No More Classroom Repeats – PLEASE!!!
One of the things I like most about teaching Language Arts is the wide open space I have to chose novels, poems and other readings that really meet my students in their interests levels and what’s happening around us in our culture. There is a certain degree of freedom that I have to make personal and professional choices regarding the content and quality level of books I want to bring into my classroom.
This posting in the Calgary Herald made me laugh out loud as I read of the novels that just get too much time in classrooms, and the many novels that some students have repeated year after year, after year.
“No more Lord of the Flies, please. Less of Bridge to Terabithia, Of Mice and Men, Number the Stars, The Pearl, The Giver, To Kill a Mockingbird or Sarah Plain and Tall. Many of these are winners of the American Library Association’s Newbery Award. Others have been notable books for teens, or even adults. None, however, are Canadian and they’ve been taught for years — and decades — in the Canadian schools. When looking for books for novel study, there are lots of good reasons to look beyond these “old reliables” and to look at Canadian books that are being successfully used in the classroom.”
I couldn’t agree with her more. In fact, just last year after a conversation with my school librarian, we determined to pass on our tired, tattered and torn “Bridge to Teribithia” copies and replace them with some Canadian Content novels. I had gotten to the point that I didn’t even enjoy reading the book, there were a few sticky situations in it and I just didn’t feel as though the book had enough redeeming qualities about it to make it worthwhile. To be honest – the class time I have is precious, and my love of literature exposes me to so many books. I strongly feel that I need to weigh the novels my school invests in, as well as the use of our classroom time carefully before we dive in and make it part of our curriculum.
How I choose good novels for my classroom:
1) I start with Social Studies. I look at the curricular outcomes that my students are studying in Social Studies and I try to pair some of our Language Arts readings with those. The depth that a certain historical period gains when my students are reading a novel about a young boy or girl living right at that time is astounding. It gives us a depth and insight that no movie, textbook or even museum visit could replace. So, the number one place I look to is their Social Studies concepts that will be taught that year. I could extend that view a little wider too, and look at what is being taken in their other subjects. While it is a bigger stretch, I am certain that I could find novels that would match their Science outcomes.
2) I prioritize. The next filter I have on as I am searching for literature is the knowledge that I have a limited amount of time with my students. Admittedly, I can sometimes devote far too much of our class time to good reading, simply because I love getting myself and my students lost in the pages of a good book, so much so that I have to really be disciplined to remember the important other components of Language Arts that I am supposed to also teach. That said, I know that my moments are few, my themes are limited. I ask my self, what are some pivotal lessons, questions and encounters these students need to have at this point in their lives. For example, in grade seven I teach a “It’s Good to be Alive” unit. Why? Because I believe that they are at a formative age, in which their self-identity, self-esteem, family life, friends – all sorts of factors are growing and changing and it is a unit in which I have selected an assportment of poems, stories, non-fiction articles, and a novel that all underscore the theme of taking your life, and making it count. I hope to inspire my students, and infuse them with the belief that it truly is good to be alive, and that no matter the ups and downs, there’s always hope. So, the second thing I do when considering classroom novels, is that I consider the themes or key ideas I have for the year, and what assortment of readings fit that mold.
3) I consider the source: While I would love to say that this is my first priority, I have to admit that it isn’t. This is not the first thing that I consider when contemplating my class reading list for the year, but rest assured, it factors in greatly to the decisions I make. This might mean that I introduce my students to a book because a young author published it, and I am trying to expose them to the idea that they too, can publish, write, and comment on their world. This might on the other hand, mean that I am specifically looking for a publication from Canada, an area of Canada or a country in the world.
4) I research. The fourth lens that I have on is simply just research, being informed about what novels are coming out, what is up for a certain prize, and what novels are transforming kids around my city, my province and my country. I enjoy going to Chapters and seeing what is on the best-seller lists for kids, or going to my library and seeing what is taken out the most. I engage my students in conversation and see what they’re reading, and why they are reading it.
Is my classroom reading list perfect – certainly not. But I am really proud of the decisions that I have made, and feel so fortunate to have been at this for a few years and to have been empowered to make these decisions for my classroom. I was able to invest in some classroom novels, and create literature circles, whole-class novel studies – and thematic units that I can really be proud of. It is my hope to make more and more of those available here on this website, but for now, let me encourage you to walk through these four steps above, or make some of your own, and really think through what you choose for your classroom reading lists. Are you proud of your selections, or are they just there because your school has the class set, or you have the teachers guide?
One more piece of advice – check out Gillian O’Reilly’s piece in the Calgary Herald, entitled “Canadian authors worthy of school study.” She offers some great reasons why teachers need to re-think their selections and offers great switches.