Great American Novel-Off ’10 Explained

The Gist:

  • I wanted to try something other than the traditional teaching of a novel in class.
  • I wanted my students to think intertextually about what they were reading.
  • We tried the Great American Novel-Off 2010.
  • I will be doing it again next year.

The Whole Story:

This will be two posts. I’ll be reflecting in the next post. For right now, here’s what happened.

Each of my students in G11  was assigned The Great Gatsby to read on a schedule of their own with a set endpoint for the reading.

While they were reading, we discussed what constitutes the “Great American Novel.” What qualities would one expect? We looked at this Newsweek article on Ellison’s Invisible Man. We related discussions to the unit they’d completed on The American Dream in history class.

By the time we reached the endpoint for Gatsby, we were ready to draft our class qualifiers of the GAN. Each student came up with 10. Then, they got into groups of 4 and narrowed their collective 40 down to 10. Then, each group shared out what they thought to be the most important from its 10. We narrowed and finessed until we had a class 10.

As I’ve two G11 sections, this meant each section drafted similar but different qualifier lists.

Earth Stream:

  • American Concepts/Values/Goals
  • Realistic
  • Timeless
  • Relatable
  • Controversial
  • Self-Realization
  • Morals need to be questioned
  • Inspiring
  • Suspense
  • Diversity

Water Stream:

  • Relatable
  • Powerful Storyline
  • Timeless
  • Memorable
  • Reflective
  • Controversial
  • Life Lessons
  • Relating to American Culture
  • Says something about society
  • Emotionally stimulating

Again, similar, but not the same. We drafted the qualifiers Friday. Monday, the students received their book group assignments. With the exception of one group of students in each section, every student was assigned one of the 8 contenders for the title of GAN.

My intern, Hannah, and I worked to place students in groups where we thought they’d be both challenged and successful (not to mention interested in the content of their books).

Monday, they were able to make one and only one trade of books after doing a little research.

Then, we moved on. In their groups, they divided up the qualifiers and decided who would be tracking evidence of each throughout their novels.

They had three weeks to read their books.

Part of class time over those three weeks was given to reading. Part was group collaboration. The other part was dedicated to lessons on literary theory. Particularly, we examined the Gender (AKA Feminist), New Historicist, and Socioeconomic (AKA Marxist) lenses. To help me structure this, I turned to Deborah Appleman’s Critical Encounters in High School English. My professional library is all the better for its inclusion.

By the end of the three weeks, the groups were to build their cases for why each of there books best exemplified the GAN based on the class’ qualifiers.

As they compiled their evidence, each team posted their findings to an open Moodle forum so they could build counter-arguments. (Here’s a great example of what they did.) We talked about the idea of discovery in a trial situation and the goal of building the strongest case, not the most surprising. Some resistance here.

Two weeks ago, the cases started.

In Round One, each team had 10 minutes for opening statements, then 5 minutes of direct Q&A between the two, then 5-10 minutes of Q&A from my intern and me including questions submitted on note cards by students viewing the case.

For Round Two, each side had 5 minutes to open, with the same structure for Q&A.

Round Three, had the 5-minute openers, and the same Q&A with viewing students allowed to ask their questions directly.

In the final round, the winning challenger went up against Gatsby for title of GAN. As it was Gatsby’s first showing, the Gatsby groups got the original 10-minute opening time.

While viewing each case, students completed an evidence sheet documenting the evidence provided by each group as well as any relevant notes.

Starting Monday, each student will turn in a 2-3 page majority paper and a 2-3 page minority paper. Basic position papers, the majority paper will outline the reasons they agree with one of the rulings throughout the whole process. The minority papers will explain why they disagree with one ruling in the process.

My instructions on the papers:

  • Google how to write a position paper.
  • Use evidence you saw/heard during the case.
  • Include evidence posted on the forums.

On the Selection of the Novels:

I wasn’t quite sure how to do this. So, here’s how it ended up.

Initially, for one week, I published and asked others to forward on a Google Form asking “What is the Great American Novel?” followed by, “If you’d like to make your case, do it below.”

One hundred forty people responded.

From that 140, I took the top 8 most popular nominees. Noting the top 8 were decidedly white and male, a random sampling of SLA teachers spent over two hours after school one Friday debating what other 8 novels should be in the Sweet 16.

The Final 16 were:

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  2. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  3. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  4. Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
  5. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  6. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
  7. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  8. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  9. Native Son by Richard Wright
  10. The Street by Ann Petry
  11. Seize the Day by Saul Bellow
  12. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  13. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
  14. The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Dîaz
  15. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie
  16. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

The 16 were posted and pushed out as a new google form asking respondents to indicate their first and second choices. After a week, each first-choice vote earned a novel 2 pts. while a second-place vote earned it 1 pt.

Three hundred thirty-seven votes later, the top 8 became the contenders:

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird
  2. The Catcher in the Rye
  3. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  4. East of Eden
  5. Invisible Man
  6. On the Road
  7. Little Women
  8. Slaughterhouse Five

And there it was.

In the next post:

  • How it went.
  • Student reaction.
  • Changes for next year.

One thought on “Great American Novel-Off ’10 Explained

  1. Fascinating – I know this is easy to say now, but I'll say it anyway – I wish these were the types of projects we did in language arts classes when I was in high school. Of course, the Internet wasn't available then, but a semblance still could have been done. The tech stuff is helpful in enhancing the power of the project, but it is the freedom to choose based on the students' own criteria that really makes it interesting. I remember trying to analyze Huckleberry Finn for all the meaning and symbolism in it – what a bore. If the meaning and symbolism is just one piece of the entire picture that I get to analyze with my friends to decide whether or not it is worthy of being called the GAN, that's different. It's like the American Idol of classic American literature – sweet!

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