Monday, December 08, 2008

Are Novels a Necessity in School?



One of the latests posts on the ASCD In Service blog talked about the possible death of the the novel in the secondary classroom.

I remember in high school I actually took a novel class where the teacher gave us a speed reading test in the beginning of the semester, and based on that we were given a number of pages that we had to read per week. When we finished a novel, we had to have a conference with him and maybe write a paper. During class, we all faced each other in rows and. . . read. I think my number was 250 pages per week, on top of my other work from all my other classes, so I ended up reading a lot of trash novels and none of the heavier classics on my "to read before I die" list because I needed to make my pages with minimal brain strain. In my other senior English class, I took short story and poetry, so not too much reading in that one either. I must say, I did not get very far on my list before I got to college and decided to major in chemistry.

I did not stay with chemistry and ended up graduating as an English major, but besides my Russian lit. class, I didn't read any novels. I read a lot of excerpts in Norton Anthologies and I read plays and poems. When I started teaching English, it was no longer considered best practice to have English electives courses so we taught pretty much from the textbook (more excerpts, short stories and plays). We covered maybe one or two novels a year, except for my AP classes who did six at the most. My all time favorite American lit. books to fall back on as a teacher were: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Joy Luck Club, Of Mice and Men (or Grapes of Wrath) and Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Laura Hamilton, of the RAND Corporation, addressed this idea that teachers are no longer using novels at a November 20 forum on standardized assessments hosted by the Center on Education Policy. According to Hamilton, more and more teachers are assigning short passages to their students to read because this is how reading is tested on most assessments under NCLB. Instead of assigning novels to students and having them write essays on what they read, educators are having the students read short passages and answer multiple-choice questions or, in essence, teaching to the test.
The pressures associated with achieving high assessment scores may have put some of these educators in a position where they see no need to incorporate novels into their curriculum. But if students only read short passages, then that is what they will become accustomed to, and some may not even comprehend why it is important to read a full-length book.

Are novels assigned less frequently than in the past in your school system? How do you think assigning short passages instead of full-length novels will affect students, and do you think assessments have killed the novel in the classroom? If novels are no longer assigned in the classroom, which of the "canonical" novels will you mourn for?

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