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Kevin Spacey, the Binge-Watching Phenomenon, and Teaching Whole Novels

I think Lost was my first binge-watching experience eight summers ago. I felt how different it was to watch a long series at my own pace, but I didn't think much about it. I was too fixated on what the heck was up with that island!  But as I binged more recently on House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, and other favorite "television" shows available through Netflix and my cable TV's On Demand feature, I made the connection. Binge-watching an entire season of a series is much like plowing through a compelling novel. You pick it up and put it down as you please. You indulge in a full day of story. You sneak bits and pieces when you should be doing other things--because you can, and because of the great storytelling. 

I made a mental note to myself. Compared with the traditional weekly episode model, this binge-watching thing bears a lot of similarity to the whole novels method. In it, we allow students to read an entire novel at their own pace, in a community of their peers, and discuss it when they have all completed the reading. (No spoilers allowed until discussions!)  When I saw actor Kevin Spacey talk about House of Cards, Netflix and the new model for viewing story, I thought, yes, he gets it.

Here is his five-minute speech at Telegraph (CLICK HERE): 

Spacey explains that the House of Cards team did not want to waste time making a pilot to pitch, with artificial cliffhangers and other strategies to sell the program in one episode. They signed with Netflix, because it was the only network that took a leap of faith on their idea without seeing a pilot. In his explanation of why the team was so adamant about no pilot, Spacey says,

"We wanted to start to tell a story that would take a long time to tell. We were creating a sophisticated, multilayered, story with complex characters who would reveal themselves over time and relationships that would need space to play out."

Sounds a lot like what a novel does, right?

Releasing the entire season of House of Cards at once and the resounding success of the show proved that there was something about this process that worked for viewers. 

"The Netflix model... proved one thing: the audience wants the control. They want the freedom. If they want to binge on House of Cards and lots of other shows, then we should let them binge. I can't tell you how many people have stopped me on the street and said, 'Thanks, you've sucked 3 days out of my life.'"  ~Kevin Spacey

Like the Netflix model, the whole novels method gives students the freedom to read as quickly as they want. We have a diversity of readers in the classroom--some slowly digest each chapter with different levels of classroom support, and others will plow through it in two days, then reread for a deeper experience, before moving on to other related texts. This freedom stands in stark contrast to the traditional whole class novel study that gives students chapters of a novel in piecemeal, taking months to move through an entire full length novel (sort of like the traditional weekly episode model in television).

Putting limits on students' opportunities to read through an entire book and forcing analysis of each section along the way can really take the life out of the story.  It creates a disjointed experience that misses out on the thrust and enjoyment of authentic reading. In the whole novels method, we protect the reading process, allowing it to be subjective, and customizing support to the needs of individual readers. Then we come together as a class on the appointed due date, when all have finished the book, to discuss and debate the entire work. We conduct close reading of key sections students identify, in light of what we understand and still wonder about the whole work. 

In binge-watching, I see another parallel with whole novel studies, in the types of conversations we have about the shows, a) while we are in the throes of watching a season and b) when we have completed a season or an entire series:

a) When we know our friends have not finished the season, we don't spoil the plot for them. We share our assessments of characters, knowing we may change our minds as we come to know more. We share our predictions for fun. We clarify plot details for each other when we are confused. We assess and in some cases disagree about the quality of the writing of the show and whether it's holding our interest... Our conversations stay rather casual and light hearted, though, like the ones my students have during the reading portion of a whole novel study.

b) By contrast, when we've competed a season or a series of a compelling show and we are in the company of others who have too, we engage in a different level of conversation. 

I've debated whether Kevin Spacey's character in House of Cards actually has a noble goal despite his corrupt behavior. And what about Claire, his wife? Answering this question requires quite a bit of going back through the events and following his decisions with a critical lens, in light of what we now know. I've heard the show compared to Macbeth. 

I've also discussed whether in the final season of Lost the writers were able to successfully tie up all the loose threads they'd created over the course of several seasons in a convincing way, or whether they fell short, leaving questions unanswered and threads contradicting one another in an unconvincing way. These higher order questions come up naturally after having a powerful experience living in a story and reaching its conclusion.  

With the ability to go back and forth--zooming out to look at a whole story, and zooming back in to look at specific pieces--there is so much opportunity for deep anaylsis and critical evaluation (emphasized in Common Core Language Standards), AND it's fun.

Although I don't believe there is one best way to teach anything, I urge teachers to try allowing students to binge-read a whole class novel! In the words of Kevin Spacey—

"They want stories--they're dying for them. They're rooting for us to give them the right thing. And they will talk about it, binge on it, carry it with them on the bus and to the hairdresser, force it on their friends, tweet, blog, Facebook... engage with it with a passion and an intimacy that a blockbuster movie could only dream of. All we have to do us give it to them."

4 Comments

Jason Parker commented on December 8, 2014 at 7:12pm:

This makes TONS of sense!

Makes perfect sense to me, Ariel! As a binge-watching and binge-reading enthusiast, I think you've nailed the underlying importance of compelling stories, complex plot points, and deep characters that grow/change/differ as the story progresses.

Bailey Penny commented on December 9, 2014 at 3:30pm:

Interesting

I really like this idea, I'm curious how a unit of study would be framed around it. For example, with older students, like in middle school, how would we keep them accountable for reading? Would there still be due dates? Would there be a certain date that all the binge reading must be done? What skills can we use to get the kids more interested in binge reading classic books that they may be less inclined to invest in? I think students watch so much TV in the netflix format, that it really could make sense to transfer that to their reading.

Brian commented on February 7, 2015 at 3:53pm:

Getting excited

Thank you for this post and your book on the "whole novel" approach. As a seventh grade English teacher I have been battling lately with a nagging feeling that there has to be a better way to engage students in a text. I am in the process of reading your book now, but I can't wait to incorporate this approach in my classroom.

Peter A. Greene commented on March 29, 2015 at 9:53am:

New Forms Emerge

I also believe we're on the verge of a new narrative form. Just as novels emerged from the serialized versions of stories, I think we're seeing a new narrative viewing form-- too long to view in one sitting, but not truly composed of discrete stand-alone parts. Dickens started out writing serials that eventually turned into a new format. I think we're living through the same thing on video.

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