Reading Nathaniel Philbrick's "In the Heart of the Sea" was one of the most painful, yet satisfying experiences I've had in teaching 8th grade. How can that be? Well, it was a challenging book, for sure. My eighth graders aren't all avid readers, so the vocabulary at times had them stumped, but nothing we couldn't work through. It also was set in the 1800's, and gave us a lot of history on the early whaling industry, more than my eighth graders really cared to know. But it was necessary to understand what drove these men to the sea for months or years at a time. And then, there was the cannibalism. No surprise, but they actually enjoyed reading about that part. But like giving birth, the pain and suffering involved in the process is all forgotten when the students finally get to the end and tell you they enjoyed the story. That's when I exhaled that proverbial breath I'd been holding in since the day we started the pre-work on the novel study. Makes it all worth it. And knowing there's a Ron Howard movie coming out on the novel as well? Cherry on top.
In case you are looking for something different to do with your students, I'll fill you in on how I presented this book.
We always begin a new novel with a little background on the book itself. In our interactive reading journals (my journal of choice is the marble notebook with pages that don't easily tear out, and a cover that won't rip off), we included a picture of the book cover, and listed our main characters so we could get to know them a bit. We also drew a picture, and included some origami. We listed genre, author and publishing date. So far, so good.
Then, we included a map of the setting of the story. Easy for this book, since the whalers are from Nantucket. We gave our colored pencils a workout and pulled out our Student Atlas books (thank you, PTA!), and when this happens, I always allow the students to take extra time to flip through the atlas to explore a bit. Since many of my students rarely leave the state, it's a great way to introduce them to the huge world we have out there. Strike up a conversation or two as they work. Talk about whales, global warming, the lines on the map and what they mean, and where Tanzania is. So what if it doesn't have anything to do with the story.
Next, we looked at the history of the whaling industry. What was a whale used for? How did the whalers process huge whales while out at sea? We drew pictures and flow charts, and jotted down facts as to what people did with whale oil. What did whales have to do with ladies' corsets? Well, you need to go look that up.
With about a week of background work under our belts, and some very colorful pages in our interactive journals, we finally picked up our books and began to read. We wrote chapter summaries after each chapter as we discussed what had occurred, what we learned about the characters, and what we thought might happen next. We glued a picture of the map from the book that mapped out the ship's voyage, and we marked chapter numbers on the map to show how the story took us through their journey. We learned sailing terms, looked up Cape Horn, and how whales mate. Yup, we covered everything.
Hand-drawn pictures to explain some of the details of the process were key. I had some of my better artists in class assigned to draw. I then copied the drawings and shrunk them down to fit in our marble notebook journals. (Shrink an 8.5 x 11 sheet to 80%, and once trimmed, it fits perfectly!) Once glued in, the kids used colored pencils to doodle and color them while we discussed what the pictures were.
Keeping track of which characters were in each of the smaller whale boats required some doodling as well. Especially as certain people began dying from starvation. There's one point in the book where students will learn all there is to know about a body shutting down from lack of food and water. Great health lesson and discussion.
To break things up, I bought some cotton cloth at the fabric store, needles and colored embroidery thread. Since sailors often embroidered to record scenery they'd see on their trips, or to remember a sweetheart left at home, we all spent a class period learning how to embroider. The masterpieces were hung proudly in the hallway when they were completed. (See them below)
The cannibalism resulted in some great side conversations on eating raw meat and sushi. As horrible as the event was to read about, the thoughtful discussions that it prompted were really quite entertaining!
Looking back at the experience, I can honestly say there were times I vowed not to use the book the following year. In fact, at one point, I was ready to scrap it halfway through because the students in one particular class were having a hard time connecting to it. It was at that point I thought about introducing the embroidery activity, and it turned out to be a hit. It was just what was needed to help the students connect with the characters in the book.
So some final advice when doing a novel study: step out of the box and away from the literature circle with the assigned "jobs". Use an interactive reading journal to not just write in, but to draw in, and map, and glue, and research in, and then take pictures of the students drawing and creating, and embroidering, and sewing, and give them copies of the pictures to glue into their journals. They will enjoy the novel as they "live" in the moment while reading it. Take time to do the pre-work to introduce the topic, setting and timeframe. You and your students will get so much more out of the novel experience.