I’ve always loved teaching eleventh grade students. They are fun and funny, curious about the world, and on the verge of adulthood. This is often the year of first cars, first girlfriends and boyfriends, and first after-school jobs. When I used to teach in the States, it was the year when they could finally go off-campus for lunch, the year for college visitations, and the year when they started to really get serious about their futures, saying goodbye to childhood and hello to the grown-up world.
I also see it as a key developmental year, when many students really start to read grown-up literature, as they are starting to have the life experience and background knowledge that is needed for so many books.
Eleventh grade used to be all about American literature. The focus was more on content than skills, and as we continue to teach with the common core state standards, it’s easier to get away from the traditional canon as we embrace student choice.
My students are reading all sorts of titles and authors and genres, which means that the priority has been shifted. Students may be doing more reading than fake-reading (and because of this they may actually be actually reading more American literature than they did in my previous years of teaching). However, we aren’t organizing our units according to topics like romanticism and transcendentalists. We organize by skill, by the type of reading or writing they will be doing in the unit.
However, it’s been a little strange to teach eleventh grade English without the heavy focus on American literature, so one of the ways we are trying to reincorporate content is through book clubs.
A few months ago my students participated in nonfiction book clubs, and last week they asked me if we could do it again, but with fiction. With classics! Who am I to say no to such a request?
So my eleventh grade teaching partner and I gathered titles from our department’s book room and classroom libraries, and came up with some book club options. We had two self-imposed guidelines (not requirements…we are always flexible): books should be written by American authors and have at least a significant portion of the plot taking place in the US, and that there should be a film to go with the book.
We book talked the titles and gave our students a few days to research and digest the different options, and then had them mark their top five choices. This allowed us as teachers a lot freedom and flexibility when making the groups, while also allowing us to honor student choice. I ended up with students in my class reading the following titles:
- The Joy Luck Club
- The Great Gatsby
- The Circle
- The Color Purple
- The Maltese Falcon
- The Kite Runner
- In Cold Blood
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
I kept my book clubs in groups of two or three students, so that everyone has to participate, and no one can sit back and let others do the thinking for them.
To the students who didn’t get their first choice pick, I reminded them that simply because they aren’t reading it for this book club doesn’t mean they can’t read it later in the year.
Next is the twist! Students had to be willing to watch the film that goes with the book. We teachers know that students will watch the film. It’s just the nature of teaching high school. While that used to be a problem for me in previous years, I’ve started to relish the idea of students watching the film, and sometimes I surprise myself by telling them to watch it first!
Watching the film creates background knowledge. It gives students an access point to text that could otherwise be too challenging and complex. It’s fun. I’ve seen students who would struggle to read what I think is an easier book push right through Game of Thrones because they’ve seen the show and they are motivated to read the books.
When we are asking students to read titles that they might consider boring or outdated, why not give them permission and encouragement to create background knowledge and enthusiasm for the book? Plus, it helps to address this standard:
Students will be graded on their ability to sustain rich, academic discussion, but we also wanted to give them the chance to suggest other assessment methods. So for this part, we are letting them make some choices. If they don’t want to get creative with this, then they can talk about the film and its relevance during their discussions and leave it at that.
While students are practicing reading and viewing in their book clubs, what they don’t know yet is that they will use these skills and strategies soon. We are going to read A Raisin in the Sun as a whole-class text, and we’ll be viewing at least one of the films. So these skills they practice together will come in handy in class quite soon.
The last point about choice in this assignment is regarding due dates and timelines. These novels are varying lengths, and our goal is that students are reading a minimum of two hours or 120 pages per week. Because of this, the due dates for each group are all different, depending on the number of pages in each book club’s title.
We’ve given lead up time to the beginning of the reading portion of the assignment so that students who don’t like to read more than one book at a time can finish what they are currently reading, but students can start sooner if they prefer.
When their group is done with the reading and discussing, they might choose to start a new novel together, repeating the process, or they might stay in their groups but choose different titles, still discussing ideas and themes, but this time with dissimilar titles. Because it’s a more powerful reading experience for everyone when we can share ideas instead of reading in isolation, we plan to leave options open. We believe when students are reading and thinking, they should also be talking about their ideas and questions.
It’s a more powerful reading experience when we can share ideas instead of reading in isolation.
Setting up these book clubs was far from rocket science, and it isn’t perfect. I’m sure we will figure out how to make improvements as we go along, but I think the essence of what’s important is there. We are honoring student input and student choice. We are encouraging some measure of cultural literacy through the reading of some classics. We are allowing students to develop some of their own assessment methods. We are pushing students to create background knowledge in order to access some difficult text. We are asking students to think critically about the books and movies they will be consuming, and to tell us and each other why these selections are or are not worthy, what titles we should have included and could include in the future. We are asking students to think critically and communicate about how stories are presented in diverse ways. We are encouraging students to plan their next steps as they finish the initial book club selections.
One of the things I love about this is that while we continue with our regularly scheduled research writing unit, students are also getting the opportunity to participate in small group book discussions, to read some classic American literature, and to add an extra layer to their learning.
I am feeling good about this added reading “bonus” — it’s a way to weave some traditional American literature into a modern curriculum, and a way to get kids to read titles they might hesitate to read if they were entirely on their own. I have a feeling that students will discover that titles that may have seemed out of reach to them are manageable and enjoyable, and I can’t wait to hear the discussions they have about their new experience.