Required Reading: On Mandated Texts

If you’re a regular visitor to Moving Writers, you’ve seen the Behind The Scenes series of posts throughout September related to organizing the year. Earlier, throughout August, the Ask Moving Writers series had this team sharing answers to readers’ questions.  I have an obvious bias, but what a wonderful thing to have a community of teachers sharing their experience and insight.

In the spirit of this, I’d like to address a question that came up as we prepped for the Behind The Scenes series. Britt Decker asked about mandated novels within the workshop model. Although I don’t necessarily work in the workshop model, the idea of working with mandated novels got me thinking.

 

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via the TEDEd blog

I’m lucky enough to not have to deal with mandated novels. My team and I have great flexibility, and have novels that are loosely attached to a grade, but little that is set in stone. We communicate to make sure we’re not stepping on each other’s toes, and make an effort to complement what each other are doing with the texts that each of us chooses.

 

I’ve been open about my affinity for the whole class novel. I think a community of learners, exploring a text, creating some common experiences and knowledge is a powerful thing in a classroom. The whole class novel has been tarnished by the image of repetitive, mindless busywork. The mandated text compounds this distaste for us, because it feels like our freedom is impacted. We have to teach a book we didn’t choose, and we think of how we likely did a whole class novel as students, that mindless busywork hamster wheel we felt trapped on.

Were there to be a change in my circumstances, and I was given a mandated text, my hope is that very little would change in the way I approached the work in my class. I would sit down with that text, and figure out the themes it suggests, or themes that I work with that it would fit. As I teach thematically, I would be looking for ways to make this mandated text an anchor in our exploration of the theme. As many mandated texts are of The Canon, it’s a safe assumption that they’d hit many of the themes I like to explore, and have developed all kinds of great materials for.

Once I’ve aligned with a theme, I sit down and decide what we’re going to do with the text. How will we be exploring the themes of the text? What exists in the book craftwise that I want to highlight for my writers? What skills do I need to teach and model for them? What tasks do I feel are worth doing in the course of a novel study?

I’m lucky to be sneaking towards the end of my second decade in the classroom, which gives me much experience to draw from. I have handled the novel study in every way I can think of, even those monotonous sets of pointless chapter questions. As I sit with a class novel and plan our study of it, it is the questions of what I want them to glean from the reading, and what I want them to do that drives my planning. Sit with your notebook and consider these things, building your study around what your teacher’s heart finds important. This can be the key to engaging you and the students in the study of the text you’ve been “forced” to teach.

Engagement is key, and is where we often fall apart in dealing with the mandated text. Unless you’re mandated tasks alongside the text, embrace the freedom of your professional judgement. In my class, we have discussions about the book, often encompassing the material that was in those question booklets. Discussions allow opportunities for students to question, and delve deeper into the text, with the support of a learning community. We’ve written analysis essays, focusing on thematic elements and craft. We’ve Pinterested the hell out of texts as we create visual representations of texts. We’ve engaged our dramatic personas, and performed in front of the class, or for a camera. We’ve embraced our deep poetic nature and used poetry as a response tool. In short, pretty much whatever I’ve wanted to do in class, I’ve been able to do using a text. I’d like to think I could do the same if that text were mandated.

There are many types of writing that are part and parcel of working with a text that could become the focus of the workshop. Obviously, literary analysis is something that could, and should, be workshopped. Break down the core skills that are necessary, and focus on them. In the past, when I’ve done two or more novel studies, I’ve done a relatively hands-off version with the first text, just to establish a baseline, and see what skills need direct instruction.

Responding to literature is a skill that can be workshopped too. When students are reading the whole class texts on their own, I’ve lately been dividing the text into sections, with the intent of allowing us to focus on distinct “acts” within the group. (For example, when reading Gatsby, I call the last section “After The Parties End…” and we focus on the fallout of the characters’ choices.) This gives us a manageable numbers of responses to work with, as opposed to one per chapter. We can take time to explore what a response should be, and have a couple of tries to do our best version of one.

We can also explore texts through creative writing. We can write alternate scenes, or from a different viewpoint. We can use the text as inspiration for poetry. These are things we could take into our writer’s workshops, to play with, explore and develop.

I feel we’d be remiss to ignore that there should be something in the text that we can use as a mentor text. It might be as small as sentence study, or as large as the development of the plot of such a work. I’m making great assumptions here, but in all likelihood, a mandated text would be from the canon. Though there are issues of things such as diversity and representation in many of these texts, they are also, as much as it may trouble us, fine examples of literature. We must take the opportunity to engage with the craft of the text, and make good on our responsibility to discuss the things that make some of these books troublesome for us.

Experience allows me to do these things with a level of confidence. Earlier in my career, I didn’t have that confidence. I found mentors and colleagues that supported me. Reach out. If you’ve never done a text, reach out to someone who has. Most of us are willing to share what’s worked for us. Sit down with a group of people doing the same text, notebooks open, and talk about what your goals and needs are. Collaboration is key in so much of our work.

Britt, I’m not sure if any of this helped, but I hope it will in some way. As challenging as it may seem, I sometimes feel like the secret to dealing with a mandated text is just figuring out how to make it complement the things that you’ve chosen to do in your classroom. The true beauty of any text is that they can be so easily adapted to whatever purposes we hold for them. Texts are tools, and if we are only allowed to use certain tools, we must figure out how to best use them to make what we want.

How do you handle mandated texts? What are some engaging writing tasks that can be used with any text?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!

-Jay

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One thought on “Required Reading: On Mandated Texts

  1. Hi Jay,

    Thank you for this post! I agree that the whole class text has become tarnished in recent years because of misperceptions linking this type of study with mindless chapter questions and prescriptive essays. In reality, when used in the context of a workshop approach, a whole class text can be a wellspring of vibrant thinking, writing and discussion. My students enjoyed our shared texts so much last year that many of them began asking in the early days of school this year about when we could read a ‘class book’ again. I think it’s important to balance collective readings with independent reading cycles that give students choice. As Smith and Wilhelm suggest, we need to “unbind” students’ reading lives.

    Many teachers have mandated texts as well, yet as you point out, there is tremendous professional freedom within those constraints to approach the texts in engaging ways. When teachers have their students’ best interests at heart, even a mandated text can become a thing of beauty.

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