English Class: Choose Your Own Book
Really? In English class?! We get to choose? Choice Novel Studies (CNS) are beginning to ripple into our high school English department, with great benefits. Our circulation numbers in the library increased by over 1,000 this year, as more students had the opportunity to choose and study books from our library’s collection in these units. Aside from the benefits to the library, the CNS benefits both the high school English curriculum and, most importantly, our students! It’s an opportunity to engage teen readers with a novel of their choice. The CNS approach supports making more “real” readers, since students want to read the book because they chose it, and there are no online “help” sites for chapter-by-chapter details. Finally, it’s a way for students to apply their knowledge of literary analysis techniques and literary lenses to contemporary text as a summative assessment. If the goal of our English departments is to make lifelong readers, the Choice Novel Study is a big step toward that goal. Who can help? You guessed it, the school librarian!
Librarians are the most likely experts in our schools on current titles in young adult literature, so we are a natural resource for our colleagues in the English department. Typically, a teacher will come to me and chat about their CNS unit in advance: to schedule a time for me to kick-off the unit with book talks and to discuss any parameters or themes the teacher might have. These might be as simple as titles in a variety of genres to support their classroom studies of genres or on a theme such as “identity” (an especially easy one, as this describes most YA fiction!). This year, one of our 9th-grade English teachers decided to frame her CNS with the same guiding question the 9th-graders were concurrently using in their social studies class: “For society to gain, does someone have to lose?” Finally, we curate a cart of titles as a starting place for the classes to begin their browsing.
Teachers are typically very concerned about the time it will take us to put together a cart and not wanting to burden or inconvenience us. We assure them that we love this! Not only is it a fun and creative reason to get into the stacks, I see it as a way to build fluency and a relationship with our collection. It becomes a type of learning lab that helps me assess our collection’s relevancy. Now, as I read book reviews, I look for titles that could fit into multiple themes of study in various departments, though these may evolve and develop.
Books That Work
A few titles have emerged that are intersectional across themes that I have pulled for multiple carts and classes and book-talked with gusto! And, more importantly, that students have told me they have read and have resonated with them. Here are a few examples:
- The Marrow Thieves (2017) by Cherie Dimaline. I think I stopped reading the book review and just clicked order when I saw “First Nations author… fast-paced dystopia.” This was my favorite read of last summer. and I immediately ordered a second copy for our collection. In this post-environmental catastrophe world, Frenchie is fleeing for his life after losing his family. He and other indigenous people from North America are being hunted by “recruiters” for their bone marrow and brought to special institutions. This book provides a platform to examine the historical and present systems of oppression imposed on indigenous communities, while also providing the reader with some stylistic experiences of non-Western narrative techniques.
- Refugee (2017) by Alan Gratz. The alternating narratives of three refugees makes this a story that keeps readers engaged. Through the perspectives of a Jewish refugee during World War II, a Cuban refugee during the 1990s, and a Syrian refugee in the 2000s, readers see the commonalities and differences of the refugee experience. One of the nuances I appreciated was how Gratz included the manifestations of trauma in some of the secondary characters in the narrative.
- Out of Nowhere (2013) by Maria Padian. This book is based on a fictionalized, small Maine city where Somali refugees resettled beginning in the early 2000s. The appealing, realistic male protagonist is one of the captains of his soccer team who soon realizes that his Somali classmates have a lot to offer on the soccer field. (Not fiction–their boys’ soccer team continues to dominate in Maine!) The book doesn’t shy away from the real-life issues associated with the integration of new communities and cultures.
- American Street (2017) by Ibi Zoboi. A unique narrative about family, community, and integrating into a new culture. When Fabiola and her mother leave Haiti to come to Detroit, they plan to live with Fabiola’s aunt and cousins. However, when Fabiola’s mother is detained by immigration, Fabiola must meet her family alone. As terrifying as it is to meet strangers who are your family, to attend a new school with different methods and level of rigor, and to adapt to new household customs and family life, Fabiola negotiates the tensions between her own values, sense of self, and religious beliefs in this new context.
Where to Begin?
If you’re interested in learning more about the Choice Novel Study, there are a couple of titles that have inspired our English department: A Novel Approach: Whole-Class Novels, Student-Centered Teaching and Choice (2018) by Kate Roberts, and No More Fake Reading: Merging the Classics with Independent Reading to Create Joyful, Lifelong Readers (2017) by Berit Gordon. If you’d like a look at what our process has been, here’s a presentation a colleague and I made this year at the Maine Council for English Language Arts conference. My advice is to share these texts with your most adventurous, risk-taking, collaborative English teachers and see where it takes you! For us, it has led to the development of an elective English class called “Reading for Pleasure,” based entirely on units of study that involve student choice in texts. But more importantly, it has helped more students find joy and self-discovery in reading, both inside the classroom and on their own.
Author: Iris Eichenlaub
Iris Eichenlaub is the Librarian/Technology Integrator at Camden Hills Regional High School in Rockport, Maine. She is the 2017 Knox County Teacher of the Year, and was named an Inspiring Educator in 2017 by the Maine Education Association. Iris serves on the board of the Maine Association of School Libraries as the chair of professional development. Follow the story of the Edna St. Vincent Millay Library via Facebook (@ESVMLibrary or https://www.facebook.com/ESVMLibrary) or Instagram (@ESVM_Library or https://www.instagram.com/esvm_library).