Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Teaching a novel (part 1)

Sometimes, I wish I had a time machine (H.G. Wells not a TARDIS – too unpredictable) as often I get to the end of a SOW / Unit and I hit my head with huge and painful slap. Doh! Why didn’t I do that? What would help me to improve my teaching? Money? Yep. Resources? Yep. Time? Double yep.  A time machine? Definitely.

I look back at my several years of teaching English and I think there are a few things I would teach differently. Mistakes and learning go hand in hand like cheese and onion, and salt and vinegar, and … I think you get the idea. However, when I read things about teaching, I tend to hear about the ‘whizzo’ new thing such and such did today with their delightful class. This is always great to hear – I am envious. It does, however, give me food for thought and lets me steal some of these ‘whizzo’ ideas for my own lessons. But – and it is a big but – there aren’t many places to go to which teach you about the pitfalls that you might face in teaching on a daily basis. During my PGCE training, nobody mentioned how the ‘wind’ affected students, yet it does in a strange and peculiar way. I now check the weather when planning my lessons. Furthermore, I feel the rhetoric the PGCE tutors used when lecturing about poetry should have been:
Whatever you do, don’t…
 Always do this when …
 Under no circumstances do this…
Instead, I was given lots of nice ideas of how to teach things, some theory underpinning them, and nothing about the day-to-day stuff. It seems I would do most of my learning in the classroom.
Therefore, this blog is about me sharing the pitfalls and problems I face / faced while/whilst teaching [note for employers: I am much better now, honest govn’or]. Some of them might be obvious; others might not be so obvious. I just hope somewhere somebody might read this and think differently about how they teach something, and that they might make some better mistakes as a result.

If not, I hope it gets back to me in the past and I learn something.

The Novel – Part 1

I have taught a lot of novels in my time and it is the part of English teaching I relish and enjoy.  It is wonderful to see students engaged, shocked, upset and thrilled with a story as they share my joy for reading and devouring (in a metaphorical sense) a book. However, there are so many times that I have got it wrong. A few times I got it right.  It is the when and where I went wrong that is important. What didn’t I do or think about when teaching the novel?
Message to my NQT self: "These are the questions that you should ask yourself before teaching a novel".  

[1]Will the novel appeal to all students?
[2]How are we going to read the novel in class?
[3]Will I have to help the students to create the ‘world’ of the novel?
[4]What will engage the students’ curiosity?
[5]What do I want them to learn from this novel?

Will the novel appeal to all students?
I remember teaching ‘Pinballs’ to a group of Year 7s and it went down like a lead balloon.  I gave up reading it because the students were more interested in reading the inside of their eyelids than they were reading the book. It wasn’t the teaching; it was the text. I picked the book out of the cupboard and thinking it was short and straight forward for a group of low ability students, but the relationship heavy book was too much and too subtle for this group of students. They wanted action and pace rather than lots of talking and a blossoming friendship.  
Always select a book with a class in mind. This isn’t always easy, but it helps that a lot of books selected these days in departments have a clear male or female protagonist.  Try to think of the novel as a whole. How much action is there? How much of the text is description? How much dialogue is there? ‘Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding is a dialogue heavy book and I find that more able students cope with it better than others. Golding likes to confuse things by omitting who said what at times during the book.

I think it helps to think of the percentage of dialogue, description and action in a novel. Using the exact science of my brain, ‘Lord of the Flies’ is 45% dialogue, 35% description and 20% action. Too much description and a student has to work really hard to visualise things. Isn’t that right, Mr Dickens? Too much action and there might not be enough themes or ideas to stretch the most able. Think hard about the style of the book and whether it will suit the students you teach.
Will they be able to relate to some of the content? ‘Pinballs’ failed because some of the students couldn’t relate to the experiences of the children in the book. Yes, I know that isn’t a bad thing, but sometimes things can be too alien for a student. I should have judged it better.  
Some teachers select books that are currently popular or have been recently made into a film. What is the point of teaching ‘The Hunger Games’, ‘Twilight’ or ‘Harry Potter and the…’ when most students want to read those books anyway? Isn’t it my job to unlock the world of books? I am not knocking these in vogue books, but I think I’d rather introduce them to something they wouldn’t read and surprise them with how good it is . ‘Animal Farm’ is a classic example.  Most students think the idea of reading a book about animals is childish, but after reading it they are convinced of how good a book it is. Surprise them. Show them how good reading can be when you discover something new. The real joy of teaching can be about challenging preconceived notions of something being pants. I get a sense of fulfilment when someone is converted. However, if you are struggling with a disaffected class, a well-known name or book will help to get them engaged.  

Sadly, sometimes a good book just doesn't work with a group. What do you do? Abandon ship. Man the lifeboats. Simply, read another book. It is not worth an uphill battle. You should be the one who makes the professional judgement, and not the students. Otherwise, by week 6 you will have attempted 10 books.  

How are we going to read the novel in class?
Well, we are just going to read it, of course. I think the logistics of reading a text need some thought before reading. I have gone through a whole term and realised that I was only halfway through the book. ‘Holes’ for me is one of those books. I am sure it could be a plot device in an episode of Doctor Who. The book that steals time. Love the book, but doesn’t it take ages to get through? Or, embarrassingly, I have rushed the reading of an ending because I wanted to get on with the assessment. After all, that was the main thing I had to mark.

Never feel guilty about spending time reading in lessons. Give a whole lesson to reading a text, if necessary. Too many times I have rushed the reading of a novel, so I could get some meaningless comprehension activity done because I felt, in my head, that ‘students must be doing something’.
At the start, you should always think about the delivery of the book. I think a book should be read from start to finish, and I will always try to do that. But, there is always the pressure of time. Are we going to read it as a whole class? Are the students going to read chapters? Read bits on their own? Are we going to skip bits? Could I fill in the gaps? Could I teach it using a mixture of the book and a film? Usually, I would do all of these at some stage. One of my best experiences was teaching ‘Oliver Twist’ to group of Year 10 students. We read the opening chapters of the book and then watched the film version. I reduced some of the chapters by editing bits out and they read some chapters on their own. They loved it. It was varied.
Reading a novel in class can be problematic. Should the teacher read the whole thing while the students listen passively? This was my first mistake when teaching my first novel. I studied Drama, as well as English at university, so I am comfortable with hearing my own voice for long periods of time. However, it is dull for the listener. Even during the fantastic Stephen Fry's reading of the Harry Potter books, I daydream and starting thinking about planning. At secondary school, we had a teacher who would make each student in the class read a page and that was even more painful. It highlighted those who were strong and those who were weak at reading and performing. I have even tried changing readers when there is a different piece of punctuation in the text. This was great for exploring the use of punctuation, but asking the students what happened left me with a very bad feeling. Cue tumbleweed moment. Nothing. “I was too busy looking to see when it was my turn,” mumbled Corbet. My deferred way of reading now is: I read the narrative and students read the dialogue and all have assigned parts. This means that no one person is reading all the time and I can ask questions to those without a part. All is involved in the reading and I get chance to breathe and spot any students reading the book upside down, or trying to pass notes under the table.  
Will I have to help the students to create the ‘world’ of the novel?
Like you dear reader, I have read loads of books. I can imagine a world from the mention of a few items or a sniff of atmosphere. I have an inbuilt computer that helps me to create a world image and this is down to my ability to recall and link to other things I have read. Books are great to learn about new things, but 'getting into the world' explored in a novel can be a problem for young people. TV is great, but students are used to establishing shots in TV shows that help the audience build the world of the story. Novels are trickier. They are like jigsaw puzzle. You create things by piecing different aspects together.  I think a novel works harder to build that world; it is far more rewarding, but more demanding for a young reader.

Help students to create an image or idea of the world the book is constructing. You could do this through a picture from Google, a clip from a show or from another text. To enter the world of ‘Stonecold’, I think you need to do some work on homelessness and the realities of being homeless. Students will identify with the locations featured in the story, but it is the situation that is alien to them. That is where we have to help build the constructed world for them. A world of hunger. A world of danger. A world of hatred. Get them thinking! The same idea needs to be applied to any book set in the past. As a teacher, I assume too much. I forget that their knowledge of WW1 is sparse when teaching ‘Private Peaceful’. You can’t understand the motivations for cowardice, without exploring the situation and the world these characters inhabited. I tend to start with propaganda posters and explore what the thoughts of an average man might be in those days. Then, the class have these notions of patriotism in their heads, when reading about the horrible conditions.  It is far easier then for them to understand how a soldier might be a coward, given the alternatives.
Books paint pictures, but we have to help students with the palette.
What will engage the students’ curiosity?
Novels are magic. They can usually transform a noisy class into a quiet one - I say usually, as this isn't always the case. That is because the curiosity has to be there to propel the interest of the class. There has to be a hook, a puzzle or a mystery to it. I taught a book several years ago called ‘Wheels’ and, sadly, I went around the whole book in the wrong way. I should have placed more emphasis on the mystery at the heart of the story. I didn’t, and they lost interest.
Some books test a reader’s patience. How many times have we picked up a book and given up after a few turgid, lifeless chapters? ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ have dull openings, in my opinion.  I love these books, but they don’t grab a young reader’s interest easily. I know the purpose and the reason for these slow and detailed openings, but, boy, I want to see some action quickly- and I don’t mean a heron moving. Young people are used to complex storytelling with things like CSI and I often use these to help with these kinds of texts. Recently, I have started to present ‘Of Mice and Men’ as a murder mystery: a woman has been killed in a barn. Students are then given an option of several people – the father-in-law, the jealous husband, an old dog, a man with a mental disability, a black worker and a popular worker.  How did she die? Was she murdered? Who killed her? Why? We then read the novel from the start and the class love to see how things knit together. During different points of our reading we look back at our original ideas and see if they have changed. They pick up on the tension in the book easily and actually focus on the way the novel is written rather than just the plot. The great thing, in a way, is that I haven’t really spoilt the ending. And, I always make a point about how that isn’t really the books ending. I have done similar things with ‘Abomination’ and ‘Heroes’; a healthy bit of foreshadowing never harmed anyone. Oh, and someone always thinks the dog killed Curley's wife.  
What about the ending? I was told the ending of ‘Sixth Sense’ on my way to see it and sadly that has tainted my view on storytelling. In the classroom, the ending of a text is sacred. I always make a point about talking about ‘the ending’ before reading a novel. I hate spoilers, so I always talk to the class about how it is important that we don’t reveal the ending if we know it. This is very important with ‘Of Mice and Men’. Once, I had a student reveal the ending during part one of the book. A part of me died that day. How could I recover from that?   

Oh, and another bit of advice: think about when you are going to read the dramatic bits. The last five minutes of the lesson is not the best time to reveal a secret or experience a dramatic turning point. It creates a good cliff-hanger, but then you could easily lose some good discussions or tension building. I remember having one page left of a novel to read and the bell went. I started the next lesson with that one page and it fell flat.  

What do I want them to learn from this novel?
I am going to cheat here and say my next blog will focus on this question in greater detail. That is if this blog is successful. Who knows this blog might be one big mistake. If that is the case, I can guarantee that I will learn something from that mistake too. I am sitting here planning to teach ‘The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ (for the first time) and ‘Skellig’ (for the third time) and I am thinking about those five questions and I know I will not make those same mistakes – just some new ones that will teach me a thing or two.
Make mistakes. Make sure the mistakes you make today are better than the ones you made last year.

P.S.  No novels were harmed or damaged in any way during the research and writing of this blog.    


  1. A lot of what you say resonates. Even after ten years' teaching, I don't seem to have cracked it. I found having a glossary for Jekyll and Hyde very helpful from the start - the vocabulary and some of the references were pretty difficult even for top set GCSE. This makes for slow reading unless you're prepared. Also, the chapter headings are great fodder for an opening lesson .. guess the themes etc etc from them. A thoughtful, relevant post. Keep blogging!

  2. Thanks again, Fran. That is really helpful advice. I think your advice is more valuable than the hundreds of free resources on the Internet. I will use everything you have said in my planning. Look forward to a blog on Jekyll and Hyde in a few months on it.


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