Recently, I found this in my inbox:
Hi Amy –
We exchanged messages a couple of years ago when I was at a different school, discussing largely AP students, if I recall.
Last summer, my husband and I moved, and I am in a new district with new “clientele,” so to speak. We are finishing Neverwhere, which went over better than I thought it would with this extremely reluctant bunch of readers. I won grant money and purchased a class set of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk Home, largely because I remembered that you recommended it.
Here is what I’m up against: I have regular seniors, most of whom are ESL. Most of my little darlings are low level and struggle with reading. Because I only have one class set for three classes of kids, we do some independent reading in class, and then we take turns reading it out loud. I pause them A LOT because I have to “interpret” what we read – especially when we read Othello, and even with Neverwhere. They have reading projects and journal prompts, we have class discussions.
But I feel like I’m failing them somehow. That I’m not doing enough.
If you have any resources for Billy Lynn that you can share, I would appreciate it. I’m questioning whether this is the right book to read with them, but since I have a good number who want to go into the military upon graduation, I think maybe I can grab those kids and then others will follow.
Thank you so much for any guidance you can provide.
A while ago, I wrote about Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk in two different posts. Once about how I added it to my book club list and loved the author’s craft and the other an excerpt for a craft study. I have never read this book with students as a whole class novel. I’ve never even been very successful in getting a lot of students to read it for their book clubs.
Just because I love a book, bless it, use a passage out of it, doesn’t mean my students will want to read it, too. That is the beauty of choice. It is also sometimes the struggle.
Am I surprised more students do not choose this book? Yes. Dallas Cowboys after all. But I get why they don’t — many of my students do not want to read books that are set so close to come — they cannot wait to get out of here. But that’s a post for another day.
This is my response to my teacher-friend’s email:
Thanks for reaching out. I hope your move has proved a positive one. I know it is hard to change districts and schools.
Regarding Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: While I loved the book when I read it and found several passages I could use to study author’s craft with my students, I have never taught it as a whole class novel. So — I do not have any resources that go along with this book. I do have a few ideas that may help liven up your students experience with it though.
Teaching second language learners can be hard, especially seniors who want to check out of the learning so early. Pulling from my ESL training and my own experiences with students similar to those you describe, I’d probably do a few things, which you may already be doing.
1. Small discussion groups. Just like I do book clubs, I’d divide my students up into small groups. I’d give each group a short list of open-ended questions that relate to my skills-focus for choosing this book (theme, plot, characterization, etc), and I’d model how a discussion about literature might go — similar to how my friends and I talk about books in our book club. We would talk a lot. You mentioned that you already do journal prompts. I’d be sure that students write their thinking in response to these prompts before these discussions. Activate the thinking power.
2. Quickwrites. Besides journal prompts, I’d ask students to think about and write in
response to topics thematically related to the book. I might show a photo of Dallas Cowboys Stadium and ask students to think about attending a game there. What does it look like on the inside, what does it smell like during a big game, how many people work there? I may find data about how much the stadium cost, how many seats it has, something about the huge jumbotron. I might find a sports interview clip filmed within the stadium and ask students to watch it and respond to some component of the interview. Maybe I’d find a video of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders (try outs, community service — not just game shots) and ask students to respond somehow. All these things will helps students understand and visualize the setting.
3. Other Visuals. ESL students needs lots of them. And if we want students to understand more complex texts, we must give them the background knowledge needed to stick the new learning to. (I often forget this.) So — I’d use photos of young soldiers in war zones, as buddies, delivering first aid. I’d be sure my students know where Iraq is on a world map. I’d help them understand the idea of a “reality TV show” so they could visualize what this company of soldiers is dealing with at the stadium that day. This ties in to the multiple conflicts the book addresses: Billy’s individual conflict — “Should I stay or should I go” and the conflict with the TV show and the “rich” businessmen-type attitudes.
4. Movie clips. I am not always a fan of using movies in class, but this might be a great opportunity to compare scenes in the book with scenes in the film. What is similar? What is different? Why do the makers of the movie make the choices they do? Do they keep the integrity of the book?
5. Craft studies. I’d pull significant passages from the book to study for specific reading and writing skills — again trying back to why I chose this book for a whole class read in the first place. If my focus is theme, I’d find passages we can read and determine themes that relate to the over-all theme. If I’m using the novel to become better writers, I’d pull passages where the author does something interesting with language. We’d study the passage. Maybe write our own passage, mirroring what the author did.
Finally, I’d be okay with not reading the whole of the book. When I plan lessons, I focus on the skills [needed to get to the endgame whatever that may be for the unit.] Once I’m sure I’ve covered the learning targets, and students have learned what they needed to by reading this book, I’d be okay giving students the option to read the rest of the novel on their own.
When we focus on teaching a book instead of teaching the reader/writer, we can often get bogged down. I am in no way saying this is you, but it is a whole lot of teachers on my own campus and in schools where I conduct PD. We must focus on the learner and not the book. The best way I know how to do that is with a focus on skills: modeling, mini-lessons, reading, writing, talking. A lot.
I hope you find these ideas helpful. I would love to know how your experience with Billy Lynn plays out.
What ideas would you add to help a class of primarily English Language Learning students read and comprehend a whole class text? Please add your comments.
Amy Rasmussen teaches AP English Lang & Comp at Lewisville HS in North TX. She’s enjoyed the semester watching her student teacher face Teenage Angst, but he is good, very, very good, and will be a great teacher. Her next adventure is helping Mr. G build his classroom library. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass or @3TeachersTalk