on every chapter, we can get through the novel more quickly. Nothing can kill the joy of reading quicker than spending weeks and weeks on one text. This does require reading for homework, but it's an expectation I have and enforce as much as I can. I always give the text to the kids a week or more before we start discussing it, while I'm finishing something else, and build in some time for reading in class. When we are discussing the text, students who come without the reading done and notes taken can't participate in the small group discussions until they finish. It takes a few days of enforcing this, but most start doing their homework.

Use independent reading as much as you can!

My best tip to instil a love of reading books, though, is to get away from just doing full class novels and use independent reading or readers' workshop. I start every semester with two months of workshop and then end with at least one full class study, usually a play and a novel. My hope is by that time, after reading for enjoyment and stamina, the kids will be more likely to read the whole text. You can read more about how I do that in my classroom here and here.

So...what if you tired these things and only 1/2 of your students actually read the whole text? Well, that's fifty percent more than would have read it if you only taught excerpts! We have to pick our battles, folks, but this is one that is well worth fighting.

I know this is a controversial subject, but I love a good debate. Let me know your thoughts in the comments :)

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  1. I agree 100%. However, we only have class sets and can't require students to purchase. This means I am reading outloud daily for 5 or 6 classes which is okay but takes forever. We are teaching Fareinheit 451 this year and I so don't want excerpts bit it's going to take two.months!

    1. When you say class sets, do you mean you as a teacher have a set that you have to use with each class? I can't imagine having to take that long to read a text to kids -- it would so kill the love of reading for most. It saddens me to see the resources devoted to education in some parts of the country!

    2. Just a suggestion-you might use Screencastify to record yourself reading passages once, so you can save your voice all day. Pause it for class discussion. Plus, you can post these for kids who want to read more slowly at home.

  2. Have you read Berit Gordon's book No More Fake Reading? I'd love to hear your thoughts.