What Makes a Great Novel? Analyzing Student-Selected Free-Choice Books

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SWBAT analyze a free-choice book based on a set of criteria for determining what makes a novel great.

Big Idea

“A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” Tim O'Brien in "The Things They Carried"

Teacher to Teacher: Lesson Context and Time Frame

We are near the end of the year. In fact, today is the last day for seniors. In years past my district has required me to give a common assessment, but this year I was able to create my own. I decided to have students write about their final free-choice reading book. Since students have just finished their Literature Circle Unit, I capitalized on this by using a passage from Yann Martel's Life of Pi and asking them to respond to their books by analyzing them against Martel's criteria for a good book. Criteria for a Good Novel .docx I offer some insight to my practice as it relates to preparing the assignment in Criteria for a Great Novel.mp4 screencast. 

Prior to their arrival in class, I reminded students daily to finish their books and have them in class on the day of the final. 

In this lesson, I

  • introduce students to the assignment,
  • read through the assignment with students,
  • give students time to compose their responses.

The lesson here does two things that often result in plagiarized papers when we ask students to take a more traditional approach to writing:

  • Students analyze a text using close reading strategies grounded in formalism and New Criticism.
  • Students review a book, much like one would when writing a review on Amazon or on Good reads or for a blog. 

Just for fun, here's a pic of my favorite reader this year. Kashish was in my class one trimester but I saw her often as she came to borrow books. When my copy of The Fault in Our Stars failed to find its way home, I purchased a copy for Kashish to read this summer before the movie comes out. She may be the last teen to have read the book! My Favorite Reader This Year: Me w/ Kashish

What Makes a Book Great? Establishing Criteria Using "Life of Pi" by Yann Martel

15 minutes

I pass out the document Criteria for a Good Novel  to students as they enter the room. First I check to see that they have supplies: book, paper, pen. 

Next, I read through the assignment and field questions. It's important to emphasize addressing all the criteria, and it's important to remind students that they need details and quotes from their books, including parenthetical citations in their responses. 

After we finish discussing the assignments, students take time to write. Most need all the available time as they are deeply engrossed in their books and in their responses. 

Analyzing a Free-Choice Read: More Than One Way to Review a Book

60 minutes

I gave students the choice of composing an essay or of addressing the criteria Martel establishes in responses similar to those they would use for a typical essay response. 

One student wrote about Where Angels Fall and used an informal letter format for her "essay." She begins with a quote to hook other readers into the book: "Where Angels Fall" p 1  shows this. Then she begins the letter and takes care to address each of the criteria Martel establishes. This is important because it's part of the grading criteria. "Where Angels Fall" p 2 and "Where Angels Fall" p 3 show the student's approach to the assignment. The  really cool thing about this end-of-the-year response is that this student began the year unable to indent a paragraph. When we wrote our Macbeth responses, she did not show paragraph divisions. Two things contribute to the improvement in her writing: My insisting that she paragraph and constantly reminding her; the student getting to write about a book of her choice. 

The second student featured in this lesson took the approach of addressing each of the criteria as separate essay responses. Her paper ended up being five pages handwritten. I love that she includes a diagram in her discussion of plot. She wrote about A.S. King's Ask the Passengers, a beautifully crafted book about a young girl identifying with her sexuality. Here's the student's response: "Ask the Passengers" p 1 and "Ask the Passengers" p 2 and "Ask the Passengers" p 3 and "Ask the Passengers" p 4 and "Ask the Passengers" p 5

And here I am with A.S. King at the 2013 NCTE Annual Convention in Boston. She graciously signed my copy of Reality Boy and posed for a picture after her signing time ended. A.S. King and Me at NCTE 2013