I don’t know about you, but our district’s curriculum is old. I graduated high school from the same district in which I currently teach. We are still using the same textbook that I had–and they were already twenty years old then! Those books were not going to work for my students, so I had to figure out how to implement a new novel into my high school English classroom.
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Luckily, I do work at an alternative school and the head of the district’s English curriculum is a gem. These two things grant me some flexibility.
I emailed her earlier in the year asking if there was any way I could possibly teach something a little more modern with some immediate relevancy. Apparently, others had expressed the same concern, so my curriculum chair sent me some books to look at.
How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon was my first read. It was a great book (and I’ve since ordered several copies for my classroom library). But it just wasn’t quite what I was looking for.
Then I picked up The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I had looked at this title several times, but at 444 pages, it’s twice the length of anything I’ve dared to teach to my classroom of reluctant readers.
Find That Dream Novel
I couldn’t put it down. The beginning starts off funny–the characters sounded just like my students. I knew immediately that my kids could relate.
But The Hate U Give truly sold me when I made it to the Khalil’s death. Let me show you the quote that made my heart stop, and ache, and told me my students needed this:
“When I was twelve, my parents had two talks with me. One was the usual birds and bees…. The other talk was about what to do if a cop stopped me” ~Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give
It only gets better from there. The book is painfully real at times, but the main character Starr and her family are wonderful.
The perspective is balanced too–there are good and bad white character, good and bad black characters, good and bad cops. It’s a great examination of how choices shape us and how we can speak out against injustices.
I talk more about how wonderful this novel is elsewhere on the blog.
Create Your Unit Plan
I spent hours planning out the curriculum for my new African-American unit and I was excited about it. The format is different than anything I had done before. Teaching something new fired me up and breathed new life into my own teaching.
I’m a believer in planning backward, so I started with the final assessment. If I was going to tackle a book as big as The Hate U Give, there was no way we’d have time for a full essay too.
With the blessing of my instructional coach, I scrapped the essay and replaced it with a conversation cafe styled class discussion. Given the heavy topics discussed in the novel, this made sense to both of us.
From there, I plan backward and figure out when things need to get done.
We would have to read an average of 45 minutes, three times a week to get through the book before the end of the quarter. At my school, we don’t assign homework. That meant a lot of in-class reading.
I can’t hold these kids’ attention for five minutes, let alone forty-five.
And this timeline didn’t include discussion, reviewing, summarizing, answering questions, and all the questions students ask that have literally nothing to do with the lesson (you know what I’m talking about).
Don’t Back Down From Challenges, but Ask: Is It Worth It?
I knew that incorporating The Hate U Give into my classroom was a gamble. Either the kids would love it so much, that they’d be compliant. Or the intense amount of reading would lose them completely, leaving me screwed.
Again, I sought outside perspective from my instructional coach: was I crazy?
She reminded me of how powerful it can be to share our own personal stories. And students were going to have stories to tell around these topics.
In this case, the gamble seemed worth it. I forged ahead in my planning and ordering of materials.
Build in Scaffolding
For my students, that was already going to be a challenge. I couldn’t expect them to follow along with the reading and write down every quote that might be useful for the assignment.
I wanted them to have those skills–using evidence to support their claims, finding answers explicitly in the text, while also making inferences. But again, our time was limited.
The only way I could envision students finding these quotes without losing time from the reading was to have them physically annotate their novels. If they could highlight and make notes in the books as they read, it would save us all some time.
This was something our district usually only does with honors students, but I knew I could find a way to annotate with lower level students as well. In fact, it was the perfect scaffolding for them.
But there’s an immediate problem, right? We are not a rich school. We are a Title I building, meaning most of our kids live in poverty, and they all receive free breakfast and lunch.
I can’t rely on them to bring pencils to class–I was never going to get them to buy their own book.
Could I get that kind of funding? Is this a sustainable unit? I worried I was thinking too big.
But my instructional coach loved the idea. The district was buying me my first class set–how I get the books after this year will be a future problem. I figure let’s see how this goes and I’ll worry about the money later.
As we read, students will highlight important passages and quotes with a color highlighter that corresponds to the essential question.
Before students could support their discussion claims with evidence, I was going to have to teach them how to annotate. We were going to have to discuss their discussion questions every week before the big assessment.
So I had built in my scaffolding: close reading, small writing assignments on the essential questions, review, mini-discussions, and annotations. Instead of reading independently, we’d be listening to the (well-done!) audiobook together.
If You Can, Make the Unit Exciting
At this point, I had the framework for the unit: the material, the assessment, and a rough calendar with built-in scaffolding.
I don’t know why, but I loved the idea of students having a little workbook for a novel. Maybe because it’s something I would have enjoyed as a student.
I had then in my mind an image of a workbook–more like a reading journal or diary–where students could respond with their own feelings and experiences to the situations and emotions that Starr goes through. I became ambitious. What if there were activities in this journal, too? Something to keep them entertained during long bouts of reading?
I was so worried that students would zone out during our class reading. Sure, as we read they should be highlighting and annotating their novels. But that wasn’t going to be enough for students.
As I worked on these reading journals or workbooks, I included fun activities like a crossword, word search, and coloring pages. At least if kids got distracted, they’d still be thinking of the material.
I also included the short writing assignments I wanted to give in order to make up for the writing they wouldn’t be doing by skipping the essay.
Don’t Do It Alone
I would never have been able to design this unit–now my favorite one to teach and the one new students arrive excited about–without others.
My instructional coach was super encouraging. She, and a few other colleagues, serve as facilitators during our summative discussion. The librarian, an Angie Thomas fan, reviewed my materials for me.
And of course, the principal allowed me to do this wacky stuff. He stood behind me when I chose a novel that included the “F word” 69 times. He funded my novels, highlighters, and sticky notes. The head of the English department for my district cheered me on.
Hopefully, you too have some access to supportive colleagues.
Whether you do or don’t, though, don’t be afraid to ask for materials or funding. The worse they can say is “no.”
As students walked into my classroom on the first day of this unit, Tupac played from my speakers.
Each students was handed a giant Ziploc bag, like a gift, with everything they’d need for this unit:
- A copy of The Hate U Give,
- Their very own reading journal
- Five highlighters
- A piece of candy (I still had leftovers from Halloween and thought maybe some chocolate would ease the sting of seeing eight weeks of work before them).
Overall, the response was good. I had sent letters home to their parents letting them know that we were about to read a controversial book with mature language.
The letters had been received, and the kids were intrigued.
When I told them the book was theirs to keep (“Yes, after this semester you get to take it with you!”) most students were genuinely grateful.
They were, after all, beautiful hardcovers. One girl flipped through the reading journal and pronounced it “cool,” which made me proud of the hours and hours I put into assembling it.
They took notes in their new journals on the history of Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and more modern events like the shooting of Trayvon Martin.
Immediately at the beginning of that unit, I felt optimistic. And because I had involved others, I had a team of teachers in the halls that were cheering on the kids and myself.
Staff stopped to ask my students how the book was going. Other staff members picked up the book too. I felt like my whole school supported the experiment going on in my classroom.
Ask Students for Feedback
Even though the first day was good, I knew it was going to be a long quarter. I was upfront with my students.
They knew that they were my guinea pigs. I let them know that I had never taught The Hate U Give before. When I asked for their feedback, I let them know that they would be the determining factor in whether or not I was going to teach the novel again.
We started reading and immediately there were giggles. Relief.
After the first swear word, kids who weren’t even pretending to work put away their phones and opened up the book. When we came to the end of a page, every. Student. Turned. The. Page.
(I don’t know what happens in your classroom, but here, that’s amazing. Every student is following along?!)
By the end of the chapter, the students were pointing out quotes they found and connections they made WITHOUT ME PROMPTING.
Let me say again, I didn’t even ask them if they could think of a connection THEY JUST STARTED TELLING ME.
And it wasn’t even just in their heads–they had added a post-it and jotted down their thoughts. After a few examples, the other students who had been hesitant to write in a pristine book were taking their own notes, noting their own connections, writing in the margins.
After the first chapter I had this exchange:
Student: Are you going to teach this next year?
Me: Well, I don’t know yet. I told you guys that you were my guinea pigs. It depends on how this goes, if you like it, and if we can get through it.
Student: Well you should. This is the best book I’ve ever read.
My heart was so full!
Don’t Stop Reflecting
After chapter two, when an officer kills a young black man, my students were pissed. They were having emotions. About a book. Is that even real life?
Now don’t get me wrong. This was still a class full of teenagers and it wasn’t perfect.
While the book appealed to many students, it didn’t resonate with all of them. One student and his parents decided that it was better to complete his English class online, rather than continue to read it.
I still had late assignments.
And the reading schedule was exhausting for my students. No matter how awesome a book is, forty-five minutes is beyond the reading stamina my students have developed. By the last five or ten minutes, phones come out a little more, and I can see them zoning out.
But when it came to the assessment–that conversation cafe discussion–my colleagues had a lot to say. The loved it! They enjoyed so much having real and profound conversations with students.
The librarian told me it was her favorite day of the year.
I did continue to teach this novel–and still do! But I don’t stop learning from it. Some students really struggle with annotating, and I have to work hard to really teach that skill.
I’ve become kind of an addict of creating my own units since this particular experiment. I love finding books that I think my students will love and creating materials for them.
I recommend experimentation to all teachers. You never really know what’s going to serve your students best until you try.
Better yet, I’ve been re-inspired in my teaching all over again. It’s reignited some of the passion for the career. And it’s certainly made me a better teacher.