Saturday, April 5, 2008

Engaging Students with Novels

Miracle of miracles happened this week... my students looked at me and said, 'this is the first book I've enjoyed in an English class since middle school.' The book is Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury and I'd say about 90% of my students are enjoying the book. I asked for a show of hands and nearly all stuck a hand and sometimes two into the air.

We began the novel by simulating the future. I told my students they had transported 50 years into the future by time machine and were stranded as the machine was now broken (think Planet of the Apes). The only direction I gave was shaping the assignment and requiring a daily journal entry about what happens each day in this future world. (I only allowed the assignment to run two days.)

Just as expected most of the classes experienced some form of disagreement. They discovered that leading is difficult and that little was accomplished. The point of the exercise was to practice assimilating new details that would be foreign and activate creative thinking before we began reading. The students were very creative in imagining the world 50 years from now. I had everything from the Russians ruling the world to something like Futurama . More importantly, students were so enthused a few continued the project on their own time for extra credit.

I had my department purchase an audio reading of the book which turned out to be very poorly read. So I've been reading the book aloud to them myself. I read with expression and have tried using voices to express the characters. I'm not very good at coming up with different male voices so when Captain Beatty and Montag speak to each other sometimes it is hard to tell who is who. The students are putting up with it though. I've had several speak to me privately about the excitement they have about what will happen next and reading ahead outside of class.

I think the recipe for success isn't that Fahrenheit 451 is a fantastic engaging book (although I think it is) but that I have a passion for it as I read it and my students pick up on that. I'm reminded of a conversation I had once... someone reflecting on how despite the English teacher's love of a novel they could never love it too despite trying to like it out of the respect they had for the teacher; despite the enthusiasm the teacher had the student never felt the same way. I think it boils down to enthusiasm modeled by the teacher helps to enthuse his or her students. Excitement and energy can be contagious! Enthusiasm doesn't work 100% of the time but it sure helps.