While there are many reasons why a curriculum developer might incorporate fiction into a course, the fundamental reason we study a particular novel is because we believe it to make valuable commentary about the human experience.
Each text we choose has an important point to make about human behavior; we find these themes noteworthy, exciting, and moving. Of course, our students don’t always share our enthusiasm. Complex language, outdated settings, or foreign experiences can obscure students’ ability to recognize the value of a novel within the classroom.
In order to elicit meaningful interaction with the text, educators need to be sure students see the novels we teach as relevant to their lives. To do this, we often ask them to reflect on a time they experienced a conflict similar to a character. In a previous post, I mentioned why this is not always a good instructional strategy; limited life experiences can lead student to making inauthentic or watered-down connections to the themes of the novel.
So what can educators do to get students to connect to novels? The key is authenticity. We want students’ experiences with literature to be genuine, not artificial. In this way, we can strengthen and deepen the growth of our students through the use of literature. Here are three important strategies to make novels relevant to today’s students:
- Identify the broad themes before beginning the novel.
Classrooms are diverse, and not all students will easily relate to the main characters or conflicts of a novel; however, if curriculum developers identify the broad themes for students before beginning a novel, the students will have a chance to think about ways that theme has touched their lives. One great way to do this is through anticipatory guides. Teachers present opinion statements to the class, and students must decide whether they agree or disagree with the statements. Anticipation guides are meant to activate prior knowledge and stimulate student interest in the upcoming story with the big picture in mind; as the students read, they can connect the details of the novel to the broad theme and how that relates to their own lives. Students can refer to their guides throughout the novel, reflecting on their personal beliefs and experiences and growing from their interaction with the novel.
- Make comparisons to the world at large.
Drawing comparisons to social or political events is a great way to establish relevance, as well as incorporate some cross-curricular study. A student might not have personal experience living through a war, but can we compare the emotions and reflections of a character to real-life accounts of soldiers or refugees? Absolutely, and some materials even make the connections for us (see Arthur Miller’s The Crucible). By connecting fictionalized accounts to concrete events, we underscore the need for self-reflection, empathy, and multiple perspectives in society. We can help build a stronger, more wise, compassionate generation by connecting the lessons of literature to real events in history and current events.
- “Chop and change” the novel
Understanding context is critical to in-depth appreciation of novels, but students often struggle to relate to stories set in different time periods or cultures. When students can’t relate to the context of a novel, they don’t experience the full impact of its characters’ conflicts and resolutions. For example, while the actions of Hester Prynne in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter were scandalous and highly immoral within the setting of the novel, she probably wouldn’t have been such a social outcast had she lived in contemporary society. How can we get students to appreciate the shame of the characters in The Scarlet Letter when their actions aren’t particularly offensive in modern American culture? Curriculum developers can encourage students and instructors to “chop” an aspect of a novel, such as setting, character, or conflict, and “change” it to fit a modern equivalent. By doing this, students can gain deeper understanding of strong and complex stories that on the surface seem outdated. As such, the class could examine other ways women are subjected to public shaming today, and relate her struggle within the novel to a modern equivalent.
What are some other ways we can foster relevance in novels for today’s students?