I’m a reader. I love books. Sitting outside with a good novel for a few hours is my idea of a nice afternoon. It’s not just the story that I enjoy: I like a novel that makes me think and requires me to learn something new about history, culture, and the human condition. That kind of literary stimulation is fun for me and represents one reason why I want to become an English teacher. Teaching novels not only allows me to expose students to literature, but it also provides me the opportunity to read and reread a bunch of books. In spite of my enthusiasm, however, I experienced a certain degree of trepidation when my CT informed me that I would be handling the novel studies for both blocks. At first, of course, I was very excited at the prospect of doing that which I longed to do. Before long, the fear that accompanies anything new set in and I began to worry about what exactly I was supposed to do. Something told me that it wouldn’t be good enough to get in there, have the class read the first section and say, “Well, whatdaya think?” That approach could work in a graduate class or upper-level undergrad course, but it will not fly with eighth graders.
Ranging from anticipation guides and reading questions to situation-based activities and debates, I’ve come up with some pretty decent strategies for presenting issues to students. An activity that I was particularly proud of was something that I called “Character Takeover.” It was nothing ground-breaking. Students were supposed to assume the identity of a character from the novel and write a journal entry or letter about whatever that character was going through in the story. I am not so deluded as to consider myself the first person to come up with this, but I didn’t realize that virtually the same strategy would be addressed by Jim Burke in chapter four of The English Teacher’s Companion.
As one might expect, Burke’s version is better. His assignment stipulates that a student will keep a character journal throughout the course of the entire novel. I like that requirement because it demands that the student read attentively and be sensitive to how changes in relationships and plot affect the character psychologically. Perhaps someone could argue that such an assignment would lead to reader myopia by making a student pay such close attention to one character, but I would disagree. A character journal would help to bring to life the world of the novel. Readers naturally identify with a particular character more than others in any given story, and the character journal provides a space to explore that identification. Rather than spawning a narrow perspective, a richer understanding of and engagement with all of the characters is bound to result.
I do wonder, however, if the activity, as Burke describes it, is plausible for middle school students. His example refers to high school students reading The Lord of the Flies, but it seems to me that an eighth grader might not want to make a commitment to just one character. I fear that a middle school would lose interest writing from only one perspective, start phoning it in, and therefore defeat the purpose of the assignment. Maybe splitting the novel into thirds and allowing students the option of sticking with their initial character or switching to another would ward off fatigue and present the added challenge of writing from a new perspective.
I can tell that it is going to be both challenging and rewarding to create engaging ways to involve students in novels. Even though I’m by no means the first to think of it, my idea is at least good enough for someone of such high repute as Jim Burke. That makes me feel okay about myself.