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How to teach a novel.

find symbolic

There are veteran English teachers shuddering ‘tsk tsk’ at the title of this post, as if to suggest it’s a simple process, and doesn’t take years of practice, studying, and scholarly pursuits. And reading. A lot of reading. (And if you’re a middle school teacher, some dislike that age group of literature: I find it to be some of the most honest and terrifying. Really think about The Giver? Nightmare fuel.)

About two weeks ago, one of my colleagues, who ventured on a long time ago to do great things, asked me if I was still teaching the “Journey of the Hero” unit which I played an integral part in developing. When we worked together, he even gave me a gift that belonged to his grandfather, a copy of Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth. I sighed and said no, that I had asked if I could update it to embed CCSS, since the Common Core seemed perfectly aligned to something as accessible as the journey of the hero –it is a unit that lends itself so beautifully to showing patterns of thought to develop thematic concepts. But, no matter. It’s not the only thematic game in town.

Analyze how a modern work of fiction draws on themes, patterns of events, or character types from myths, traditional stories, or religious works such as the Bible, including describing how the material is rendered new.

But the move in our district seems to be choosing more stand-alone novels, without context or connection to other content areas, and that’s fine. It’s fine because it helps teachers focus on specific close reading skills, and not worry about how does it support other content areas. That may be a traditional approach to English/Language Arts, the ‘whole class novel’ as opposed to novel or text sets that are thematic and tied to multiple concepts and curriculum. I’m not really sure. It’s one of those tidbits I packed from reading Kelly Gallagher: things change, and change back, and be a critical thinker of what to keep, and what to throw away.

This is a long excerpt from How To Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster. If you want “How to be an English Teacher” this is it. Fortunately, not only do I have engaging authors like Foster when I want to brush up on my subtext and genre themes, but I have my husband and sons, who love to talk about the big ideas, no English degree necessary.

OKAY, SO HERE’S THE DEAL: let’s say, purely hypothetically, you’re reading a book about an average sixteen-year-old kid in the summer of 1968. The kid— let’s call him Kip— who hopes his acne clears up before he gets drafted, is on his way to the A& P. His bike is a one-speed with a coaster brake and therefore deeply humiliating, and riding it to run an errand for his mother makes it even worse. Along the way he has a couple of disturbing experiences, including a minorly unpleasant encounter with a German shepherd, topped off in the supermarket parking lot where he sees the girl of his dreams, Karen, laughing and horsing around in Tony Vauxhall’s brand-new Barracuda. Now Kip hates Tony already because he has a name like Vauxhall and not like Smith, which Kip thinks is pretty lame as a name to follow Kip, and because the ’Cuda is bright green and goes approximately the speed of light, and also because Tony has never had to work a day in his life. So Karen, who is laughing and having a great time, turns and sees Kip, who has recently asked her out, and she keeps laughing. (She could stop laughing and it wouldn’t matter to us, since we’re considering this structurally. In the story we’re inventing here, though, she keeps laughing.) Kip goes on into the store to buy the loaf of Wonder Bread that his mother told him to pick up, and as he reaches for the bread, he decides right then and there to lie about his age to the Marine recruiter even though it means going to Vietnam, because nothing will ever happen for him in this one-horse burg where the only thing that matters is how much money your old man has. Either that or Kip has a vision of St. Abillard (any saint will do, but our imaginary author picked a comparatively obscure one), whose face appears on one of the red, yellow, or blue balloons. For our purposes, the nature of the decision doesn’t matter any more than whether Karen keeps laughing or which color balloon manifests the saint. What just happened here?

If you were an English professor, and not even a particularly weird English professor, you’d know that you’d just watched a knight have a not very suitable encounter with his nemesis. In other words, a quest just happened.But it just looked like a trip to the store for some white bread. True. But consider the quest. Of what does it consist? A knight, a dangerous road, a Holy Grail (whatever one of those may be), at least one dragon, one evil knight, one princess. Sound about right? That’s a list I can live with: a knight (named Kip), a dangerous road (nasty German shepherds), a Holy Grail (one form of which is a loaf of Wonder Bread), at least one dragon (trust me, a ’68 ’Cuda could definitely breathe fire), one evil knight (Tony), one princess (who can either keep laughing or stop). Seems like a bit of a stretch. On the surface, sure. But let’s think structurally. The quest consists of five things: (a) a quester, (b) a place to go, (c) a stated reason to go there, (d) challenges and trials en route, and (e) a real reason to go there. Item (a) is easy; a quester is just a person who goes on a quest, whether or not he knows it’s a quest. In fact, usually he doesn’t know. Items (b) and (c) should be considered together: someone tells our protagonist, our hero, who need not look very heroic, to go somewhere and do something. Go in search of the Holy Grail. Go to the store for bread. Go to Vegas and whack a guy. Tasks of varying nobility, to be sure, but structurally all the same. Go there, do that. Note that I said the stated reason for the quest. That’s because of item (e). The real reason for a quest never involves the stated reason. In fact, more often than not, the quester fails at the stated task. So why do they go and why do we care? They go because of the stated task, mistakenly believing that it is their real mission. We know, however, that their quest is educational. They don’t know enough about the only subject that really matters: themselves. The real reason for a quest is always self-knowledge. That’s why questers are so often young, inexperienced, immature, sheltered. Forty-five-year-old men either have self-knowledge or they’re never going to get it, while your average sixteen-to-seventeen-year-old kid is likely to have a long way to go in the self-knowledge department.

Foster, Thomas C. (2014-02-25). How to Read Literature Like a Professor Revised: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines (pp. 2-3). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The TL:DR version is there are patterns in genres. Don’t be fooled by surface topics. Dig deeper. Talk. Think.

Recently NPR aired a story about Dungeons and Dragons, and how it sustains current gaming now; however, that was not the the gaming industry that caught my attention, but writers who used the writing involved with D&D, and how that launched their careers. Consider this when planning a unit on reading–connect the story to what students love–they love their own narratives, and incorporate free-form writing with their reading. They love when they see the pattern, and feel capable of understanding the big ideas–the big ideas are accessible and not put out of reach like dangerous cleaning supplies.

Ultimately I tell students trust their instincts–take a risk. What do they think is going on? Spit-ball some ideas, and see what sticks. Metaphorical spit-balls, that is. Please. For teachers wanting to know more about how to teach a novel, I would say the same: trust your instincts, be willing to talk, and open to new ideas about the book. It’s acceptable and encouraged to see another’s view point, and not necessarily accept it as your own. I wouldn’t know half as much if I read in isolation and never talked about movies or books I watched–not that that has to happen all the time. Balance and connection – and willingness to learn something new.


  • Character
  • Pattern of plot/story
  • Symbols
  • Literary devices: what is the writer doing well, or what seems awkward?
  • Author’s voice: word choices are not arbitrary
  • Text Sets: Informational connections to literary texts

As I said in a previous post, Gluing the Wings Back On, all this analysis has somewhat disrupted my own reading life. For fun, I’m reading The Winter Witch by Paula Brackston. It’s a romance. Know how I know? The heroine conveniently can’t/won’t speak, and forces her new husband to communicate with gestures, glances, and inferences. Talk about forcing your partner to truly listen. Every paragraph is a volley of “does he love me, does he not?” and for some reason she can’t write him a note. Her lack of writing literacy hasn’t been addressed yet, and I’m not sure it will be. Sometimes I wish I could read this sort of stuff as a 12-year-old. Unlike The Witch’s Boy by Michael Gruber, which is truly a magical book–a retelling of a classic fairy tale with grit, and takes the patterns and practice of fairy tale into a realm of authenticity and surprise. (It takes a lot to surprise me about a fairy tale, and someday perhaps a romance will surprise me again, too. So far only The Princess Bride and just about anything by John Irving have taught me new narratives about romance. Okay…Jane Austen, too. And The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.) But I digress – perhaps this is a post for another time: what authors speak to our life’s themes?

Till next time – turning the page.

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WIHWT: Americanah



(Note to self: ask Cult of Pedagogy if she makes any cash from her links to Amazon.)

This “Wish I Had Written That” is stretching a bit here — this novel is meant for grown-ups. This is not a recommendation for secondary students, although if seniors in high school, or even my own children, wanted to read this novel or anything by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I’d be proud. (As it is, my older son is trying to get me to read Goncharov and my younger one understand the mastery of Dungeons & Dragons, and geological surveys–good luck with that, kids.) But it does need a little life experience under one’s belt. A little bit of context. And full disclosure: I couldn’t have written this. The protagonist has her own story, and for me to make even presumptions or connections about race, love, family, or hair would be disingenuous. (The protagonist is a blogger, but makes a living from it. I’m also not quite there yet!)

But I still think it should be required reading. Wait–scratch that. Read if you want to know about race, love, family, and hair. And surviving yourself through your twenties, and finding your way. Or, if you’re beyond your twenties, how you found your way, which you surely did.

Tomorrow night is night I look forward to–it’s Book Club night. This month’s selection was my choice–I chickened out and gave the ladies a choice, between this book and J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. When the book club members overwhelmingly chose Rowling’s book, at first I was a little disappointed because I really want to read Americanah. (That’s what I get for my chicken-ness.) However, I was not disappointed after reading Rowling’s first ‘grown up’ book. I loved it. She is a master of characters, connections, and layers of plots that are never ‘sub’ to anything, but partner plots that hold the whole story together. The only thing I may regret is that I will not have another grown-up to talk about Americanah with.

And what a concept: that I’m truly sorry I have no one in real time to discuss a great book and author. And that–that is what I want to ignite in my classroom. Not just “read it” –but read it so you can talk about it. A book shared is a gift from our inner lives, our inner thoughts: what others come to believe or interpret about literature is sublime and…it’s love.

Last night I was out to dinner with my husband, and telling him about my Renaissance with ‘The Raven‘ by Edgar Allan Poe and 7th grade students. I am not the same teacher I was so many years ago, and have learned over the past four to five years to let the students do most of the heavy mental lifting. Being in on their discussions as they grapple with stanzas and translate early 19th century gothic poetry is so fun. My husband brought up that Poe was not a favorite of his until he heard ‘Annabel Lee.’ Being the modern woman I am, found the poem on my phone, and he looked it over again, and offered new insight to the beauty of some of its lines…how beautiful a concept that angels, who are supposed to be so beatific and perfect, could be jealous of  humans’ love…

The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
   Went envying her and me—
Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,
   In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
   Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

By talking about a poem, I learned something new about my husband, even after 23 years.

Now I’m not sure how to tell students what this all means, how to show them what’s in front of them, and what beauty is around the corner for them, too. I’ll try to figure out a way though–look through my old scrolls and tomes of quaint and curious lore, of long forgotten lesson plans of book talks and sharing of tales, and see what they create. These experiences, too, add to their own stories.

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Got the whole data in his hands…

This may not have much to do with the topic, but I always think a little Carl Sagan thrown in on a hopeless Saturday morning to be a good thing to get some perspective. Everything from Ben Carson wanting to use his magic time machine and give guns to Jews, (and others who think he was right, who also have no idea how anything works), to folks conflating their religious beliefs with their tax dollars. Me? Shrug. I’ve got big data to keep me warm for a few hours! Seriously – no snark, promise –this is fun for me–looking over ideas from charts and exploring what’s behind the numbers.

Visible Learning by John Hattie (2009) takes on ‘meta-analysis relating to achievement.‘ This book is a gift from our new administrator, and I am grateful for it. In a nutshell, there are over a hundred concepts that have been tried in education to promote student achievement. The word “achievement” has a mental bookmark for me, because I need to stop and look up the definition of achievement in this context.

After a few attempts around the Interwebs, I came across this:

Examples/Glossary and links to instructional methods are here.

A colleague and I were discussing at lunch that most of the reports, when investigated further, need to be considered through a critical eye–to me, the data are a tapestry. If, say for instance Home Life is not judged solely on the basis of its number, but on the complex responses of parents to children’s schooling, then it does have an impact when taken out of its data silo. The concept of parent ‘surveillance’ hit home with me especially in this day of instant progress and missing assignment reports. I’ve been guilty of this, and perhaps we need to look at our grading reporting systems so we don’t enable parents to be supervisors or spies in their children’s education, but seek to aspire as Hattie suggests. Looking at classroom size–this needs another review. If you’re at 20 to 30 there isn’t much difference, but if you get to classroom sizes of 40, yes, that has to impact learning, if those 40 are relenting to peer pressure and not tracking the instruction. Teasing out one factor from another is difficult. But maybe I’m just clinging to the Old Gods of Educational Myths.

Grant Wiggins wrote on article back in 2012 on Hattie’s work, and there are a few editorial comments/changes. It’s a good article, and I suggest reading it. 

Here is the big snake of data: (click to enlarge)




1. Self-report grades

Self reported grades with John Hattie from Cognition Education on Vimeo.

If some of the systems in place in the positive zone on the lower rungs of impact aren’t in place, does this impact the upper rungs?

John Hattie’s Summary: Know thy impact from Cognition Education on Vimeo.

Well, ultimately, his message is clear: allow for risk and listening. I would add one other factor which I am not sure he addresses, and that is student influences on one another. Perhaps he does, but it’s not clear where it is in the data belt.

Overhearing students tell another to “not to do the work,” and adding that peer pressure and ridicule their friends when they do like school is HUGE. Perhaps this is covered under another of Hattie’s data point umbrellas, but in middle school where friendship and belonging are the rings that rule them all, it’s something to be mindful of. Students work ethic is affected by their peer groups, and using that knowledge to move the momentum back to achievement (it’s cool to be smart/gain knowledge) is a value that can help all students.

What’s your take away from Hattie’s work? Is he just another educator trying to sell a program? A scholar supporting important messages? I value the focus: the intentional focus on not getting spun out by the distractions or misdirections in educational conversations. If meta-analysis provides evidence of key educational concepts that have the greatest impact, then those focused conversations may be of great value.

I believe the larger vision is to align his work with those of our PLCs, so I plan on giving this some thought. It took my group about five collective hours just to agree on what a good summary is, but I have hope. This means we’re truly thinking and evaluating, and not taking things at surface level. (My mantra: ‘retell is not a summary…retell is not a summary….retell is not a summary’). One thing I do know is we’re a pretty savvy group of educators, and we’ll figure it out. This gives us some clarity, and what to reprioritize.


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WIHWT: Green Angel

Green Angel by Alice Hoffman
Green Angel by Alice Hoffman, 2010

Are there books or texts you desperately want to teach, to introduce, yet never find the right moment? The place in the curriculum, scope and sequence, where a text resides permanently in outlier territory? Green Angel is one such novel for me. This Wish I Had Written That, authored by one of my favorite writers, Alice Hoffman, tells a powerful story of loss, identity, and regrowth. It’s short, only 116 small pages, and is one of those stories that still leaves me aching and in awe over the human spirit. Some say it’s a parable for the events of 9/11, and while that may be the case, it’s themes lend themselves to catastrophe and devastation over time and space.

Some guiding questions:

Closely read the colophon: Describe the structure of the text, and question why the writer requested this. (Buy a copy of the book or review on Amazon to understand this lens–do not want to impede on its copyright laws.)

Closely read the introduction–who is speaking? What are they telling us, and in what timing? Why did the writer use this pacing?


This is how it happened I once believed that life was a gift. I thought whatever I wanted I would someday possess. Is that greed, or only youth? Is it hope or stupidity? As far as I was concerned the future was a book I could write to suit myself, chapter after chapter of good fortune. All was right with the world, and my place in it was assured, or so I thought then. I had no idea that all stories unfold like white flowers, petal by petal, each in its own time and season, dependent on circumstance and fate. The future is something no one can foretell. My family had always lived on the ridgetop above the village in a county where days were sunny and warm. At twilight, dusk wove across the meadows like a dream of the next day to come. People said we were blessed, and maybe that was true. My father was honest and strong. My mother collected blue jay feathers, preferring them to her pearls. My little sister, Aurora, was as wild as she was beautiful. 

Hoffman, Alice (2010-02-01). Green Angel (Kindle Locations 11-19). Scholastic Inc.. Kindle Edition.


There are multiple themes to discuss. Keep in mind not to steer students’ thinking to ONE big idea–there are multiple discussion points.

“Or that the book is a commentary on the value of our memories. All rich books have several themes. When a teacher predetermines “the” theme, the teacher also predetermines the students’ thinking. So what do I mean when I say I want students to generate their own thinking? Let’s return to The Giver, for example. Before reading the novel, I would have told my students that there were several large ideas imbedded in the text and that their job as they read would be to identify one or more of them and to track the development of the ideas. After reading a few chapters, I would schedule a day for the class to revisit their reading. Instead of assigning a theme to track, I might put them in small groups and ask them, “What’s worth talking about in this chapter? What big ideas are beginning to emerge?” ”

Gallagher, Kelly (2015-02-28). In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom (Kindle Locations 2873-2879). Stenhouse Publishers. Kindle Edition.

I highly recommend this secondary-level novel if you’re doing any teaching discussing and considering loss, identity, destruction, regrowth, sibling and family relationships, etc. Add informational texts from 9/11, and use StoryCorp and This I Believe to hear real narratives. It’s an opportunity to compare how the writer crafts a narrative to tell a ‘true’ story, and how truth, fact, and opinion often live together.

Ah, what a wonderful world with so many stories to tell…


Postscript: Writing opportunities–

*Write a brief analysis of how the writer introduces the main character, and how this supports style/craft.

*Write a quick narrative introducing the story from the sister’s point of view.

*Write a news report of the events.

*Write a perspective from the attackers’ point of view.

Suggested Standards:

Key Ideas and Details:

Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.

Craft and Structure:

Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other texts.
Analyze how differences in the points of view of the characters and the audience or reader (e.g., created through the use of dramatic irony) create such effects as suspense or humor.
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