How to Teach a Novel

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One of the hardest aspects of my job is getting students to feel as enthusiastic as I do about the texts I’m teaching. With my university degree and several more years’ of life experience, I can usually analyse texts at a far greater depth than they can, and can relate to the emotions being expressed more directly. Passages that have reduced me to tears often leave my students cold, and poignant explorations of the dilemmas we face as we progress into adulthood are lost on the naivety of youth. Beautiful linguistic expression is dismissed, with a roll of the eyes, as ‘boring’ and the sight of any word that is polysyllabic results in the whining of that most annoying of phrases – ‘Miss, I don’t get it.’ Plots that seem slightly unfeasible (hello, Shakespeare’s entire canon) are simply ‘stupid’ and ‘pointless’ and anything that takes place more than ten years ago is clearly impossible to relate to in any way as ‘the people are like, from the olden days, Miss.’ I have lost count of the times I have looked up from the pages of a book, mid flow, to see several children staring out of the window, lying down on the desks, or up to some sort of mischief, while I have been transported to another world. As someone who has always been entranced by the worlds opened up to me through literature, I struggle to understand why some children can’t allow themselves to be swept away by words on a page.

However. Amidst the sea of rolling eyes, sighs, and doodles, I have managed to captivate a few minds. Teaching a novel is about more than sharing a story; it’s about inviting people to step into an alternate reality, and experience life from a different perspective for a while. It’s about showing them how to look beyond the surface, and find deeper meaning beneath what is literally printed on the page. It’s about getting them to decipher the clues left in the narrative that point to the author’s intentions. It’s about encouraging them to develop a critical voice; to question, to probe, to analyse, to evaluate. Studying novels makes us more enquiring and empathetic people; it makes us more aware of the way in which we construct the narratives our lives, of how we can manipulate language to suit a particular end, of how other people live and love and engage with one another. It allows us to consider how we would cope in situations we are yet to experience. It allows us to fall in love, to become irate, to make friends, to be inspired, to develop courage, to bring about change; all without leaving the comfort of our own homes.

So how do I manage to communicate all of these things? Well, the answer is as varied as the classes I teach. Sometimes we act out the events of the novel; through dramatising what is happening, we can engage more fully with the emotions being expressed. Sometimes we have debates, and trawl through the novel to find evidence that supports our varied perspectives of events. Sometimes we analyse a particular passage in detail, and are amazed at what alternative meanings we find behind a line of seemingly innocuous text. Sometimes we recreate the setting of a novel as a wall display, bringing the world of the novel to life through sugar paper and paint. Sometimes we make masks of the characters’ faces and walk around the room pretending to be them, channeling their emotions and emulating their voice and gestures to truly feel what it is to walk in their shoes. Sometimes we draw pictures, or make posters, exploring our impressions of the novel in a more creative way. Sometimes we rewrite a scene to explore an alternative outcome, or add a scene that didn’t actually happen. Sometimes we update the events of a novel to the present day, helping us to appreciate how people and their everyday concerns don’t really change over time. Sometimes we rewrite the events of the novel as a rap and perform it. Sometimes we model our favourite scenes in play-doh. Sometimes we just talk about how the story makes us feel, and we share our own experiences of the situations the characters are living through. 

Whatever we do, I try and get the students to connect with the story on a personal level. Transcending the barrier between fiction and reality is vital if a student is going to come to care about a text and the message it is attempting to relay. My proudest teaching moment so far has been reducing my entire class of too-cool-for-school 15 year olds to tears as we finished reading Romeo and Juliet. As I read the lines ‘for never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo,’ a wave of sniffles went around the room, and, glassy eyed, they started complaining about how unfair it all was. ‘It’s all their parents’ fault!’ one shouted, irate. ‘They should have listened to what they wanted!’ ‘No!’ shouted another. ‘It’s Friar Lawrence – he was the one who came up with the whole stupid plan in the first place!’ Before I knew it, everyone was busy debating their perspective, eager to find some resolution, someone to blame, for the perceived travesty of two teenagers needlessly dying in front of them. I couldn’t believe this was the same class who had groaned their way through the first few scenes of the play, moaning about the language being too hard and the characters having stupid names. Somewhere along the way, I’d managed to convince them that this story mattered. And that, far more than any exam grades they achieve, is what I call a success. 

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27 comments

  1. As someone who has both taught and now inspects, I can empathise and understand your frustrations! Though I don’t necessarily agree with you in places I do think your description of Romeo and Juliet is a wonderful of example of how good a feeling teaching – and learning – can be!

  2. Great story. I’m so impressed that these kids got all emotional at the end — that proves that you really reached them, that they GOT it. That’s awesome.

  3. How very imaginative and ingenious you are in your efforts to get your students reading, and to think about what they’ve read, and talk about it, even if they didn’t like it or fully understand it.Sadly, the constraints of the education system and exam syllabus mean that many young people are expected to study texts when what they actually need is a more gentle introduction to the world of books. Anything which makes them appreciate that books are there to be read and enjoyed has to be good.

    1. Thank you, Christine! Yes, the demands of the ‘system’ are very frustrating and end up alienating many children. It’s hard to do what you want to do when your hands are so tied!

  4. This is what good teaching is all about, Rachel. Well done! I think it is especially challenging to teach Shakespeare these days with students who live in such a fast moving, instantaneous world. That you did it, bringing out tears and opinions is the mark of a good teacher, who, herself, is a life-long learner. Again. Well done!

  5. As a teacher who has long felt the same frustrations I think that your method and insight are wonderful. I always try to read right through the novel without stopping so that the kids can get the feel of the book. I am at loggerheads with teachers who read a chapter and then ask asinine questions after each chapter. It is so awful to keep on stopping and some of the questions are so mind numbing like Find 4 common nouns in the chapter. I do agree that one should involve them in discussion while reading but chapter reading and questions following are something I hate. It kills all the joy of reading. I wish that you were on our staff.

    1. I can’t imagine why that would be a useful method of reading a novel, Enid! How ridiculous! Thank you for the compliment – if only I could come and join you! :)

  6. One of my favourite memories from school is listening to Mrs Planten, our English teacher, read Huckleberry Finn, way back in the early 1960s. Just loved it. And now I read and listen to audio books, but still remember the magic of Mark Twain and Mrs Planten. A long winded way of saying you will be remembered too.

  7. I think you’re a wonderful teacher and when teachers are so passionate about books as you are, they transfer that passion to their students. I have to thank a few of these magical teachers for being where I am now and even for my future!

  8. oh wow. Love the sniffles at the end. tis a sad Tale indeed. but with such beauty and it’s clear you helped lead them into the story with open arms.

    bravo.

    the essence of great teachers – the sort they thank from the podium at academy award time.

    *wavingfromlosangeles*

    _teamgloria x

  9. Wow, Rachel, I am so impressed at your creative approaches! Your classes sound so much fun, and the children are clearly learning lots from them.

  10. How true! I remember the first time Zephirelli’s Romeo and Juliet was to be on tv. I was working second shift in a nursing home, and the tv was on in the patients’ lounge. I found my co-worker in there more than once. She’d never read or cared about Shakespeare, but she could see that it was a compelling story and not difficult to understand, even without always knowing what all the words meant.
    Good for you, Rachel!

  11. Rachel, this is an extraordinary piece. I have taken the liberty of sharing it with a few English teachers I know. I should share it with whoever heads up the Department of Education in this country as they are bound and determined to abolish the teaching of literature in this country. Deeply upsetting and discouraging for our future in this world.

    1. Oh, Ellen. You are too kind! It makes me so sad that literature is becoming increasingly sidelined in education systems around the world. How else do we learn to become better people?!

  12. I’m sorry I’m so late coming in Rachel, I don’t know how I missed this post. Anyway, I have to chime in even at this late date. Sometimes, even with your best efforts and your varied teaching methods, there will be one or two that just seem not interested. This frustrated me for years. The end of the story is that those were the students who would come back and tell me how much they enjoyed a certain book. Or, when I had their children, (I’m a Grandteacher), they would tell their child in front of me. “Pay attention to the books, Mrs. Dillow picks good ones and makes it fun,” It always left me in shock. They are paying attention even though they didn’t appear to and didn’t do well on the test. As a third grade teacher I have had children that they were afraid to read longer books until they read them with me. It is very rewarding. You just have to wait 20 years.

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