Budgets are tight, and so is time. You have one year—well, more like eight months—in which to cover a limited number of books in your ELA curriculum, and you want to make sure your students are engaged, challenged, and inspired. It's a tall order, for sure. So…how do you choose the right books to get the job done?
There's no one correct answer to this question (obviously), but we do have a few suggestions that may help you trim down your choices.
#1: Focus on range.
As you choose the books your class will cover in the coming year, do your best to include a range of themes, genres, and—this is a big one—tones. All too often, particularly in the high school curriculum, students reach the partway-through-the-year point and find themselves asking the key question: "Why are all the books we read so depressing?"
Sometimes, of course, the question asked is the opposite: "Why don't we ever read anything happy?" (Okay, that's still actually the same). Anyway, Susanne Nobles encountered this question from her students and wrote an article of that very title in which she advocates for incorporating YA (pronounced yeah! But yes, we mean Young Adult) Literature into the ELA curriculum in order to provide students with a few optimistic endings.
Need more convincing? The book From Hinton to Hamlet: Building Bridges Between Young Adult Literature and Classics by Sara K. Herz also suggests bringing YA Lit into the classroom, primarily by pairing specific YA books and classics that share similar themes. (Think Twilight and Wuthering Heights. Okay, you don't have to think that.)
And if you really want to increase the range of your booklist, consider throwing in a graphic novel like Persepolis, MAUS, or American Born Chinese. Yes, these books have pictures, but they also have great literary merit and address some complex themes. And guess what? Sometimes just as depressingly as their wordy counterparts.
Still, they do their thing in a way that may appeal to a broader sector of your class—perhaps even to some of those tricky few who are tougher to engage with the regular stuff. So if you want them to shout "YA!", start working in the YA.
#2: Don't reinvent the wheel (or the syllabus).
Spoiler alert: the U.S. is considered a very litigious society. It's also a very list-icious one, which is to say there are so many lists of "the best books to teach" that you don't need to create your own. (Though if you want to get litigious, check out our tips on creating a democratic classroom).
Anyway, sift on through a few of these lists, see what you've already got on your shelf, and skim a few of the newbies for a potential add (if budget and time allow).
If that isn't enough to get you started, well, that's what Shmoop's handy stack o' lit study guides is for.
#3: Delegate book selection to your students.
Dreading the harrowing hours of poring through hundreds of books (or at least lists of them) to find the 8-10 that might be suitable for your class? Well, just skip it. We hereby give you permission not to choose any. In other words, leave the choice of reading material entirely up to your students.
It may seem like a radical idea, but in 2015, Nancie Atwell, an advocate for student choice in reading selections, won the Global Teacher Prize (which is, ahem, widely considered the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for education). And she recommends letting the kids decide. So there's got to be something to it.
Let's get into her tactics. On the Kids Recommend page at the Center for Teaching and Learning, Atwell explains her school's approach to reading through a workshop dedicated to how to actually do it:
"Reading workshop is not S.S.R. (Sustained Silent Reading). It's not a study hall, where we watch the clock with one eye as we Drop Everything And Read. In reading workshop, we teach readers for a lifetime: introduce new books and old favorites, tell about authors and genres, read aloud, talk with kids about their reading rituals and plans, and present lessons about elements of fiction, how poems work, what efficient readers do—and don't do—when they come across an unfamiliar word, how punctuation gives voice to reading, when to speed up or slow down, who won this year's Newbery Award, how to keep a reading record, what a sequel is, what readers can glean from a copyright page, how to identify the narrative voice or tone of a novel and why it matters, how there are different purposes for reading that affect a reader's style and pace, how to unpack a poem, how to distinguish between popular and literary fiction, how to tell if a book is too hard, too easy, or just right, and why the only way to become a strong, fluent reader is to read often and a lot."
Wow. Not too shabby as far as learning goals go. Who knew there was so much stuff going on with plain ol' reading?
But we know you want more research. How could you not? For more on that bit about determining whether a book is too hard, too easy, or just right, check out Melinda Parks' research study, "Choosing Books that are Just Right" (which we can only guess had Goldilocks as a consultant), from the University of North Carolina School of Education.
If you're teaching ELA in K-8, the CTR (So many abbrevs. OMG.) has a Kids Recommend page with an extensive list of age-appropriate books (as recommended by both students and teachers) based on grade level.
And for an excellent account of how Lorrie McNeill of Jonesboro, Georgia transitioned from teaching 5-6 class novels per year to a free-form student-choice method, check out the New York Times article "A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like."
Not ready to give your students free reign? If you at least leave a couple gaps in the agenda, you'll have the wiggle room for trying out the student-choice sitch. And if it's a no-go, well, that's when you find out how to…
#4: Work with what you've got.
Sometimes there's no choice. As much as you want to give students the power—or even if you don't, but would rather throw in a fave of your own—if there's no money in the budget, you pretty much need to work with what's in your storage closet, on your classroom shelves, and in the school and local libraries.
On the plus side, this means you don't have to agonize over choosing just ten titles from a never-ending list of interesting and compelling works of literature worthy of discussion and analysis.
The minus? Yup: you don't get to choose ten titles from a never-ending list of interesting and compelling works of literature worthy of discussion and analysis.
Gotta love (and hate) those double-edged-sword types of dilemmas.
Another minus is that it can mean working with some texts you may consider outdated or irrelevant to your students' lives. But hey! You can find a way to make that work, too. We here at Shmoop are pretty good at it.
When dealing with a book that the majority of your students aren't exactly ecstatic over, challenge them to find the book's literary merit. Someone must've thought it was worthy of analysis in the classroom, even if it was Old Man Weatherbee way back in '53. Encourage your students to figure out why. They don't have to agree with it; they just have to figure it out. (Take a look at our "Why Should I Care?" sections on Lit Guides for a starting point.)
On the flip side, you can also encourage them to critique the book's use in the current curriculum, explaining why it is or isn't a good choice and offering other titles that could cover similar themes and incite just as deep discussion—while also engaging students. That way you're exploring the concept of student choice, even if you're not actually implementing it.
And what about incorporating some independent reading units? What it looks like: students choose their own books—maybe around similar themes, to give a smattering of cohesion—and you operate a reading workshop (as described in #3). No matter how far they span across the American or Russian canon, or what variety of books about crime, love, or race (for example) they dig up, you're bound to get some interesting convos out of the deal.
Finally, if there are thirty copies of a book in your storage closet that you're dying to replace, but you just don't have the funds to get copies of a different book for the whole class, you could always consider assigning a title (or a series of short stories) that can be accessed online via Project Gutenberg or The Literature Network or even Shmoop.
Pretty powerful stuff, technology.
If you have access to it, of course. This option requires all of your students to have independent access to computers, laptops, tablets, e-readers, or smartphones. If that's not the case, don't fret. You can get around that obstacle by reading the book aloud in class (or listening to the audiobook) while students read along via projection or classroom devices. Look at you, adapting.
However you slice it, the decision of which books you read with your class is bound to lead to some sacrifices in one way or another. And you know what? Looking at lists, letting your students have a say, and turning to the wonders of technology may make your decision tougher, instead of easier.
But it can also open you up to the world of possibilities for getting your students invested in their ELA education.
Which, if you ask us, is definitely worth your time in cracking a list or two.
Want more help? Check out the vast number of teaching guides available through a Shmoop subscription!