Choose Your Books Wisely
You’re teaching literature, so it should be no surprise that the literature that you choose is the most important part of your class and your students’ interest in your class. Basically, if your students can’t get interested in the literature, they’re going to be uninterested in the entire class. Therefore, a lot of time should be devoted to figuring out which books you can make and keep interesting. Yes, you are constrained somewhat by different school, district, and maybe even state guidelines, but you still have a lot of power over your choices. Here’s how I do it:
Find books you love to teach and find very interesting.
Naturally, if you are teaching a book you like, you are going to have a lot to say about it. As you lead your lessons and discussions, you and your students will be blown away by your insight. Yes, you will even surprise yourself! If you know you hated a book and it was a total drudge for you to finish, try your hardest to avoid teaching it.
Do research on the book
I can’t say that I have pre-read every book before I put it on the reading list. Even though that is the best idea. However, I do enough online research and with other teachers before I make a decision to read a book. If many other teachers have taught the book, they will have plenty to say about how their students enjoyed it. Or can tell you about any inappropriate content you may want to avoid. Other teachers are lifesavers when you don’t have time to pre-read everything. Also, the layman advice you find on major websites can be insightful too.
Find books that illustrate historical events
Students often wonder why they have to read books that were literally written centuries ago. But at the same time, students generally love history. When you let them in on the fact that they can enter into a time machine with books, they dive in, trying to find all of the historical information about that particular time period. Step away from “who did what,” and tell the students why the events are significant to history, whether they are fictional accounts or real events. Let them know that just because the people are made up, often the book is based in reality, and life really was like this in say, Colonial America.
No matter how old they are, students love read-aloud time. Take a few minutes to read the book aloud to your students. It allows them to enjoy that feeling when they were younger- the pure joy of being read to. I have read to my elementary and middle and high school students, and they all immerse themselves into the book when I do. Beyond that, you are also helping them pick up on the language that the author is using, which will be helpful when they read alone at home. For example, my middle school class just read Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, and the colonial style language was throwing them for a loop. After they heard me read, they followed my dictation and pronunciation. Some students may need this example more than others, but everyone enjoys the experience.
Encourage Discussion by Staying Quiet and Discussing Daily
Class discussions are the best! They allow students to express themselves, their feelings about events, their questions and their general understanding of the plot. It also allows you to check their understanding. And lastly, it motivates them to read because they won’t want to feel left out of the conversation. Thus, you should strive to have discussions each day (short or long). I normally project the questions one at a time, so the class isn’t a free-for-all. There is no worse way to start a discussion than, “What did you think of the book?” Guide the questions with an eye on your standards and themes of literature overall. If we haven’t talked about characterization in a while, my discussion question for Kate Chopin’s The Awakening for the day may be, “What type of mother does Edna seem to be? Why do we have this perception of her?” This question allows students to use evidence from the book but also state their own opinion of what mothers should and shouldn’t be. Trust me, this discussion could last a complete class period. Or two.
Students are competitive creatures by nature. They love it. Use online platforms or in-person activities to have them compete against each other on their knowledge of the book. When they want to win, they will make sure to read the assignment chapters. Keep in mind that this is also another way for you to check for understanding and correct any misconceptions that students may have from the story. If a good portion of the class gets a question wrong, I know that they missed something, and it’s time for me to do some ‘splainin’.
Excitement is contagious. You may be excited without knowing why, but others are, so you are. It’s the same when it comes to literature. If you show your love of the book, the author, or even the time period, the students will follow. You should laugh at funny parts of the story, and your students will start finding the story funnier. Show your anger at injustices in the story, and your students will find the story more rousing. You are the captain of your classroom ship, and your crew will follow your lead.