Thursday, May 28, 2009

Topic: Previewing a Novel for the Purpose of Discussion.

10-second review: The origin and an example of the preview of a novel from my book, Teaching English, How To…. Xlibris (2004).

At Syracuse University, I was responsible for working with students who needed study skills to survive. One of the techniques I learned was useful for students who had a difficult time starting and completing reading assignments—in this case, novels. The originator of the idea, a professor named Dr. Shirk from the University of Kansas at Missouri, called the technique “Successive Sieves.”

The students gathered in small groups and read for 10 minutes somewhere near the beginning of the novel and then shared what they had learned with each other. Since students read at different places in the beginning, collectively they had covered a good portion of the beginning section of the novel. Each student then told the group about what he or she had read.

They repeated the process about half way through the novel, three-fourths of the way through the novel, and at the end of the novel. Each time students explained what they had read and collectively they would put together a pretty good review of the novel. The cost in time was less than two hours. Students were then prepared to participate in class discussions and even to take quizzes. Such an activity was certainly superior to not reading at all. But such an activity, I discovered, also had a surprisingly desirable side-effect.

When I tried this technique in class, I found something wonderful happening. The “preview” from different parts of the novel proved to be a terrific discussion starter—and motivator. One night in a continuing education class at a community college, I tried the technique with Knowles’s A Separate Peace, a novel I’m not crazy about. I just happened to have enough copies for every member of the class.

The class read for ten minutes near the beginning, in the middle, three-fourths through and near the end of the novel. The discussion of what the students had learned from their sampling was enthusiastic. Questions about the novel came from all sides. But I was unprepared for the class’s response to previewing the novel.

When I was ready to collect the books, hands shot up. The students wanted to take the novel home so they could read it fully. They had been motivated by the sampling and the discussion and the questions raised to want to read the entire novel. Abut 80% of the class took A Separate Peace home that night. And it was not even assigned reading.

Here’s an example of previewing a novel, Henry James’s Washington Square.

1. Read for ten minutes in the beginning of the novel.

What we have learned:

Long paragraphs and convoluted sentences.

Dr. Sloper: snide comments; not much respect for women, except for his deceased wife; makes negative judgments about people.

Catherine, Dr. Sloper’s daughter: “stolid, unresponsive.”


Does the plot center on Catherine? Dr. Sloper?


2. Read for ten minutes in the middle of the novel.

What we have learned:

Dr. Sloper is aloof; observes life; curious how things will turn out; does not respect his daughter; cynic.

Conflict between Dr. Sloper and Catherine’s suitor, Morris Townsend.


What is the relationship between Dr. Sloper and his daughter Catherine?

Does Dr. Sloper manipulate the lives of others?


3. Read for ten minutes about three-fourths of the way through the novel.

What we have learned:

Sloper tells his daughter he will disinherit her if she marries Townsend.

Sloper manipulates the lives of people over whom he has power.


Does Sloper suspect Townsend of wanting Catherine’s money?

What is Townsend’s character?

How will the plot conclude? Will Sloper change his mind about Townsend? Will Catherine marry Townsend?


4. Read for ten minutes near the end of the novel.

What we have learned:

Years later. Sloper is dead. Aunt Penniman and Catherine are living together. No sign of Townsend. However, Mrs. Penniman meets Townsend and he wants to renew his relationship with Catherine. When he comes to call, Catherine says, “No,” and she means it. Townsend goes away. Reveals the hardness of his heart.

Questions: Fact, Interpretation, Criticism

Fact: How did Townsend break with Catherine?

Interpretation. Was it because she would be disinherited?

Interpretation: Was Dr. Sloper’s judgment about Townsend accurate?

Interpretation: To what extent did Dr. Sloper manipulate his daughter’s life?

Interpretation: Why did Catherine decide never to marry?

Interpretation: How does Catherine’s character change from the beginning to the end of the novel?

Criticism: Why did James write this novel?

Criticism: How does the narrator’s role change in telling the story?

Criticism: What is the theme of the novel—if there is one?


How Do Students Respond to Previewing Novels?

When I was Language Arts Supervisor, K-12, I observed the class of an English teacher whose introduction to The Red Badge of Courage amounted to a review of the reading and writing assignments with dates on which they would be due. After that introduction, the students in a very desultory way began their reading. When I commented that this method was not a very effective motivator, the teacher agreed. When I suggested the preview method of sampling different parts of the novel, she said she would try it. The next day she stopped me in the hall.

“I couldn’t shut them up,” she said. “They got so much from previewing different parts of the book, and they wanted to talk, talk, talk. They had questions. They anticipated what was gong to happen. They speculated about the author’s [Stephen Crane’s] style of writing. I’ve never had such an enthusiastic response to The Red Badge of courage, which is really pretty difficult to read. They couldn’t’ wait to get started reading the whole thing.”

Comment: I rest my case.

Next blog: Using the student question method with a poem.

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