Reducing Art to Activities

December 6th 2018

Books aren’t written to be taught. They are written to be loved.” 

-Kylene Beers

I am constantly reminded of this post by Kylene Beers that was a simple twitter response that just resonated with me so much. The world of teacher social media seems more and more each day to fill with requests for activities to teach a book, assignments that people use to show accountability and understanding of the text. Cute Pinterest or Instagram posts of Teachers Pay Teachers activity booklets and novel studies. I know I have talked about this a lot lately but I think it is so important that we notice what we are really doing when we ask our students to do so much with these texts that we claim to love.

I love whole class novels, I love the shared reading experience of our extra large book club. I just finished the fabulous Restart by Gordon Korman. We had a wonderful time reading the book, laughing at the hijinks of Brendan Espinoza and discussing the characters in small groups and then as a whole class. We had lessons on theme and notice and note strategies using this wonderful text to practice our skills. In the end the students had 2 culminating assignments. One looking at elements of the book from a chosen selection of questions I knew they could answer because they were based on our class discussions and one full choice where I gave them suggestions but in the end it was up to them. Yes they could pick a diorama of a scene if they wanted but they could also recreate a scene and record it as a youtube video in tribute to the video club, they could write poems they could create things. It was up to them. The days following the books completion they worked hard on looking at the different themes they created board games to play with classmates but mostly we celebrated the book. A quick search on TPT brings me to 40 different options some free some for sale to study the book, task cards, literature circle worksheets, one seller titled Novels over Basals has “over 100 different extended response prompts” for sale for only $3.00. I am not hating on or shaming any of these people but I am questioning why we feel the need for 100 prompts, and the irony of the name “Novels over Basals” that reduces a beautiful books to “over 100” extended response questions is not lost on me. 

I wonder why we as teachers feel so strongly the need to justify our work with worksheets, why we feel we must “teach” a novel instead of teaching the skills with the novel as support. My curriculum says nothing of “Students will appreciate the character dynamics of the story Restart by Gordon Korman” but it does ask them to analyze theme in a variety of text. So we “teach” theme, we “teach” Signposts, we “teach” character attributes and then we apply that learning to discussion and reflection and hopefully not task cards, workbooks and novel studies. There are better ways to engage our students in reading beautiful stories than by fill in the blanking them to death and reducing these works of art to activities.   

This year as I have mentioned previously I started exploring TQE, a concept introduced by Marisa Thompson over on theunlimitedteacher.com. It has been a wonderful way to look at my students understanding, see if they have done the reading and watch their engagement with the classroom. I have moved even further away from photocopied work, further away from cute “canned” assignments and close to the authentic process that reading really is. Closer to what I do now with my friends as we look at a text together. Further from the things I had to do as a student that pushed me further away from the joy of reading.

It is my hope that I can continue on this road, we are talking books and literacy on my facebook group “Talking Books, Teaching and Literacy” we are working towards more appreciation of the author’s words and work in the classroom. I still have an assignment at the end of a text, I get that is something we are likely required to do, I just don’t overdo it anymore. 

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