Do you want to create a meaningful study of your favorite young adult novel, but you're not sure where to start? Building meaningful novel studies for middle and high school ELA is all about making connections. When middle school and high school students feel connected to the characters and events in a text, their understanding and engagement increases exponentially.
Here are three tips for building connections that will help students to love and appreciate the novels you teach in class.
1. Make connections to your students' lives.
In order to engage students in learning, it's important to make connections to their lives. We read to better understand ourselves--our own lives are the basis for every theme in literature. Tap into that connection.
Every year, I begin by teaching our only whole class novel, A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park (you can check out my unit here). Most of my students are unfamiliar with life in South Sudan; however, they are all familiar with some form of adversity. Salva's story is one of perseverance in the face of life's most challenging circumstances. As we study the theme of the novel, we make connections to our own struggles. Teaching this novel through the pandemic, students were able to feel this connection in the most profound way. Salva's motto to take challenges one step at a time, one day at a time became our rallying cry for making it through the challenges of pandemic life.
Try it in your classroom: as students read, ask them to reflect on and share connections to their own lives. This can be as simple as an exit ticket with the question: how does this novel connect to your own life? How does this novel make you think of your own experiences differently? For the kids who are quick to say, it doesn't, encourage them to think deeply about universal experiences. The connection might be subtle.
You can also encourage students to study themes through the lens of our own existence. Emphasize the reason why we read: to better understand ourselves.
2. Make connections to other texts.
Students need background knowledge to better understand what they read. Tie informational texts into your novel studies. Find articles that connect to the places, people, and events in assigned novels.
For example, before opening the front cover of A Long Walk to Water, we read this article from Vox explaining the history of conflict in South Sudan. Throughout our reading of the novel, students read stories about the Lost Boys, the Second Sudanese Civil War, and the tribal culture of the area.
Before you start a novel study, ask your students to close read an article that connects through time, place, or character(s). Challenge your students to close read and study one related article each week during your novel study to deepen their understanding of the time, place, and/or characters.
3. Make connections to the world.
Dr. Donna Ford created a matrix that builds off of the original Bloom's Taxonomy of learning to help teachers build stronger multi-cultural lesson plans. In this matrix, the highest order of learning happens when students "critique important social and cultural issues, and seek to make changes in the world."
Help build meaning into your novel studies by extending students' learning to real world application. For example, after reading A Long Walk to Water, my students study the lives of refugees around the world today using the United Nations Refugee Agency website.
After researching the story of refugees, students present the names and faces of the people they studied. Last school year, we set up an event at our public library sharing the stories of the people who become refugees because of wars, famine, and oppression. Students were empowered to share information and dispel misinformation about refugees. It was a moment none of us will soon forget!
At the end of a novel study, challenge your students to design and implement a community service project that builds on themes in the novel. This could be as simple as sharing research or speaking at a public library to dispel misinformation.
Great literature forces us to grow, reflect, and empathize with others. When designing a novel study, focus on facilitating connections among your students and themselves, other texts, and the world around them. Help students discover the power of literature to make them better human beings.
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