Teaching Contemporary Novels

After finishing yesterday’s review of Teach Living Poets, it occurred to me that we shouldn’t just be teaching living poets. We should be teaching living authors, period, and for all the same reasons. As Lindsay Illich and Melissa Alter Smith argue in Teach Living Poets, one reason for teaching living poets is that students can begin to see themselves as poets and understand that poetry can discuss contemporary issues that they care about. All of this applies to novels as well.

Another great reason for teaching contemporary novels is that you can incorporate more voices into your curriculum. While it’s entirely possible to teach classics by authors of color or women, for example, it’s also true that these voices were much more marginalized in the past, and the bulk of classics are written by White men. 

I recognize that many schools have a book room, and teachers are confined to what’s in the book room—I certainly experienced that barrier early in my career. I will be upfront that I do not currently have have that challenge, as I work in a private school that expects students to purchase their books, so I do not need to constantly update an outdated book room. I can change books each year, if I like. If you are working in a school where you are limited, you might try DonorsChoose or educational grants. A friend of mine recently shared her Amazon Wish List on Twitter in order to procure a contempary novel for her class, and she was able to obtain a full class set in this way. I recognize we all have different levels of comfort in asking for help in this way and also that some of us may need to go through department chairs or curriculum directors, too, but I promise that making the effort can pay off.

One of the barriers to teaching contemporary novels, similar to teaching contemporary poets, is not having the canned content and premade lesson plans. Let me tell you a secret. When I was an early-career teacher, I relied on that canned content, and it was terrible for my students. I didn’t feel prepared enough or creative enough to come up with my own approaches to teaching books. I found a bunch of these novel guides in my classroom, and I used all the study questions, tests (ick), and essay prompts—you name it. While using these tools might save you time, ultimately, they’re not that engaging. Even the free novel guides you find online are not really lesson plans (though I admit to reading them when I’m thinking about big ideas and discussion questions).

A few years before I started teaching living poets, I began incorporating more contemporary novels in my curriculum as well. Of course, that also meant I had to create lessons around these novels, and often there wasn’t much I could find online from other teachers. This turned out to be a great experience for me as an educator because I completely tailored my lessons to the students in my classes. All of this may seem glaringly obvious to you, and if so, that’s great, but if you think a little help might be good, stay tuned. I am planning to share my approaches to teaching several contemporary novels here on this blog. For our purposes, I’m defining “contemporary” as published in the last 20 years. I plan to focus on three novels, in particular: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, There There by Tommy Orange, and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. 

I have curated a list of great contemporary novels on Bookshop.org, and I will keep adding to this list. I’m looking forward to sharing these lessons and ideas with you, and I hope they’ll be useful.

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