Looking to refresh your curriculum? Title I money burning a hole in your pocket? Think you might die if you have to read Across Five Aprils one more time? Maybe it’s time to choose a new class novel. Asking all 30 kids to read the same book is a big ask, however. How do you go about choosing a class novel that is worth the time and effort?
Here are some of the questions I think about when choosing a class novel. I’d love to hear yours, too—so please share in the comments or in the WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.
1. How will we read it, and is it the right level of challenge?
For most of my whole-class novels, I read most of the book out loud to the students. I can assess understanding, explain vocabulary as we go, and model metacognitive strategies during the process. This means I can pick a pretty hard book. If, on the other hand, you’re looking to pack a short novel into the three weeks after standardized testing, your kids might have to do a lot of reading on their own. In that case, it’s best to pick a book that will be easier for them to handle independently.
2. Will it foster a love of reading?
Kids don’t have to love every book they read in school. My seventh graders always hate the first few pages of To Kill a Mockingbird because the vocabulary is so difficult. But I continue to teach it—in spite of the controversy around it, which we address head on in class—because I’ve had so many of my struggling readers finish it and tell me it is one of their favorite books. Your students may not love every book right away, but every book should have the potential to spark a kid’s imagination and make them want to read more.
3. Which standards will I teach, and how?
Notice that I don’t ask whether the book hits the standards. It’s reading. All good books hit the standards. It’s all about choosing whether I want to focus on the unreliable narrator in this novel or the multiple viewpoints in another or the historical connection in a third. You can basically use any book to teach any skill as long as you’re intentional about it.
4. What prior knowledge do my students need for this book to make sense?
This often comes down to a timing issue. My students always know a lot about World War II, but nothing about Vietnam. If I’m choosing a historical fiction novel, it’s often easier to get one set in a time period with which they’re more familiar, especially if it’s a difficult book. If, on the other hand, I can get backup from the media center or the social studies department, a great, engaging novel might be the perfect way to expand their knowledge base.
5. Will it broaden my students’ perspectives on the world or speak to their own experiences?
The literary canon errs on the side of dead white guys. What unique perspective does this novel bring to your classroom? There are only so many weeks in a year. Remember that kids need mirrors and windows; they need books that show their own experience, but also books that provide a glimpse into the lives of others. This means that it’s totally okay to follow a Walter Dean Myers book with Pride and Prejudice.
6. What concerns will parents or administrators have about this book?
Get them on board early. Make sure parents know the issues you’ll be discussing in class so they can follow up at home, if they so choose. Also, never underestimate the power of the permission slip when it comes to piquing students’ interest. Once they know that they’re reading something risky, a book full of teen sex and profanity and dirty jokes, they’ll approach Romeo and Juliet with a lot more enthusiasm.
7. Could this book potentially cause harm?
When I taught sixth grade, I really wanted to use Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins, a fantastic book I remembered from my own childhood. You know what I had forgotten? The really disturbing casual racism throughout the book, especially the fact that the offensive material often comes from the protagonists. With older kids, maybe it could have sparked a conversation. Instead, I decided to go with a different book by the fabulous Katherine Paterson.
If you’re not sure and you’re working outside your own experience, seek out opinions from people you trust who can bring a different perspective. The #DisruptTexts folks on Twitter always offer valuable insight in this regard.
8. How can this novel stretch beyond my classroom?
Do you have a great guest speaker who could come talk about issues in the book? Does it relate to the social studies or science curriculum? Could it spawn an amazing field trip or memorable community service project? You don’t have to ask whether a book is relevant; any book is relevant if you make it relevant.
Rewriting my curriculum is my favorite summer hobby, especially when I’ve got money to spend. But choosing novels is a big responsibility and one I try not to take lightly. What issues are most important to you when choosing new books for your class?
What are your tips for choosing a class novel? Come and share in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.