6 Must-Teach Novels in Secondary ELA

Teaching novels you love models for students the excitement readers can experience. These must-read novels work in ELA classrooms.

Must-teach novels are here! March is National Reading Month!

I’ve teamed up with Melissa from Reading and Writing Haven to bring you 6 Must-Teach Novels for Secondary ELA. As English teachers, we love to read and share our passion for literature.

As an English teacher, people often ask my my “favorite.” I can’t really narrow down my favorites. How would I do that? I can narrow down genres maybe, or most impactful books. Often, I take a stab at narrowing the impact in my life:

  • Favorite play? A Raisin in the Sun
  • Favorite Shakespeare play? Macbeth
  • Book that changed the way I look at the world? The Grapes of Wrath
  • Book that forever changed the way I look at America? Native Son
  • Book that made me reconsider politics? Slaughterhouse Five
  • Book that helped me as a teacher? Trauma and Recovery
  • Favorite memoir? The Color of Water
  • Most impactful memoir? Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

I think you understand. As someone with a degree in English and self-proclaimed book nerd, I can find a column for most of my favorite stories. Narrowing them down is really impossible. Still, Melissa asked me to write this blog post, so I thought of books that made me cry, made my students cry. Books that students mentioned when they returned from college.

The three novels I’ve chosen are intertwined with my teaching career, as I’ve grown personally from them and grown professionally from them. They lend themselves to various and engaging activities. Night, Animal Farm, and A Separate Peace are my must-teach novels for secondary ELA.

Isn't it better to teach novels that you love to read? Here are six must-teach novels for the secondary ELA classroom.

Night

Overview: Elie Wiesel survived unspeakable events as a Jew during the Holocaust at Auschwitz that he courageously spoke in Night.

Why I personally like it: I cry at several points in this story—every time that I read it. (I’ve probably read it fifty times.) The direct message and non-fluff syntax haunts me. The courage Wiesel shows in sharing this story also amazes me.

Best teaching moment: Seeing the impact of Wiesel’s straightforward message on my students. Years later, students return and comment on parts that still resonate with them.

I find teaching Night a personal responsibility: that the Holocaust happened and that we as humans have a responsibility to guard against it ever happening again is a profound lesson.

Night is about a hundred pages, and as Oprah once said, should be “required reading for all of humanity.”

Informational text pairing: I use Common Lit for nonfiction about the Holocaust.

Animal Farm

Overview: Animals throw out their tyrannical leader (the farmer) and overtake the farm. They set up a new government. A new dictator emerges. Surprise! George Orwell was talking about the Russian Revolution the entire time.

Why I personally like it: I don’t share Orwell’s completely dark outlook on governments, but I do believe that history can repeat itself.

Best teaching moment: This sounds cruel, but when the events surrounding Boxer come to a close (ahem), students are furious! Everyone loves Boxer!

To see that anger with students—walking into class and slamming down books—thrills my English-teacher soul.

Informational text pairing: Students often struggle to understand the brainwashing and question the portrayal of the animals’ adherence to new rules. We talk about brainwashing in America, and students are shocked.

A Separate Peace

Overview: Two teenage boys deal with a world war and the struggles of friendship. A lack of communication and the increasing presence of war change their lives.

Why I personally like it: The last paragraph of the book may be the most poignant paragraph I’ve ever read.

Best teaching moment: Finishing the book and asking students to turn back to chapter one. We reread the section from the adult narrator, and students see the beauty of a book truly connected.

Part of teaching literature is showing students why they can love it. This happens when I teach A Separate Peace by John Knowles. The parts that overlap (the world war, the war brewing within Gene) and the beautifully woven imagery (the worn marble stairs, the infamous tree) show students that within a novel, every line matters.

Plus, some students are passionate that (spoiler!) Finny did not need to die for the book to make sense. Students realize they can have opinions about the liberties an author takes, and that is a huge step in their analysis of literature.

Informational text pairing: You can connect PTSD to this novel. Sometimes I ask students to complete a web search, and they each read an article of their choosing. Students are alarmed to learn that PTSD occurs in others aside from veterans.

It’s important as secondary ELA teachers that we remember why we became passionate about literature. In reminiscing about must-teach novels for this post, I became excited again, excited to share the fun and exploration with my students.

As it is National Reading Month, what better time is there?! I’d love for you to join us – comment below as to your must-teach novels for secondary ELA, and then pop over to read Melissa’s must-teach novels for secondary ELA.



7 comments

  • Sarah

    These are great recommendations! What grade did you teach these books to?

    • lauraleemoss@gmail.com (author)

      I’ve taught these with freshmen and sophomores. I’ve heard of people teaching Night in middle school. Do you have experience teaching them?

  • Valerie

    I am going to begin Diary of Anne Frank (screenplay version) and Night with my 8th graders after Spring Break. I start by using an interactive website and a very brief video clip of the original DAF movie.

    • lauraleemoss@gmail.com (author)

      I have taught both of those. I have never taught Night to middle schoolers though. Does it overwhelm them at all? I only ask because sometimes my high schoolers cry during parts of it.

  • Amy

    Laura, I have avoided Night in middle school, because I remember it being a little overwhelming in high school for me personally. I just finished the book “The Boy on the Wooden Box,” which is about some of the Schindler Jews. I thought it did a fantastic job presenting the horrors and the weight of the topic while not being overwhelming to my students. They did cry a little at the end, but it was during the eulogies written by the man’s children about how much they valued their father. It got me too at that point…….I have to admit. I had to have a student finish reading it out loud. It was really good.

  • Susan Yarger

    I have taught Night with 8th graders. But, not every class is mature enough to deal with the content. So I make it a 2nd semester book after I have gauged them as a class. The Giver is my usual alternative book, but since the movie came out I decided to give that title a rest for a year of so.

    • lauraleemoss@gmail.com (author)

      That’s a really smart move. It does take some time to learn about your students.

      I’ve only taught sophomores, and some of them were very upset – to the point their parents said they cried at home. I imagine 8th grade is a tough call.

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