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In Search of the Novel

Am I Getting Through?

In this summary, teachers examine their own effectiveness in helping students comprehend and appreciate novels and in setting them on the road to become lifelong readers.

Goals and Objectives

Upon completion of this workshop lesson, teachers will be able to:

  1. Develop strategies for measuring student work.
  2. Develop activities that allow students to demonstrate their understandings and insights without depriving them of the pure joy of reading.

Participants’ Comments and Observations:

Arthur Golden: You can be sure that the things that concerned me as a novelist won’t be the things that concern an English teacher and that’s as it should be. I also think there’s such a thing as right and wrong interpretations. I mean that some interpretations really can’t be justified—you know, you can say it, but you can’t support it. If you can support it, then it’s a good interpretation. And I think a good novel opens itself to a number of them.

You know, testing and grading is something that I think is antithetical to teaching creative writing and is problematic when teaching English. Now I’m not going say that English teachers are responsible if they grade. First of all they have no choice; they have to grade. But it’s a difficult proposition, you know, in a way. I think in some sense it’s almost better to grade on effort, perhaps.

Katherine Paterson: I remember this man who was a supervisor of reading in Canada and he went around telling the people that he supervised that children should enjoy what they’re reading, and the teachers were scandalized by the idea. They said, “But how can we test it?” And he said, “Does everything have to be tested? Why can’t they just enjoy it?” And he said, “I couldn’t get anywhere with them because they didn’t know how they were going to measure it.” I mean how can you measure the giggle, you know? Well, it’s so sad. What is learning about except learning to enjoy the riches of the ages and sometimes they won’t be funny, but sometimes there should be a deep joy about it anyhow.

Orson Scott Card: I get an awful lot of email from students who are asking me, “Well, what is the theme of Ender’s Game?” I have a form reply which says, “Your teacher did not assign you this so you could ask the author. The teacher assigned you this so you could ask the book by reading it. So I would suggest that you go back to the book and discover a theme.”

Teacher: You shouldn’t walk into an English test, a literature test, feeling tense about it. If you know the vocabulary, know how to talk about character and what makes a character come alive in a book, you can talk about setting or plot or theme. Then if you’ve done the reading, you can answer the questions. Just think about it. How was the character developed in this book? How was the theme developed in this book? You can answer those questions. You know the vocabulary; you know the story; answer the questions. And I love that. I think it’s very liberating for the way it offers students opportunities to think, instead of trying to memorize or worry about what page the quote identification was on.

Teacher: The test is not going to measure how well you fail. If we have some measure of students’ involvement with the book, it will be not just an intellectual measure.

Teacher: It’s feeling like a test. That’s where kids—after you have all this great discussion and great exchanges and creative lessons—they’ll always come down to. “But I need a grade and I also know I want to know how I’m being evaluated.” And I guess for teachers, that is ultimately something that we’ve got to pass on in some concrete way. How do we bring all these elements together? I’ve been teaching plot, character, and setting. What kind of a test, what kind of a measurement will help us know whether students have brought these different elements together in a way that we’ve all been talking about, that is humanizing, that is integrating, and that allows them to think critically on higher levels? And I will have some great concrete things that I’ll ask kids to do. And once I’ve had them do that, I look for repetitions. Anytime there is a pattern; there is a motif.