- 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.
- American Concepts/Values/Goals
- Morals need to be questioned
- Powerful Storyline
- 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:
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
- Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
- East of Eden by John Steinbeck
- For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
- Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
- On the Road by Jack Kerouac
- Native Son by Richard Wright
- The Street by Ann Petry
- Seize the Day by Saul Bellow
- Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
- Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
- The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Dîaz
- The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie
- 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:
- To Kill a Mockingbird
- The Catcher in the Rye
- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
- East of Eden
- Invisible Man
- On the Road
- Little Women
- Slaughterhouse Five
And there it was.
In the next post:
- How it went.
- Student reaction.
- Changes for next year.