Striking the right tone in a literature classroom

My seventh grade ELA classes had been reading The Jacob Ladder, by Gerald Hausman and Uton Hinds, a short, highly engaging read with some deep themes, for almost three weeks.

My co-teacher was about to read one of the final chapters aloud to students.*  I mentioned that once we finished it,over the next few days we’d be discussing the novel.  I added that there would also be a quiz on the literary elements we’d been studying along the way.

One student put her hand over her mouth and said quietly, “Oh my god.”  Then she blurted out, incredulously, “There’s going to be a quiz on this book?!”

My co-teacher and I looked at one another, confused.  “Well, yes, this is the material we’ve been working on for a few weeks and there are some things we want to know if you’ve learned.  What did you think we were doing this for?” my co-teacher said calmly, genuinely looking for clarification.

“For enjoyment!” she said, as if we were crazy.

Oooooohhhhhhh…I thought.  She’s actually right.  The method I use for teaching novels, The Whole Novels program, is designed for students to authentically experience the literary work in its entirety before analyzing and studying it in a substantive way.  It is my hope, always, that students will find pleasure in the story and the act of reading it.  So on one level, her comment made me smile.

On the other hand, it raises the question of, how do we balance the tone of the classroom?  I want my students to enjoy the learning process. I also want them to be aware that they are learning, and put forth effort in a conscious way, allowing themselves to be challenged.  Sometimes–not always–these two things feel like they’re at odds with one another when we structure the class so students learn through experience.  I’ve seen students enjoy the activities so much they forget to pay attention to what they’ve learned.  I guess that’s part of good constructivist teaching–to make sure to include time for students to assess and reflect on their own learning.

I believe that in this case, the learning became much more evident for students after we had completed book discussions and the writing assignment that came out of the discussions.  The quiz itself, too, helped students become aware of how much they’d come to understand the literary elements in the context of this novel.

It was an awkward moment for her to be reminded that she’s responsible for learning, because she was, at that time, genuinely looking forward to the ending of the novel.  Ultimately, that feeling is probably far more valuable and enduring than the quiz on literary elements.  How easily we forget…

 

[image credit: littlewhitebat.blogspot.com]

 

*Note about the choice to read parts of the novel aloud to middle school students: Since this was our first whole-class novel and a short one at that, my co-teacher and I elected to alternate reading sections of it aloud to students and having students read photo-copied chapters independently. The book is out of print, so copies of the entire book for everyone wasn’t an option. Reading significant portions of the book aloud, we could be sure that every student had easy access to this first text, and we could focus on introducing the format for discussions we’d be using throughout the year for studying novels.  In the future, students will have their own copy of the novel and read mostly on their own in and out of class, according to a reading schedule.