10 Ideas for Planning Engaging Novel Units

Believe it or not, but some of the novels and texts I hated the most in high school are now my favorite to teach. (Hi, The Great Gatsby and “The Crucible,” I’m looking at you!) Why?! Because I’m on a mission to make my novels engaging and relevant for my students. It’s my way of being who I needed when I was younger. Now, Gatsby and “The Crucible” are often my students’ favorites, year after year, because of my obsession with planning engaging novel units. Each year, I make it a priority to transform a few of my most “boring” lessons from the previous years so I can add to my collection of favorite lessons. With this mindset, I’ve been able to collect a number of tried-and-true engaging lesson ideas, many that I can reuse for different novel units. If your novel units are getting stale, make engagement your goal for 2019. Commit to changing up at least one old lesson a month, and by the end of the year, you’ll have yourself a small but mighty toolbox of engaging lesson ideas.

If you’re ready to ditch the PowerPoint lectures, chapter reading guides, and boring worksheets and make 2019 the Year of the Engaging Novel Unit, then read on! In this post, I rounded up some ideas from a few fellow ELA teacher friends (because a few English nerds are better than just one). I’ve sprinkled in my own strategies, too. I hope these ideas help you plan engaging novel units for your students!

10 Ideas for Planning an Engaging Novel Unit

1. CURRICULUM MAPPING

Before you start penciling in all of these engaging activities, sit down to map out the “big picture.” Amanda Cardenas from Mud and Ink Teaching says that the first thing she does for every novel unit is get a clear picture of what direction the map for the unit is.  On her free curriculum map, Amanda lays out a plan for all of the most critical components of the unit so that nothing is missed. 

2. LEARNING STATIONS

Learning stations will enhance your novel units in ways that traditional whole-class teaching just can’t! Searching for a engaging pre-reading activity to preview setting, characters, and context? Want your students to analyze key excerpts from the text? Desperately in need of some small-group discussions because your whole-class ones are flopping? Looking for a way to tackle symbolism at the end of the text? Stations are the answer, and they will be your best friend during your novel units if you give them a chance. For more information on learning stations, check out my series of blog posts here:

If you’re already planning and want to save time prepping your stations, check out my bundle of pre- and post-reading learning stations for ANY text.

3. ONE-PAGERS

A one-pager is a creative response to reading that students enjoy and that doesn’t take teachers eons to grade. But it must be scaffolded for many students. Read about how you can do that in this post from Melissa at Reading and Writing Haven here. If you are interested in reading about more ways to assess comprehension without making students hate reading, check out this post.

4. “WHAT STUCK WITH YOU?” ACTIVITY WITH STICKY NOTES

Need a quick engaging activity or informal assessment? Grab the sticky notes! Lauralee from the Language Arts Classroom asks her students to find what is meaningful or what has “stuck” with them regarding the novel. If you need more specific questions, check out this post.

5. MINI-LESSONS & COMPREHENSION ACTIVITIES

Melissa from Reading and Writing Haven knows how important it is to monitor comprehension (not in the “I got you” kind of way, but from the “I really want to know what you understand” mindframe). Reading guides can be cumbersome, so she began focusing on specific standards and reading skills through mini lessons. Melissa models the skills for her class, and then they practice. She does this both with class reads and during choice reading units. Check out her favorite reading activities that work for any text.

6. SOCRATIC SEMINARS

Ashley Bible from Building Book Love believes that Socratic seminars are the perfect engagement tool to use with any novel. They are little to no prep for the teacher, foster independent reading skills, and allow student voices to be heard. You can read all of her tips and tricks for hosting varied and successful socratic seminars here: How to Liven Up Your Socratic Seminar

If you’re in need of ready-to-print Socratic seminar materials that work for ANY text, check out my bundle of everything you need for this student-led discussion that makes the kids (not you) do the hard work!

Socratic Seminar

7. GRAPHIC ORGANIZERS

An easy way to transform a boring chapter guide or worksheet is to turn it into a graphic organizer. Not only does it make the task a little more engaging, but it’s great scaffolding, too! Lauralee from the Language Arts Classroom loves using graphic organizers to help her students show what they know during novel units or choice reading units. Check out her collection of graphic organizers here.

8. LITERARY LENSES

Another tool Ashley Bible likes to use when teaching novels is her Literary Lenses. She thinks it’s very important for students to learn to see a single text through various lenses in order to form a more well-rounded theory of the novel. You can read more about how she teaches critical lenses in this post: Creative Ways to Teach Critical Lenses

9. QUESTION TRAILS

If you’re looking to ditch your chapter study guides and find a more engaging strategy to quickly review comprehension, practice identifying vocabulary in context, or even work on analysis, then consider trying out a question trail in your next novel unit. This unique kinesthetic activity will help you break up the monotony that can sometimes sneak up during whole-class novels. A question trail gets students up and moving around the room on a trail of multiple choice questions. At each station on the trail, students answer a multiple choice question that sends them to the next station on the trail. If students answer each question correctly, they will travel to all stations and complete a full circuit with the correct sequence of stations. If you’d like more information on creating your own question trail, check out this blog post. For a create-your-own question trail template, check out this resource, and for a collection of all of my favorite ELA question trails, take a look at this bundle.

10. CHARACTER FUNERALS

If you teach a novel in which a character dies (nearly all of literature, right?), then this idea is perfect for hitting the standards in an engaging way AND mourning a beloved literary character. Whenever I host a character funeral, my students write eulogies or elegies to demonstrate mastery of the skills we are working on. Writing a eulogy or elegy can help students cite textual evidence, analyze point of view, analyze author’s choices/purpose, analyze theme, analyze symbolism…the list goes on! For example, when we read “The Crucible,” I host a funeral for John Proctor so that my students can analyze the purpose of Proctor’s death and how it connects to Miller’s allegory. Similarly, when we hold a funeral for The Great Gatsby, my students must write a eulogy from Nick’s point of view in order to analyze his complex attitude toward Gatsby, and ultimately, Fitzgerald’s purpose in writing The Great Gatsby. Their eulogies help them contemplate Fitzgerald’s symbolism and commentary on the American dream.

Character funerals

I hope these ideas have inspired you to plan engaging novel units that your students will love!

What are your favorite tried-and-true activities for whole-class novels? I would love to hear about them in the comments!

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