Monday, July 1, 2013

Atwell: Whole Class Novel Instruction

Teaching a whole class novel creates difficulties at times. How can it be taught correctly? It is hard to say and that is why I believe so many teachers are getting away from it. However, I came across an idea by Atwell that I love.

Atwell is a big fan of the novel, The Outsiders. She distributes a copy to each student and they read and discuss the novel every year. But, how does she do it? I will outline her strategies and then discuss how I could apply them to my own teaching.

First she conducts a series of mini lessons on the young adult fiction literature genre. Atwell passes out copies of The Outsiders and then talks about how the book was written by a 16 year old high school girl in 1967. Atwell explains that until The Outsiders all books for young teens revolved around mystery or "the prom", but not on real issues of teens.

  • Before S.E. Hinton, books for young adults either solved a mystery or asked the burning question, "Will I go to the prom?" In a speech at an English teacher's conference, Hinton once said, "There were no books that showed what was really going on with teenagers. I wrote The Outsiders because I wanted to read it." Her novel is packed with what is really going on with teenagers: peer pressure, concerns about social status, stereo typing, absent or abusive parents, threats of violence, loneliness, the overwhelming importance of friends and friendships to kids your age. The Outsiders told the truth about life through a teenager's eyes. Its grassroots success--The Outsiders has sold millions of copies--paved the way for other young adults writers, people like Robert Cormier, Walter Dean Myers, and Caroline Cooney. ~ Atwell

Atwell-- Novel Study of The Outsiders

  • Distrubutes a copy of the novel to each student and she reads aloud the first 10 pages, while they follow along. She states that she wants to hook them by playing up Ponyboy's voice.
  • Three four-by-six notecards- Atwell gives the notecards to each student.
  • Assignments- Atwell instructs that over the next 5 days the students are required to read at least through page 75 of the book. The students must stop at the poem "Nothing Gold Can Stay"--at that time they will discuss poetry as a class.
  • Homework- The notecards are for making observations. Students must record that they see the writer doing: how she develops the characters and advances the plot. Note questions about what she did or how she did it. Note the themes that emerge such as problems with teenage life. Find the turning point of the action, when the novel changes and nothing can go back to the way it was. Note the relevant pages numbers for the discovery made.
Outsiders' themes that are addressed in class:
  • knowledge and self knowledge
  • compassion
  • respect
  • self-respect
  • a personal voice
  • memory
  • family
  • Don't judge people by their cover
  • Everyone dreams and yearns
  • Watching out for stereotypes
  • Growing up is hard for everyone
  • Violence never solves problems
  • nature can bring people together
I love the idea of the 3X5 notecards. It is hard for me to assign classroom novels as homework due to lack of copies. However, that is a strategy that I could use in class.

Also, I like that the learning is still up to the student. She guides them and asks questions, but the discoveries must be made by the students.

This lesson also demonstrates the important need of really knowing the books that you choose as a teacher to use in class. Atwell knows exactly where she wants to go with the text, when to start and when to stop--the poem for example.

This reminds me that I need to diligently go through the in-class novels that I want to use, and know strategically what elements I want to use in my instruction. What parts of the book could lead to lessons on poetry, writing style, vivid verbs, adjectives, use of pronouns, development of plot?

How will reading a book open the doors of opportunity to create mini lessons addressing the common core standards that need to be mastered?

Looks like I have a lot of work ahead!

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