5 Proven Ways to Engage Students in Great Literature

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Quick: What’s your favorite book?  You’ve got the answer, right?  Not so with many students (although if you press and prompt and even suggest, you generally can get them to come up with something).  The thing is, we know that great literature is out there for all ages in all genres, with storylines, characters, and themes to appeal and thrill every reader.  But how do we get the kids to come willingly and eagerly to the lit?  That’s the million-dollar question, right?

Adding another layer of complexity for every educator is the challenge of the way in which our students are required to access text today.  The truth is, a rigorous involvement with text is a great thing for every reader.  To deeply understand a good book, uncovering its dimensions of Hank-Hoogkamer-reading-Sort-It!meaning and perhaps accessing some profound personal relevance, is a thrill—truly.  Bibliophiles know this, but it’s true for everyone.

Today’s Common Core State Standards call for the close and meaningful reading of complex and challenging texts in ways that reach the highest orders of thinking and analysis.  How great is that?  Our brains are hungry to be engaged!  Every child in every classroom is born with that innate drive to learn, think, analyze, and ponder.  They dearly want the challenge of going deeper than basic knowledge and comprehension to a place where they can think a new thought and be inspired.

So, how do we get there?  It’s not a mystery, and the possibilities rest in every teacher’s hands.  Here are five proven methods.

Be Prepared
Before you ever mention a book to your students, know it well yourself.  Know it and love it!  Learn about its context and creation.  Think about (and read what others have to say about) its central themes, characterizations, symbols, and language.  Become a huge fan of the book . . . and your kids will, too.  Your interest is infectious.  And if you are fascinated by the book and well prepared to talk about it, that fire and passion will catch on.  Guaranteed.

Of course, you don’t have to go it alone.  There is a lot of support material out there that an educator can use to foster her or his own deep understanding of a work of literature.  Unfortunately traditional literature guides don’t go beyond basic knowledge and comprehension.  Students are asked to read and regurgitate.  A surefire way to kill the love of a good book!  That’s the main reason Shell Education created the Great Works line of literature guides.  Each guide is filled with solid teacher prep support as well as text-based, thought provoking, creative, and ready activities designed to engage while meeting the needs of the Common Core.  Great Works goes a long way toward helping you, the teacher, get prepared in a way that offers something truly worthwhile for the students.

Make It Real
The great thing about the classic cartoon character Gumby is that he “could walk into any book” and experience it live.  You and your students can, too!  If the book becomes real, students naturally access it at a deeper level of understanding, and that understanding anchors itself to their emotional experience.  To do this, recreate an experience from the book, especially one that engages multiple senses.  If the characters shoot arrows from a bow, shoot (suction tipped!) arrows from a bow.  If the characters learn how to make strange candies in a chocolate factory, make a strange candy (and wrap one in a golden ticket!).  Real experiences equate to engagement.

Make It Personal
Some of our most beloved books become such because we relate to them personally.  A character or experience speaks to us in a way that is familiar, and therefore impacts us emotionally.  With emotional impact comes high engagement.  Spend some time relating to the characters and experiences personally.  When have I felt that way?  When have I done something like that?  When did I think that?  Let the students talk about their own experiences relevant to the characters’ experiences.  One student’s experiences will dovetail into another’s.  Voila!  Emotional experiences equate to engagement.

Make It Project-Based
One of the best aspects of the Common Core State Standards is their encouragement of and support for project-based learning.  Ask students to create an ad relevant to the book, write a script based in the book or on the book, create a costume for a character in the book, write oneself into the book as a new character—anything that takes the students outside the book to bring them to a deeper level of understanding within the book.  High-concept activity equates to engagement.

Be Creative
We constantly seek for our students to think outside the box, but it starts with us and how we approach our teaching.  Creativity is a powerful tool that generates creative outcomes in students.  Try introducing a great work of literature in costume as a character from the book.  Or create a setting from the book in your classroom.  Perhaps use technology to set the scene!  A creative approach equates to engagement.

With high engagement approaches to great literature, each student’s love of good books grows.  Great Works offers many opportunities to create real and personal experiences, indulge in project-based learning, be winningly creative, and get prepared to go deep into a great work of literature.  So, next time you ask your students, “What’s your favorite book?” you might have to stop them from their eager litany of beloved books because, you know, the bell rang.

Your Turn!
What’s your best practice for engaging students in great literature?  Share your ideas here!

Add rigor to your students’ explorations of rich, complex literature with Great Works: Instructional Guides for Literature

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