Getting Started

Editions: You should consider encouraging all of your students to buy the same edition.  Many of the novels on the approved list for teaching come in more than one edition and, unless you specifically tell your students which edition to purchase, they will show up with whatever was on sale for ten cents on Amazon.  Pagination tends to vary with each edition which can lead to all sorts of problems during discussion.

Schedule:  Figuring out how many days to spend reading a novel is tricky business.  You’ll need to take into consideration the novel’s length and language.  In general, you probably want to spend at least two weeks reading and discussing the novel, but anything more than three weeks is pushing it.  The students’ interest will lag and you’ll face the very real threat of mutiny. For a MWF class, assigning 25-50 pages per class is reasonable; 50-75 pages is fine for a TTH class.  However, you’ll also want to take into account what’s happening in the novel: breaking at a cliff-hanger moment can spur good discussions and raise the students’ level of interest; stopping right before a character experiences a major change can be useful too; or think about breaking up the novel in a way that focuses on a different idea/theme for each discussion.

Making Connections: You may also want to think about how the novel connects with other texts on your syllabus.  Are there any common themes?  What similarities might the students see among the characters in the different texts?  How about the author’s project/goal?  Think about ordering your texts in a way that privileges the ideas and themes you want to highlight in the novel and in the course as a whole.

[Compiled by Travis Johnson, posted by Anna Stenson (]

Strategies and Tips

Introductory Ideas/Activities

Free-write: The free-write is a great way to begin any class period because it ensures that everyone in the class has something to say.  Ask the students a question, give them five minutes to write, and then have fun calling on students to explain their answers to the class.  One useful way to use the free-write is to ask the students to free-write on a particular issue that will be raised in the novel before they’ve read anything in the novel.  The writing not only will jumpstart your students into thinking about the issue, but it will also force them to take a position early on.  You can then later revisit your students’ free-writes and ask them to reexamine their positions after reading the novel.

Leading Questions: It’s always a good idea to give your students questions to consider or themes to look for before they’ve started reading.  Many of the students are not very good at close reading and need direction to help them engage more with the text.  Your questions will not only help them figure out what the heck is going on in the novel and help them figure out what it means to “read closely,” but will give them ideas to talk about in the next class discussion and/or writing assignment.

Scenario: Put together a brief scenario that asks the students to make a similar decision to one a character makes in the story.  For example, in The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred is forced to choose a life of sexual submission over a slow death by radiation poisoning. You might ask the students to choose between a loveless but financially secure relationship and autonomy with a short life expectancy.  This activity works best if the student has to make the decision before reading novel; the student can then later compare/contrast his/her decision with the character’s and even evaluate which decision is better.

Webquest: Our students love the internet, and who are we to stand in the way of their love?  Send students on a webquest that asks them research information that will help them better understand the context of a novel.  Think about dividing the students into groups, giving each group a specific quest, and having them report back to the class.

Discussion Ideas/Activities

Tracking Characters: This is a simple activity, but useful especially with novels that have a lot of different characters. With chalk (or marker) in hand, ask your students to name each character.  As you write down each character’s name on the board, ask your students the following questions: What do you think about this person and why? How would you describe his/her personality? How would describe his/her relationship with other characters listed on the board? What are his/her motivations? Why do you think the author chose to include this type of character? In subsequent classes, you can revisit the character outlines and ask your students to track character changes and development.

Student Questions: At the beginning of class, ask each student come up with one question he/she has about the novel and write it on the board.  This works best later in the semester after you’ve modeled what good discussion questions look like.  You’ll end up with twenty or so questions of varying quality, but it will likely lead to a lively discussion because the students are asked to engage with the questions that they think are important in the novel.  Plus, it’s an easy way to push the quieter students into the discussion.  Point at a question on the board, ask who wrote the question, and once a student finally admits authorship, ask him/her to engage with the idea.

Quotes: This is a variation on the previous activity.  Ask your students to find a quote that they think is important to consider, something they think is significant to the novel as a whole, and have them share their reading of the quote with the rest of the class.

Trial/Debate: Have the students put a character on trial or debate a controversial issue that’s raised in the novel.  Divide the students into separate groups (prosecution/defense, pro/con, etc.) and give them time in or outside of class to put together arguments and rebuttals.  This is a great (and fun) way to get all of your students involved in the discussion and will likely lead to some thoughtful (and explosive!) arguments.

Fun with Film Clips: Technology is your friend.  Embrace it.  All of the classrooms in EPB are now fully equipped with a/v fun and I encourage all you to use it in class now and then.  One way to incorporate the big screen into your discussion is to show clips from an adaptation of the novel.  Talk about the interpretive choices and changes the director makes and how they might influence an audience’s response.  If you’re lucky, there will be multiple adaptations available and you can compare/contrast the different choices directors have made.

Book Cover Studies: Ask your students to examine the novel’s packaging (the image on the cover, font size and shape, blurbs from critics and other authors, plot description, author bio, etc.) and discuss how the publisher’s marketing strategies influence their interpretation and valuing of the novel. Or, if you’re lucky and there are different editions in circulation, you can compare/contrast the different book covers.

Reading the Critics/Playing the Critic: Have your students read some of the original reviews of the novel and compare them with their own experience reading it.  You can also ask your students to write their own short reviews of the text and share them with the class.    

Writing Activities

Online Discussion Board: This is another pitch for embracing technology in the classroom.  ICON comes equipped with a discussion board feature and I would encourage everyone to consider trying it out.  It’s a good way to get your students asking questions, sharing ideas, and arguing big issues before class begins.  It also gives you an idea what the students are interested in discussing and what their confusions are before you enter the classroom.

Spotting Symbols: Ask students to consider significant objects or architectural spaces in the text and analyze their relevance to the novel’s important events and themes.  Then, during the next class period, ask students to share their discoveries.  For example, the mead-hall in Beowulf is a site rich with ambivalence.  Or, in Watchmen, the advertisements that pervade the background offer some striking commentaries on the events occurring in the foreground.

Directing the Film:  In this assignment, students describe how they would adapt a scene from the novel to film. Ask your students to consider things like costume, blocking, camera angle, music, etc. and describe how their vision of the film reflects their interpretation of the scene.

Writing a Letter/Journal Entry: This assignment asks the students to write a letter or journal entry in the voice of one of the characters and comment on issues and themes that are raised in the narrative.  There are a number of different ways you can approach this writing assignment, but I like to assign my students a minor character and have them write a letter to the protagonist.  This is a good way to get the students thinking and talking about the significant role some of the minor characters play in the novel.

A New Point of View: A variation on the previous activity, this assignment asks students to recreate a scene in the novel from a different character’s point of view and consider how he/she’s understanding of and response to the scene’s events might be different from the protagonist’s or narrator’s.

[Compiled by Travis Johnson, posted by Anna Stenson (]

Strategies for Teaching Long Novels

Long novels (anything more than 400 pages) are a bit of a risk in GEL. It may be difficult to maintain student interest and to keep everyone on track with the reading.

For maintaining student interest: You might consider adding supplementary readings that relate to the theme or context of the novel. One or two days with poetry and short stories might be a nice change of pace, as well as adding to the depth of the discussions.

For keeping students on track: Another good strategy is a reading journal. You can have students respond to unique prompts each night, or use a File reading log template that asks student to respond to the same prompts for each section of the novel.