We should teach novels because…

Because we want students to have cultural knowledge.
We want students to have the experience of reading particular books. Shakespeare is likely the most common example here.

Because we want students to have shared intellectual experiences.
There are opportunities for small group and whole class conversations, close readings of importance scenes, and collaboration to push through obstacles. This is the stuff of good literacy teaching.

Because we want students to develop reading stamina.
If students are to succeed in college or their career, they must read complex texts independently. That is the most Common Core thing you will read all day. I don’t see much wrong with it, though, as one goal for our literacy instruction.

Because of tradition.
Many books hold a decades-long place in school curricula. Teachers have established projects that students do yearly. Veteran teachers share helpful resources with newer teachers on these long-held, canonical texts.

Because it is simpler than other reading class structures.
Reading workshop, literature circles, or book groups all require planning, organization, and a willingness to have things get messy. My classroom looks and sounds more organized when everyone reads the same novel at once.

And ultimately…

Because it is required.
Many teachers have a list of books that students must read. Students sit for midterms, finals and other shared assessments related to specific novels. Ideally, teachers compare results and practices in the pursuit of deeper student learning.

Wait a second. Go back to the top of this list. Begin with the headline. Now change each of those statements from “We should…” to “Should we…?”

Should we teach novels because we want students to have certain cultural knowledge?
Many argue that students should read Shakespeare and the Bible because so much in culture alludes to those texts. But as our society becomes more multicultural, will we broaden the list of canonical and classic literature to represent more diversity? Further, in a world where I can find other people online who share my exact literary or cultural obsessions (“The Howling Fantods” for you fellow DFW fans), is a “pop culture” knowledge of classic literature as important?

Should we teach novels because of tradition?
Tradition is neither a reason for or against change. Many teachers ask their students to read one teacher-selected novel at a time because their department, school or teacher prep program passed that practice down to them. In that case, examine the results. If there is a deficit in many students, a lack of engagement, or the potential for more challenging work, consider a reset.

Should we teach novels because it is required?
Even though teaching whole novels can often lead to fake reading, it is often a requirement. This doesn’t mean that students can’t or won’t read novels, but required does not equate to best practice. We can often fulfill the duties of our jobs and use our professional judgement to make requirements work for our students.

Should we teach novels because we want students to have a shared intellectual experience?
Sorry to answer a question with a question but…how valuable is the shared intellectual experience if many students have not read the book? Yes, a student-led intellectual discussion about a classic work of literature is a valuable experience if the students have  made meaning of the text first. This surface learning must happen through actual reading before we push for deep learning like thematic discussions.

Should we teach novels because we want students to develop reading stamina with complex texts?
Let’s use an analogy to P.E. class. All students are required to run one mile for time. Instead of taking the students down to the track, the teacher brings them to Planet Fitness. There, each student must hop on the treadmill, set the speed to 9.0, and click start. Now, the results:

  • Five kids walk away, realizing that the teacher is crazy and they’d prefer not to try.
  • Three kids honestly want to do it, but they don’t have the ability. They eventually hop off or get dropped off the back.
  • Six kids think they’re doing it, but they’re actually holding onto the handles and dragging their feet most of the time.
  • Four kids lowered the setting down to 6.0, but huffed and puffed so hard that the teacher never noticed.
  • Two kids felt that the pace was perfect for them.
  • Five kids from the track team jacked it up to 10.0 and finished before the teacher expected. They looked at their phones while the rest of the kids to finished.

Even with the important goal of getting students college ready, we must first meet them where they are.

Should we teach novels because it is easier to manage than other reading class structures?
Without proper resources, teachers can’t be expected to adapt new class structures. However, in resources like Book Love, In the Middle, Power and Portfolios, The Book Whisperer, Whole Novels for the Whole Class and in the stories of teachers like Gerilyn Lessing, Steve Ferguson, and others in Hacking Literacy, there are ideas for how to make it work.

Which question from the list above do you answer “yes” to? Let me know.
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