Ideally, students would stop judging books by their covers and at least try to read what they are given. Yet more often than not, I am faced with the question, “How do I get students to love the amazing books I love, or at least tolerate the books we are assigned since they’re the only remaining ones in a full class set?”
Here’s how I handle this situation.
Well, first things first. I make sure students can read the book. Only when my students are able to fluently read the book (meaning the student does not have to look up more than 3 or 4 vocabulary words per page and can relate to you the basic plot after an individual reading) will they be able to take that comprehension into the next level of questioning and analysis. Granted, this happens most often with classics published for adults, but it can happen with trade books for children as well.
If the administration says, “Phooey to your research-based suggestion! Teach this work of literature — it will challenge the students to rise!” Then, I work to create two or three clear, attainable objectives for the book.
My students are not only 8th graders, but all of them come from a different language background and a little under 50% are still English Language Learners. I am not denying my students’ tenacity, but I also don’t want to set them up for defeat.
So, in order to tackle this beast, I focus on just three goals. I want students to (1) know and connect with the basic plot, (2) use the story to apply their skills to a specific element of literature, and (3) identify and connect story elements to whichever major themes I have for that book.
I know it feels oversimplified, but with these three goals, I am able to prune the extraneous. With stronger readers, I can assign deeper prompts connected to my three goals and with weaker readers, I can create cloze exercises, chapter summaries, and other supports to scaffold their mastery of these three goals. Anything outside these goals, I nix! Sure, I would love to hit every theme, motif, character motivation, and symbol in these novels — I’m a lit major! Yet, for my eighth graders, I know that the best way to have lasting impact — to get pieces to stick to their ribs — is not to spread the story shallow, but to give them tools to dig deep.
Some would argue that I am not doing the book justice, and I admit that it is a risk. Yet I am hoping that by creating manageable objectives for my students now, they will not be turned off by the books that they most likely will reencounter in their future education.
So now tell us, how do all of you handle this situation?