Why Teach Novels in High School?

Do we have to read a book this year?” Any fool who loves literature cringes at the expression from a student who doesn’t want to read.

Examining the standards of any state and the skills required for both college and the workplace, it is the burden of English teachers everywhere to prepare students for professional, academic reading and writing.

As much as we hate to admit it, there is a gap between students who plan to attend college and students who plan to enroll in a trade school (not to mention those who wish to enter the workforce immediately). For those wishing to learn a trade, we are challenged with justifying the completion of research papers, and the testing of comprehension of novels. Even for the majority of college students, while research writing applies across virtually every discipline, reading, recalling, and analyzing a difficult novel can seem like a vain pursuit (In Virginia, the literature taught is required to be virtually all British).

As much as I love literature, and love teaching it, there is a part of me that hates to make a student read something written for recreation, for pleasure, for personal growth, for anything but being analyzed and tested in a factory classroom. An ocean of authors out there must cringe at anyone being made to read their stuff—for a grade!—even if it means their work is purchased and carried on. At times, I scan the few choices on my classroom shelf and shudder at the thought of my students shuddering at the thought of reading them.

Is music appreciation mandatory? Art appreciation? Cuisine cooking? Why does my favorite artistic form have to be mandatory? And why does it seem like this has led so many to hate books? There is a time and a place to discuss how novels should be taught, especially to prevent students from hating them, but today I am making the case for teaching the novel in a classroom:

A novel is a long story weaved of characters, settings, plot devices, tones, moods, themes, symbols, ironies, motifs, and patterns of interpretation in accompaniment. To learn these things individually would amount to a list, but to know how they work together to produce a work is like knowing how a full system works. A good novel can compare to the following:

cathedral (art/architecture)
human body (medicine)
combustion engine (machines)
an ecosystem (biology/cology)
a processor (compter tech)

A good novel is labored by an author to be a complex body working to express meaning. That meaning is sometimes up to debate, and students can work together to decipher it like a puzzle, preparing them to explore complex systems in teams to solve problems. Its intricate, interrelated parts can be known individually and seen as a whole. As an added bonus, sometimes students actually find the story compelling (as opposed to a dead corpse or a static blueprint).

Einfühlung: It’s not listed as a state standard, but helping students see the perspectives of others is good for their emotional and intellectual health. Articles published in The Guardian, Slate, and Scientific American have discussed this. We stand where characters stand, and we understand both their inner and outer world, where they come from, who they are, and where they are trying to go in life. We’re talking about preventing crime and war here, people. Novels make you more attuned to other humans.

How fiction can change reality (a TedEd video)

I can study vocab words and grammar rules in a list all day, but the two best ways to learn vocab and grammar rules are to encounter them and use them. Reading covers half that, and reading novels gives you more words and grammar structures, potentially used multiple times, with many possible nuances. Most of all, they provide a variety of contexts for these words and uses of syntax. But I think you already knew that.

Yes, I know full well we should debate what we once considered canon. Why are all these books written by dead white men? Nonetheless, as socializing institutions, schools do play a role in engaging students with the heritage(s) of our culture. Wise novel selections are “frozen,” isolated samples of our culture. They speak volumes of our culture, both as artifacts and as commentaries. Think of what To Kill a Mockingbird and Huck Finn say of the American South, at separate times and in separate places. Literature pairs well with history.

Yes, too often students complain about the read, but with the right teaching, even a traditionally boring novel can be made entertaining. Still, it is best to choose a novel relevant to students. Don’t be afraid of veering from the canon. Make it relevant, and the students may never forget the experience. In a good way.

I don’t teach novels often. Novels require great diligence and my students already have so many other tasks to accomplish in such a short time. But I teach at least one novel every semester to every class. And although it is (technically) mandatory, I take measures to ensure to students that the experience can be beneficial, even if they hate the story. If they hate the novel, I encourage them to explain their critique, and even mock the novel in their projects. After all, it’s part of the dialogue of culture, part of the responsible adult process of debating meaning.

I teach novels. But I don’t just teach them because of some necessary mandate that kids know Moby Dick in order to graduate. It’s less about the novel itself than the skills taught, and the understanding and empathy that come out of it. This can only happen when activities and assessments provoke this kind of learning. But that is another talk for another time.

Read on.

One response to “Why Teach Novels in High School?

  1. Huge reader…always have been, coming from a huge family of huge readers, but throughout highschool I only read one of the books that were compulsory reading. Moreover, throughout the next 50 years I balked at each of those classics; loathing the prospect of Dickens (all of which my daughter read for pleasure by age 10); Goethe; Tolstoy, and yes, even Shakespeare.
    A better system would allow the student to choose his own “compulsory” reading, with approval of the teacher.

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