PBS in the Classroom

Inspire Writers and Engage Readers with The Great American Read

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“What’s YOUR favorite book?” As a lifelong reader, book lover, and three-decade English teacher, one would think I could answer that question in a heartbeat. But I have loved so many books, from so many authors, across so many genres, over so many years, that I can’t possibly choose just one favorite. It’s like asking a chef to name a favorite dish, a gardener to name a favorite plant, a parent to name a favorite child. Impossible!

But PBS asked and America answered. Check out America’s 100 best loved books in PBS’s Great American Read to see the books we love, from The Outsiders to Outlander; Looking for Alaska to Lord of the Rings; Gone Girl to Gone With The Wind. Are your all-time favorite books on the list? Now go to https://www.pbs.org/the-great-american-read/vote/ and cast your vote for your favorite book today!

As a middle school English teacher, one of my greatest hopes for my students is that they will become passionate readers, that they will discover the genres and authors of books that will keep them up late at night, the books that will connect them to worlds outside their own, make them feel less alone in their own worlds, develop their empathy for others, and inspire them to be the best people they can. Of course my students also need to develop their writing, speaking and listening skills, but above all I want them to be readers. No matter where they go or what they do in life, reading will make them better students, better citizens and better people, but only if they continue to read good books on their own. So finding favorite books for my students is smack dab in the middle of the target I set for us each year.

However, the work my students need to do in English class can often contradict this goal of inspiring passionate readers. My 8th graders are expected to not just read and comprehend books, but also to think and write analytically about literature. How would you like to stop in the middle of a great book to write an analytical essay on symbolism or theme? Probably not.

So how can we help our students notice and think about the elements that make up great literature while also loving the text? How do we inspire deep thinking of literary analysis without interfering with a love of reading? After struggling with this issue for (too many) years in the classroom, I stumbled across an answer that caught me (and my students) by surprise.

Seven years ago I took a huge leap of faith off a steep, rocky cliff when I challenged my 8th graders to write their own novels (with lots of support and curriculum from the Young Writers Program of NaNoWriMo, a.k.a. National Novel Writing Month). After recovering from the shock and fear of such a bold challenge, we discovered that we all had stories to tell and, with enough time and resources, we really enjoyed writing them. But an unexpected benefit surfaced when my students reflected on how writing their own novels affected their reading of novels:

“Writing a novel has helped me look at certain types of strategies when reading a book. Like now I'm reading Game of Thrones, and I notice pacing of the story and development of the characters.” -Sean, 14
“Writing a novel has affected my reading because now I'm always looking for little things that could help my writing. For example, I liked how an author used a few different characters’ points of view and I tried to use that in my novel. -Anna, 13
“When I read now I usually think, "I like that wording the author used," or "I think that could be something I could write about." Now I get involved in the story, and I understand the elements that it takes to make a story interesting.” -Zane, 14
“When I read before NaNoWriMo, I only did it for pleasure. Now, I still read for pleasure, but I also read for ideas about how to make my writing better. For example, I have improved on describing actions because I have paid attention to how the author described actions in my book.” -Bella, 13
“Now that I have spent a considerable amount of time writing, I am beginning to notice the word choices and details that writers use. For example, I am currently reading Julie Andrews’ autobiography, and she has a chapter in her book where she describes her adventure from London to New York, and because traveling takes place in my novel as well, I found that part of her book very useful to my writing to help pace and describe that scene.” -Megan, 12
“Before NaNoWriMo, when I read a book I enjoyed it and read mostly for pleasure, but now I actually look carefully at the wording and the style the author is using. For instance, one time when I was reading The Hobbit, I noticed that J. R. R. Tolkien used 3rd person point of view, but in The Hunger Games, I noticed that Suzanne Collins used 1st person point of view, so the thoughts of the main character are clear to the reader.” -Bethlehem, 14
“Now I notice how writers use backstory to help move the story along. Writing a novel has made me pay attention to details I wouldn't have before.” -Bella, 13
“After writing my novel, I have paid close attention to how the authors of the books that I read tell their stories. I have noticed that they skip over parts like, for example, in the Harry Potter books: 'Harry and Ron visited Hagrid in his hut that afternoon. They broke their teeth on rock cakes and sipped tea before returning to the castle'. This told what they were doing, but didn't waste the reader's time with a play-by-play of the boring parts of the character's life that aren't important to the story.” -Bailey, 13
“Writing my novel has given me more of an author-to-author kind of view. I think I can relate a lot more to the decisions authors make - such as killing off characters or giving them tragic backstories - instead of just getting mad at them for it, now I understand better why they do that.” -Natalie, 13 
“Now I am able to pick up on some of the more subtle strategies that authors use and incorporate them into my story. For example, I was reading the book Bruiser, and I kept noticing how the author used poetry to convey some of the character’s thoughts. Using this, I was able to incorporate that into my story.” -Will, 13
“When we started NaNoWriMo, I got super unsure of how to write dialogue, whether first or third person would be better, and when to indent. So I grabbed the two books that I had been currently reading, Paper Towns and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Flipping through the first few pages, I noticed that I preferred a third person perspective compared to first person. This is because in Harry Potter we could see things that Harry himself couldn't see if we were in first person. So not only has writing a novel increased my awareness of punctuation, dialogue, and such, it has also inspired me to read more so I can see examples.” -Elizabeth, 12

Without realizing it, my students were engaging in literary analysis. They looked closely at the elements of literature, not because a teacher told them to, but because they wanted to understand how to write their own compelling stories. The books they turned to for inspiration, books they had chosen for pleasure reading, became texts for literary analysis that improved their own writing and in turn boosted their reading skills. Thanks to 100 beloved books on The Great American Read, your students have more than enough mentor texts to inspire them through their own novel-writing challenge.

If you’re curious about how you and your students might use writing to build reading skills, join our Virtual Professional Learning Series on October 17 @ 7pm ET, register below!    

Read more about the full series, hope to see you there!

For more information on how to bring the NaNoWriMo novel-writing challenge to your students, check out free curriculum and lots of support at ywp.nanowrimo.org. I also share my own tips from seven years of teaching NaNoWriMo at nanoteacher.org.

Laura Bradley

Laura Bradley PBS Digital Innovator All-Star

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