Bringing Back the Classroom Novel:

Three steps to creating a transformative experience

What does it mean to be human? We’re all familiar with the common answers: We are the creatures who use language; we are driven by curiosity to explore, and by creativity to create and invent; we think about life, death, where we came from, and whether there is something that comes next; we laugh. One definition offers a particularly rich vein of reflection: we tell stories and we order our lives by the stories we tell. Stories, after all, are the most basic means we have of making sense of ourselves and our lives. This most human capacity to engage in storytelling is never more important than when we have to understand and work through the unique challenges and difficulties that we all sometimes face. When our lives are disrupted, it is our human instinct to turn to narratives that help to explain, console, and heal.

This point has been driven home to us again and again this past year.  We have all been touched by some type of loss during the COVID pandemic, whether it be economic loss, the loss of family or friends, or the loss of all the time that we might have spent with people we love, doing the things we love doing.

A Renewed Need for Classroom Novel Study

For many children and young adults, the loss of the physical classroom and the experience of learning alongside peers in the scrum of a physical space has had dramatic consequences for learning and mental health. As we slowly begin to return to those lives that were so abruptly changed, we are also seeing a renewed understanding of the need for teachers and schools to provide our students with the opportunity to engage with stories that will help them to work through their experiences. Nothing less than their social and mental well-being is at stake, for it is through this engagement that many of them will renew a sense of promise for their own lives and futures.

To embrace this opportunity means recognizing the pleasures of storytelling and the central place storytelling has in our lives.

There is nothing in human experience that compares to the wonder of being so swept up in the world of a novel that you leave yourself and your own world momentarily behind. But good novels don’t stop there. They also lead us to reconsider the shape and purpose of our own lives in the light of the characters we read about, and this happens regardless of how dissimilar the outward features of those characters’ lives are from our own.

Why We Read Stories

None of us know what it’s like to be a cricket living in a subway station, but we are immediately absorbed in The Cricket In Times Square and the story of Chester, a cricket from the Connecticut countryside who finds himself in just such a place. There are few young people who can know what it is like to live in the backwoods of the Ozarks, but the passion that prompts Billy Colman, the hero of Where the Red Fern Grows, to devote two years of his life to saving up money to purchase a pair of dogs is immediately understandable to all readers. More readers may relate to the situation of Ghost, the hero of Jason Reynolds’ wonderful novel of the same name, who discovers a surprising sense of fellowship with a misfit band of track runners, but even readers who haven’t had such an experience will immediately sympathize with the pain and confusion Ghost feels over the betrayal of a parent.

We read stories because they allow us to experience other lives and other places, and if that were the only reason that would be good enough. But even more important, stories help us to re-imagine our own lives. In that act of imagination, we can reflect upon where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going. All of this happens at some level when we read a good story, and there are three straightforward steps teachers can take to ensure that every young reader has this experience in the most meaningful way possible.

Helping Young Readers Re-imagine and Reflect

First, we can ensure that students read novels that have the power to draw students into their world and hold them there. The best books for young people, through some magical mixture of plot, character, and language, are uniquely able to give students the kind of transformative experience that we look for in stories. Bottom line: some books are better than others, and teachers should prioritize the novels that students find meaningful.

Second, we can give students opportunities to share their own experience of reading novels with their peers. There are few things more enjoyable than the shared experience of reading and discussing a good story with others who have their own interesting things to say about. Bottom line: it’s not enough for our students to read good books; teachers need to help them discuss those books with one another.

Third, we can promote the essential skill of making text-to-self connections and give students opportunities to see the links between their own lives and the lives of the characters they read about. For some readers, with some books, this happens naturally. For other readers, and other books, it’s through reflecting on a teacher’s question that this magical connection forms. Bottom line: in discussing books with our students, we can’t stop at reviewing what happened; we need to go the extra mile with the questions that help students see themselves in the story.

As students return to physical classrooms, they will be hungry for the kind of experience that lies at the very heart of storytelling – the opportunity to tell their own stories, to hear the stories of others, and to find meaning and consolation in novels that appeal to their hearts and minds. Although reading stories is a deeply personal experience, it can also be a richly communal one. The schools and teachers that carve out space for this experience will be giving their students a gift that will benefit them immediately and in years to come.

Learn More

Inspiring Readers brings classroom novel study to life and builds a lifelong love of reading in students. Teacher-facilitated, student-centered discussion is at the heart of this supplemental program. Students participate in a shared discussion of interesting and meaningful aspects of the novel while considering their own thoughts and feelings. Learn more about this program today. 

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