Novel Reading Introductions

I have a student teacher right now. She is introducing a novel unit today. The first class that she introduced the novel to was looking tired this Monday morning, but then when she started giving some notes on the background of the novel, I watched as half the class completely lost interest. It was a fairly interesting slide show, but they just didn’t care.

This makes me wonder, as I always do, what the best way to introduce a novel is. Should I just hand the book out and tell them to read it? Do I put them into groups to do some creative project to put them in the world of the novel? Is there a right solution to really grab these students’ interest? I wish I knew.

My experience with 9th graders has been that I could do a song and dance, but as soon as I say “read” over half of the class is sure that the novel will be horrible. I feel confident that I could teach Lady Chatterly’s Lover and they would still complain that it was boring. Part of it is the age group, but I think many of my colleagues in the younger grades do something to make the students hate reading. Or maybe I’m just blaming…

I am the language lover and these are my thoughts.

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5 Comments

  1. renaissanceguy said,

    October 23, 2008 at 11:11 am

    I’m not a big fan of introducing novels or short stories. I have not seen that that motivate students or put them in a state of readiness to comprehend the work.

    Let me present a possibly inept analogy. If I cooked lasagna for a group of friends, I wouldn’t give them a lecture on the history of pasta and on the various herbs that I used in the sauce before serving it. I’d just serve the food and let them enjoy it (or not).

  2. October 23, 2008 at 12:56 pm

    Would you really not describe the meal at all? You wouldn’t tell your friends if the recipe comes from your grandmother who used to cook for a family of twelve, or if you replaced one herb with another because of this funny incident that happened the last time you cooked it, or how easy, or hard it is to prepare the meal? Is the lasagna cooking when they arrive and you allow them to smell it as they come inside? These are all things to help your friends “prepare” for the eating.

    To continue your analogy, adults are more likely to try a strange food that they know nothing about than young people are. Many young people would prefer to eat a pb&j sandwich every single day rather than try something that might not appeal to them. With my own children, I often have to tell them what the ingredients of a hotdish are before they are willing to give it a try.

    So, I feel that letting students just dive into a novel is not enticing enough to get them all to take that first bite, especially if it takes a bit of chewing to get to the flavor of the novel.

    However, I still struggle to find a method that will engage most of the students in the reading. So, I may be missing something here.

  3. renaissanceguy said,

    October 24, 2008 at 12:45 pm

    I was afraid that my analogy was inept.

    I would probably discuss any interesting or important background on the lasagna during the meal. That’s how I teach literary works–giving the interesting and important background information as we go along.

    My ususal approach with a novel is to read the first paragraph or two aloud and ask for reactions from the students. They like talking more than listening anyway. I try to interject leading questions such as, what does it seem like this novel is about? Does it sound intriguing? Has this author done a good job of drawing you in or will you have to read a bit more? What have we already learned about the characters, setting, or plot?

    Then I have them read the rest of the first chapter silently and solicit their reactions again. I like to have them predict what will happen in the next chapter and record the predictions–so that we can see who is right–usually during the next class period.

    If the students ask questions about the background, and they sometimes do, then I go in that direction, since I know that they are actually interested.

    The thing is, I’m mostly a Formalist. I think that a literary work speaks for itself and should be enjoyed on its own face. It’s interpretation comes from within the text itself.

  4. October 25, 2008 at 3:02 am

    I actually agree with everything you said. The two things I aim to do with any sort of introduction is to make them interested or open to the reading and help them understand the world of the novel if it is foreign to them. Beyond that, I leave the story to speak to them and help them if they struggle from there.

    Too many times, though, I have struggled to get a student to make it through the first chapter. If the book doesn’t grab them on the first page and then continue to pull them along at a racecar pace, they give up and look it up on Cliff’s Notes or something similar. For me, this is one of the more frustrating parts to trying to teach a novel.

  5. renaissanceguy said,

    October 25, 2008 at 2:18 pm

    I see exactly what you are saying. I think it’s actually easier for me in junior high than it is for you in high school.

    Keep pressing on. From your posts here, I can see how conscientious you are.


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