It Was the Best of Books, It Was the Worst of Books

It may seem that complex and difficult texts aren’t worth the time they take to teach, but they are essential to helping students dive deep with the Common Core standards.

Last week, the sweet enjoyment of my Thanksgiving break was punctuated by brief moments of panic as I thought about how to tackle teaching my next novel, A Tale of Two Cities, one of my favorite and yet most dreaded texts to teach.

Late last spring, I wasn’t sure that this staple of my curriculum would remain a part of my reading list. As my team sat down to reflect on the year and where we could tighten up or revise our pacing charts, A Tale of Two Cities sat on the chopping block, as it often does, with arguments about its length and rigor weighing heavily against it. It wasn’t until this past month, when we revisited our conversation, that my team agreed to give it one more year.

I have to admit that I waffled with this decision and, were it not for our collaborative decision, I might have let it go. I am always hesitant to argue for a canonical book. My students get plenty of dead, white, male literature in our 10th grade world studies curriculum, and as a team, we are ever aware of our need to branch out from the European canon.

However, the more we considered our goals for the unit, it became clear that Tale was the best fit. Simply put, this novel has a complexity to its storyline that is hard to find in other books.

I’ve worked hard to broaden my scope of awareness of literature from other cultures and have fought to bring texts like Persepolis and To Live into our 10th grade classrooms. The problem is that while these modern texts offer insight into parts of the world that don’t often get explored, when it comes down to it, they aren’t as complex as a novel like Tale.  And, ultimately, I want my classroom to have a balance of content rich, and rigorous texts.

This has been an ongoing process. When Common Core first hit our classrooms, my colleagues and I had to shift our thinking about the focus of our teaching. We struggled as we moved away from novel based units of study. We no longer taught our Great Gatsby unit. Instead we tackled units on rhetoric or structural analysis, which were often best served by a selection of shorter texts so that students would have the opportunity to read and re-read texts for meaning.

Our 10th grade ELA curriculum is integrated with Social Studies, so we collaborated with our teaching partners to determine the major themes and time periods for which we wanted literary coverage. We worked to bring in a variety of non-fiction text and a broader representation of authors from around the world.

These were important shifts that have helped me to focus my instruction on diving deep with skills. But, even now, I am hesitant to give up all whole class novels. In my ideal English classroom, there is a place for a variety of materials, even in this new paradigm.

The key to making whole class novels relevant is by pairing them with standards that can only be achieved with a rich and complex text. A book like Tale may require much more focused scaffolding to help students comprehend at a basic level, but it also allows for more depth of analysis.

My students will read Tale as investigators of Dickensian style. Their ultimate goal will be to write a pastiche that incorporates these elements into a new story or a continuation of his novel. Instead of assigning huge chunks of reading and quizzing them on plot based comprehension, I am going to ask them to read towards certain goals and then focus our classroom discussion on smaller chunks of the text. We will definitely focus on plot and character development, but we will also move past what Dickens is writing to analyze how and why he is writing.

By the end of our novel study, I hope that students will be able to discuss and/or write about how Dickens uses elements of structure to create mystery or surprise (CC.RL.9-10.5) as well as feel more confident about their ability to independently read complex text (CC.RL.9-10.10).

Getting students to persevere for 300 plus pages of Dickens is really hard. However, seeing the eyes of my students’ light up as the storylines tie up at the end of Dickens’ sweeping tale makes the struggle worth it. Hopefully, the focus of the standards will help me to feel even more successful this year through this difficult yet rewarding text.

Photo Credit: By Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz). Photographer: Heritage Auctions, Inc. Dallas, Texas [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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