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Teaching Dickens as a Serial Publication

by Joe Bucolo
© Copyright 1999 by the National Council of Teachers of English
Used with permission.

Mention Great Expectations to a group of high school students, and you're sure to receive a few rolling eyes, some mumbled groans, and even a "whatever!" or two. In short, the novel's "public image" is about as positive as Jerry Springer's. Traditionally at our school freshman English included Great Expectations during the third quarter, sandwiched between To Kill a Mockingbird in the second quarter and Romeo and Juliet in the fourth quarter.

Despite the teachers' most energetic lectures and creative projects, studying Great Expectations remained a less than terrific experience. Colleagues equated teaching Great Ex with pulling teeth; upperclassmen laughed about never actually reading the novel as freshmen; parents asked to have the book dropped from the curriculum. In fact, not a yearbook was published without mentioning Great Ex and Cliff Notes in the same sentence.

Although obviously exaggerated, the situation was not an easy one. Teaching Great Expectations was not always a nightmare; in fact, some truly "magic moments" occurred during the teaching of the novel. Still, obvious problems remained. Many students found the language difficult; others found it impossible to keep up with reading assignments; still others believed that spending an entire quarter on a single work was simply too long.

Thus, when my department chair approached me about becoming the new "team leader" for teachers of freshman English, I knew what my major task would be. (Was it too late to switch careers?) Among the many goals I planned for myself, I knew I had to make Great Expectations a more pleasurable experience for everyone, students and teachers alike. As much as I grappled with ideas and suggestions, none seemed satisfying until one day in August, just two weeks before school started.

About a year earlier, during a discussion about Great Expectations, a colleague had mumbled, "Too bad we can't teach it in installments as it was written." We both shared a chuckle and walked away, never really considering the "joke" as a real suggestion. I revisited the idea one night in mid-August as I desperately searched for a solution to the Great Expectations dilemma. Could we really teach the novel in installments? Would my colleagues "buy into" the idea?

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My department chair and I sat down to discuss this possibility, and she completely supported it. Together, we began to identify and address the obvious problems. Our students, for a variety of reasons, make schedule changes through the sixth week of each semester. Obviously, a student in a class whose teachers was not teaching the novel in installments could not transfer into a class whose teacher was using the installment process. And what about students transferring among classes between first and second semester? Clearly, a meeting with the school counselors was necessary.

Before approaching the counselors, I decided to survey the teachers of freshman English to see who would be interested in experimenting with this new method of teaching the novel. Much to my surprise, five of the eight teachers enthusiastically embraced the idea! Those five teachers accounted for 11 of the 16 sections of freshman English. Once we identified those who would teach the novel in installments, we notified the counselors to ensure that they would transfer students to and from teachers using the appropriate instruction method.

Next we five pioneers met to discuss not only the "nuts and bolts" of this new teaching approach, but how to thematically tie the installments to the literature that students would study simultaneously. We began by looking at the school year calendar to determine if, and how, the novel's thirty-six installments could be allocated between first and second semester. We decided that it would be best to put off the start of the novel until sometime in October so that the initial angst that freshmen experience at the start of the school year would have subsided by the time we were ready to begin. We would complete Part I (installments 1 - 12) of the novel by the end of the first semester and Parts II and III during the second semester. This agreement also guaranteed that any students who transferred between our classes at the end of the first semester would join a different class without being "behind" or "ahead" in the novel. We would read and study one installment each week, preferably on Mondays, to give students the weekends to read.

Tying the installments thematically to the other literature required a little more work. In addition to Great Expectations, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Romeo and Juliet, the freshman English curriculum includes a short story anthology. Together, we examined the themes presented in these literary works and created three curricular units to explore during the year.

The first, Judgment, would explore such essential questions as these:

  • What do I need to know about individuals in order to understand them?
  • What do others think of me?
  • Why do people need to belong?
  • How do differences affect individuals and their relationships?

To help students respond to these questions, we would study selected short stories from our anthology, Coming of Age, and also introduce students to the structure of short stories as well as literary devices.

Influences, the second unit, would build upon the first unit by examining these essential questions:

  • What factors create character, values, and personality?
  • Why do these factors have an impact?
  • How do individuals prioritize these factors?

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Both To Kill a Mockingbird and Part I of Great Expectations would serve as the literature to support our study. The protagonists of both novels examine these questions as they seek to find themselves within their individual cultures. While we never intended students to say that both novels were the "same," we did hope that the comparisons of the characters and their cultures would prove to be an enriching way to examine this unit's issues, while enhancing the students' understanding of both novels. (Students would complete both units during the first semester.)

Our final unit, Control, sought to build upon the first two by asking these questions:

  • Why would people want to change who they are?
  • Which aspects of persona are fixed?
  • Over what factors do people have control?
  • What prevents people from changing who they are?

We knew that our inquiry into the struggle between fate and free will would be at the heart of this unit, especially because Great Expectations and Romeo and Juliet were the core texts. In addition, several short stories from our anthology would support our examination of the larger works. Our ultimate goal was that the second semester's final assessment would tackle the larger question, What does all this have to do with me? so that students could apply all their constructed knowledge to the "real world" around them.

Phew! With the large task of thematically restructuring the course under our belts, my colleagues and I felt confident that we had organized the course in a way that would best benefit students. However, we knew there were other issues to consider. Because we also had the responsibility of covering grammar in freshman English, we worked to include nearly six entire grammar units in our year-long objectives! Working with students' varied reading and comprehension skills would also draw on our attention and time. Still, we felt confident that our newly created structure would provide "hooks" for our students to make sense of the curriculum while making the Great Expectations experience a rewarding one for everyone involved. Now we had to move from theory into practice to see if the freshmen would find the course coherent and enjoy it as much as we hoped.

As October approached, I introduced an activity known as the "life map," an assignment designed not only to introduce Great Expectations, but also to permit students to discover whether or not they are a product of their experiences. Students selected what they believed to be the seven most significant experiences of their lives. These experiences could be positive or negative. The events were laid out in the form of a timeline, and the students briefly described the events and the role they played in their development. Many students "graphed" the events according to significance; others attached mementos of various occasions; others used this opportunity to display their more creative talents. Then, one by one, students presented their maps to the class; often this was a very moving experience, with students sharing personal and even tragic events with their peers, as Pip would eventually do in the novel. The activity was an excellent preview for the novel and built community in the classroom as well.

After students presented their life maps, I began to prepare my students for the start of Great Expectations. At first, they seemed confused by the plan to read two books simultaneously and to read a single novel over the course of nine months. Yet, after I explained the process a few times, my students actually began to appear excited about the idea. They liked that Mondays would be "Great Ex days" and that they would "get to know" characters over a long period of time. Of course, some students expressed concern that, by the end of the novel, they would have forgotten what happened at the beginning. Adam feared he "would lose interest, forget, and not pay attention to early details." Jason added, "I had heard from upperclassmen that reading the book was a complete chore, and so I thought reading it over nine months would be a total nightmare." I wasted little time reminding them that they could rattle off the plots of several years' worth of Melrose Place or 90210 episodes at the drop of a hat; eventually, their concerns waned.

Then came Great Ex: The Cartoon. In response to the students' concern about remembering details of the novel over nine months, I developed an assignment that would serve several purposes; it would enable students to quickly review plot occurrences while also watching the development of the novel's significant themes. Each one of my freshmen drew a number corresponding to a chapter in the novel. (Because I had more freshmen then chapters, a few students "doubled up.") When the students read "their" chapter, they were responsible for creating one panel of our larger "comic strip." The panel would contain the chapter number in the upper corner, a thorough one-paragraph analysis of the plot and themes portrayed in the chapter, and a drawing or graphic that visually demonstrated the chapter's themes. Each panel was due one week after the chapter was assigned, and panels were displayed in order around my classroom. Not only was the assignment a huge success (my colleagues adopted it for their classes as well), but students enjoyed watching the comic strip evolve around the room, one panel at a time, over the course of the school year.

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My students and I began the novel together, thoroughly examining Dickens's life, the themes as "set up" by the first chapter, and the essential questions of the course that the novel might help solve. We even watched the first chapter as portrayed by one of the many film versions of the novel. (My students asked that we not view anymore of the film before completing the novel because seeing it limited their individual interpretations of characters and settings; I granted their request.) We also discussed the role of the "cliffhanger" in a book published in installments. Students decided they wanted to "rate" or "rank" each installment's cliffhanging ending as we tackled the novel. In addition, students' concerns about the installment method began to wane. "My concerns did not remain because we constantly referred back to the beginning of the book," said Emily. Anna added, "I took notes throughout the whole book as I read and quickly realized that the events at the end of the book would be connected to those at the beginning."

After reading two or three installments of Great Expectations, we began to read To Kill a Mockingbird. We continued to reserve Mondays for the former and spent three or four days a week studying the latter. Immediately, I noticed the benefits of reading the novels side by side. Not a single discussion of either novel failed to include the other. On their own, students would ask what Pip would do in Scout's shoes and vice versa. Students even "paired up" scenes from the books. For example, they immediately drew comparisons between Pip's Christmas dinner with his relatives and the lunchtime meal that Walter Cunningham shares with the Finches. Similar connections continued throughout the year. Emily said, "Many of the themes we discussed were applicable to the other books we read, which provided for good connections and a better understanding of all the books."

The depth of the students' reading was incredible. In past years, I had to spend considerable time clarifying characters and plots. This time, students had more time to read their assignments; as a result, fewer plot questions arose, and we had time to actually discuss Dickens's writing style, attention to sensory detail, and even his use of humor. "Since we did not read the novel every day," said Jamie, "we were able to ponder the plot and language, which was responsible for Dickens's fame as a writer." Matt added, "We got into better detail of each chapter rather than merely an overview of the whole novel." My colleagues concurred that the level of the students' understanding was much richer than in the past.

As the students approached the chapters in which Pip received his "great expectations" from an unknown benefactor, the new film version of the novel appeared in movie theaters. What's worse, the trailers for the film revealed the benefactor's identity, so many of our students learned some of the book's secrets before we reached them in our reading. (It's just like Hollywood to get in the way of education.)

As first semester ended, we teachers made certain that all our freshmen had completed Part I of the novel. Of course, we reexamined the essential questions from our Judgment and Influences units and previewed the questions for the second semester's Control unit. I was pleased by the number of students who looked forward to starting Part II. "I loved the suspense," said Angie. "You would have to wait until the next installment to find out what happened next." I immediately noticed that the student complaints I usually endured at this point in the novel in past years were nonexistent. If they were complaining about it, they weren't complaining to my colleagues or me.

At the start of the second semester, we began assigning two installments each week to guarantee that we would finish the novel by the end of the school year. Some short stories supplemented our study. In addition, my freshmen read Willy Russell's musical Blood Brothers. Set in modern-day London, Blood Brothers provided some interesting discussion, as students questioned whether the class distinctions and societal injustices Dickens criticized still existed today. In addition, the play directly addressed the role fate plays in one's life, so comparisons to Great Expectations were clear. Jeff said, "By reading Great Ex in installments, the other books were easily understood because they all dealt with the same themes."

The three teachers who opted not to use the installment method covered the entire novel during the third quarter. Those teachers' students, then, knew the book's endings -- both of them -- long before our students did. Like the film, that disclosure caused some student disappointment; in the future, all of us should teach the book in the same way.

At the start of the fourth quarter, we reverted to reading a single Great Ex installment each week, allowing the remaining days of the week for our study of Romeo and Juliet. Students immediately began to draw comparisons (and contrasts) between Romeo's love for Juliet and Pip's desire for Estella. Joey said, "Love is a theme obviously relevant [to both works.] The other kinds of love are the bonds felt in a family, and that, too runs through both books." The hand of fate in the lives of the characters also generated lively discussion.

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When we finally finished Great Expectations in May, my students and I had completed a journey we surely will never forget. Some students felt they were leaving a friend behind because Pip had been such a part of our lives for nine months. Others felt they had achieved something "big" by finally closing the book on an enriching nine-month endeavor. But our work with Great Ex wasn't quite over.

Together, my students and I sought to create a huge life map for Pip. We examined the many life-altering experiences Pip endured and, for several days, debated which seven should make the "final cut" as the most important. Once we reached consensus, students "wrote up" the events -- both the facts and an analysis of each event's significance. Then, the more artistic students created a larger-than-life map that took up one entire wall of my classroom. The other three walls contained more than sixty student-created cartoon panels that told the story and themes of Great Expectations.

When the time came to provide students with a final assessment at the end of the second semester, some colleagues and I created a project that required students to reflect upon the views of fate and free will (and the corresponding essential questions) presented in the semester's main texts. Then we asked the students to go one step further by figuring out society's current stand on the struggle between fate and free will. By reading through newspapers and magazines, surfing the Internet, listening to popular music, seeing the latest films, exploring current bestsellers, and observing/interviewing people in various walks of life, students worked to gather data and then make sense of it. Through an individual writing assignment and group multimedia presentation, students drew conclusions about the struggle between fate and free will in the present day.

Finally, after completing my grading, I surveyed the freshmen about their Great Expectations installment experience. I asked for frank, honest feedback. As I read through the surveys, I was amazed to see that a whopping 92 percent of the students said, if Great Expectations stayed in the curriculum, it should be studied in installments. "If we had not read Great Expectations in installments," began Tracy, "my experience with the novel would have been different because I wouldn't have liked it as much. I wouldn't have understood the important lessons the novel teaches." Jamie added that her friends who didn't read the book in installments were not as greatly affected by the novel.

"Our opinions of the book and author changed as we progressed through the installments," said Joey. "Therefore, my mind was open to different things and I better understood the other stories we read." Anna added, "We got to experience the novel the way Dickens intended so we could appreciate the cliffhangers and open questions at the end of each chapter." Recognizing that reading in installments might be more "work" than reading it from cover to cover all at once, Jeff added, "But we wouldn't have gotten the same education or experience from the book."

Clearly, this experience with Great Expectations benefited students and their understanding of all the themes studied in freshman English. In addition, the method reinforced several important lessons for teachers. Encouraging students to see connections between themes and texts clearly provides a more enriching educational experience. They enjoy drawing comparisons and contrasts among texts and ideas and certainly value the presence of several thematic "hooks" on which they can hang curricular experiences. As we teachers look forward to revising curriculum in our English department, we will look back to this experience as proof that curriculum must be coherent and meaningful for students and teachers.

Whether or not the "bad press" for Great Expectations continues at our school remains to be seen; however, I believe we can celebrate what we achieved with this new method of teaching the novel and hope that students will give the book fair reviews to future freshmen. In the meantime, I'll continue to keep my eye out for those thin little black and yellow booklets in my classroom . . . just in case.

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Joe Bucolo teaches English at Highland Park High School, Highland Park, Illinois.

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