Great American Novel-Off ’10 Explained

The Gist:

  • I wanted to try something other than the traditional teaching of a novel in class.
  • I wanted my students to think intertextually about what they were reading.
  • We tried the Great American Novel-Off 2010.
  • I will be doing it again next year.

The Whole Story:

This will be two posts. I’ll be reflecting in the next post. For right now, here’s what happened.

Each of my students in G11  was assigned The Great Gatsby to read on a schedule of their own with a set endpoint for the reading.

While they were reading, we discussed what constitutes the “Great American Novel.” What qualities would one expect? We looked at this Newsweek article on Ellison’s Invisible Man. We related discussions to the unit they’d completed on The American Dream in history class.

By the time we reached the endpoint for Gatsby, we were ready to draft our class qualifiers of the GAN. Each student came up with 10. Then, they got into groups of 4 and narrowed their collective 40 down to 10. Then, each group shared out what they thought to be the most important from its 10. We narrowed and finessed until we had a class 10.

As I’ve two G11 sections, this meant each section drafted similar but different qualifier lists.

Earth Stream:

  • American Concepts/Values/Goals
  • Realistic
  • Timeless
  • Relatable
  • Controversial
  • Self-Realization
  • Morals need to be questioned
  • Inspiring
  • Suspense
  • Diversity

Water Stream:

  • Relatable
  • Powerful Storyline
  • Timeless
  • Memorable
  • Reflective
  • Controversial
  • Life Lessons
  • Relating to American Culture
  • Says something about society
  • Emotionally stimulating

Again, similar, but not the same. We drafted the qualifiers Friday. Monday, the students received their book group assignments. With the exception of one group of students in each section, every student was assigned one of the 8 contenders for the title of GAN.

My intern, Hannah, and I worked to place students in groups where we thought they’d be both challenged and successful (not to mention interested in the content of their books).

Monday, they were able to make one and only one trade of books after doing a little research.

Then, we moved on. In their groups, they divided up the qualifiers and decided who would be tracking evidence of each throughout their novels.

They had three weeks to read their books.

Part of class time over those three weeks was given to reading. Part was group collaboration. The other part was dedicated to lessons on literary theory. Particularly, we examined the Gender (AKA Feminist), New Historicist, and Socioeconomic (AKA Marxist) lenses. To help me structure this, I turned to Deborah Appleman’s Critical Encounters in High School English. My professional library is all the better for its inclusion.

By the end of the three weeks, the groups were to build their cases for why each of there books best exemplified the GAN based on the class’ qualifiers.

As they compiled their evidence, each team posted their findings to an open Moodle forum so they could build counter-arguments. (Here’s a great example of what they did.) We talked about the idea of discovery in a trial situation and the goal of building the strongest case, not the most surprising. Some resistance here.

Two weeks ago, the cases started.

In Round One, each team had 10 minutes for opening statements, then 5 minutes of direct Q&A between the two, then 5-10 minutes of Q&A from my intern and me including questions submitted on note cards by students viewing the case.

For Round Two, each side had 5 minutes to open, with the same structure for Q&A.

Round Three, had the 5-minute openers, and the same Q&A with viewing students allowed to ask their questions directly.

In the final round, the winning challenger went up against Gatsby for title of GAN. As it was Gatsby’s first showing, the Gatsby groups got the original 10-minute opening time.

While viewing each case, students completed an evidence sheet documenting the evidence provided by each group as well as any relevant notes.

Starting Monday, each student will turn in a 2-3 page majority paper and a 2-3 page minority paper. Basic position papers, the majority paper will outline the reasons they agree with one of the rulings throughout the whole process. The minority papers will explain why they disagree with one ruling in the process.

My instructions on the papers:

  • Google how to write a position paper.
  • Use evidence you saw/heard during the case.
  • Include evidence posted on the forums.

On the Selection of the Novels:

I wasn’t quite sure how to do this. So, here’s how it ended up.

Initially, for one week, I published and asked others to forward on a Google Form asking “What is the Great American Novel?” followed by, “If you’d like to make your case, do it below.”

One hundred forty people responded.

From that 140, I took the top 8 most popular nominees. Noting the top 8 were decidedly white and male, a random sampling of SLA teachers spent over two hours after school one Friday debating what other 8 novels should be in the Sweet 16.

The Final 16 were:

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  2. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  3. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  4. Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
  5. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  6. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
  7. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  8. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  9. Native Son by Richard Wright
  10. The Street by Ann Petry
  11. Seize the Day by Saul Bellow
  12. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  13. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
  14. The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Dîaz
  15. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie
  16. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

The 16 were posted and pushed out as a new google form asking respondents to indicate their first and second choices. After a week, each first-choice vote earned a novel 2 pts. while a second-place vote earned it 1 pt.

Three hundred thirty-seven votes later, the top 8 became the contenders:

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird
  2. The Catcher in the Rye
  3. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  4. East of Eden
  5. Invisible Man
  6. On the Road
  7. Little Women
  8. Slaughterhouse Five

And there it was.

In the next post:

  • How it went.
  • Student reaction.
  • Changes for next year.

I won’t be telling them what to think

The Gist:

  • My G11 students are reading The Great Gatsby.
  • After the choice afforded them in the last quarter, I can’t be every other English teacher.
  • We’re challenging the Academy and having numerous books vie for the title of Great American Novel.

The Whole Story:

Monday, I tweeted out the link to a simple questionnaire. It contains two statements: 1) What is the Great American Novel? 2) If you’d like to make your case, do it below.

My G11 students also received their copies of our latest class novel Monday. Maybe you’ve heard of a little book called The Great Gatsby? Apparently, it’s quite popular. In fact, many argue it qualifies as the GAN.

Narrowing down the results of the questionnaire, my classes will be pitting 8 contenders against one another. The final contender will face off against Gatsby.

I’ve written about this before. The original idea was to put Gatsby on trial for libel and slander against other novels. After consulting with many people whose thoughtfulness and opinions I greatly value, I was left with a sort of literary March Madness.

I won’t be walking my students through Gatsby. I won’t be indoctrinating them to the symbolism of that light at the end of that dock. I won’t be talking about the American dream or gender roles and the power of adhering to them.

Instead, I’ve given my students some simple instructions:

Read this book with the idea that you will either have to argue against its status as the GAN

or defend its standing as the GAN.

If the American dream and gender roles and symbolism are really key and keen in the text, they should pick up on them. If something else is there, they’ll pick up on that. Is the symbolism important because my teachers told me it was there or because it’s important? I want to start clean.

We’ve talked about some strategies for tracking their thinking. They can use the tried and true sticky notes. They can make a bookmark for each chapter where they track positives on one side and negatives on the other. They can take notes in a notebook. Turns out I don’t care.

They’ve until April 5 to finish.

During classes, they’ll frequently have time to read, about 20 minutes. Tomorrow, I’ll help them decide how to schedule their reading. They’ve 180 pages of 9 chapters and either 12 or 7 days depending on if they want to read over Spring Break. Their pace and rate are up to them.

During the remaining 2/3 of class, we’ll be debating and deciding the qualifiers of the GAN as well as practicing discreet reading and writing skills using other texts.

April 5, they’ll compile their notes, hand in their copies of Gatsby and find out which text they’ll be reading over the next two weeks. This will, be the text on whose behalf they’ll be arguing.

Rather than discussing qualifiers of the GAN, we’ll be using non-reading class time to examine literary lenses they can use to make their cases – Feminist, Marxist, Reader-Response, Postcolonial, Deconstructionist, New Criticism. Throw in some more discreet skills, and you’ve got a hopping time.

The results coming in on the questionnaire are backing my decision to head this direction with things. Largely, the texts suggested line up as canonical standards. It seems dead white guys were really in touch with how to write in a way that resonated with the American spirit.

My goal for this is not to have my students look at any of these texts as the GAN, but to look at these texts and ask why they hold the status they hold and then ask whether or not they deserve that status.

I’m curious to see what they think.

You’re probably asking, “Wow, Zac, that’s great. But, what can I do to help?”

Great question, you.

If you haven’t already, take about 2 minutes to complete the questionnaire and nominate your contender for GAN.

Starting Friday, we’ll be seeding the top 8, check back then to help fill out our brackets.

Oh, one other thing, talk about your nominee with someone. The conversations I’ve had in the last two days have definitely enriched my appreciation for literature. If nothing else, twitter’s seemed less monocultural for a day or two.

Putting a Great American (novel) to the Test

The Gist:

  • My G11 students will start reading The Great Gatsby soon.
  • I’m not the biggest fan.
  • I’m thinking about putting the book on trial for slander / libel against other books.
  • I’m looking for suggestions.

The Whole Story:

One of the things I noted at the end of my last post was the importance of nailing my approach when I have my students reading a common text again. That will get underway come March. One of the anchor texts in our G11 English curriculum is The Great Gatsby. The theme for the G11 year is Change, so Gatsby certainly works. The thing is, I’m not a huge fan. Truly.

In all honesty, I made it through high school without encountering what many people (English teachers especially) count as the pinnacle of American letters. Not until my first unit whilst student teaching did I come into contact with Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. In subsequent readings, I’ve found value in the book, but it doesn’t make me feel weak in the knees.

I see overlap and relevance in the text, but I’m hesitant to be another English teacher unpacking this book and making my students understand the symbolism of all those damned shirts.

Here’s the thinking:

  • Every student in the class reads Gatsby.
  • In small groups, the majority of the students (minus a Gatsby group), read one other text per group.
  • Each of the other groups build a case for how their text is equal to or better than Gatsby, thereby proving claims of Gatsby’s place as the ultimate American novel as slanderous and libelous.
  • The Gatsby group is given a heads up by the other groups as they read on what passages of the other books will be important in making the case against Gatsby and the Gatsby group reads those passages.

This all culminates with a trial or debate which I’m envisioning as something similar to a class action suit.

Here are my trepidations / questions:

  • Is a trial / debate played out?
  • Should the other texts have a common theme such as “the American dream?”
  • Do I select other texts from across all time periods?
  • Does this pass the authentic learning muster?

I’ve been mulling this one over for quite some time. I’m writing about it here, before the fact, because I’m looking to cast a wider brainstorming net.