This post was originally published on my Education Week blog, Teaching For the Whole Story on April 5, 2017. 

In a recent post, I discussed the debate around whether to teach whole-class novels.  In the field, this conversation can get quite polarized.

Many prominent educators make strong arguments for abandoning the practice of whole-class novel studies completely. Their criticisms of whole class novels are convincing, yet their conclusions are narrow. In some circles, the practice has reached taboo status, to the point that some teachers feel worried about sharing their views if they don't align completely.  I find this worrisome; professional debate is important and teaching is complex and nuanced. Though I have strong views about pedagogy myself, I recognize there are multiple ways to teach effectively.

On the other side, teachers defend the value of whole-class novels studies, but many do so without seriously addressing the criticisms coming from advocates of choice reading.  This feeds the polarization of the debate by playing into a stereotype of defenders of whole-class novels simply being attached to old-school educational models, sticking to what they know, rather than trying new things.

Of course, many would also agree with me that we shouldn't be limited to this either/or scenario, and that as a profession we can do better than a decades old stalemate. I believe we must revolutionize, not drop, the whole class novel.  

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The five strategies below are steps toward that end.  Trying any number of these will have a posi-ive impact on teaching and learning, but I should add that they are meant to work together in concert.  I share the method and supporting practices in much more detail in my book, Whole Novels For the Whole Class: A Student Centered Approach.

 

1. Build a culture of independent reading.  

It may seem counterintuitive, but a thriving culture of independent reading directly leads to stronger participation and outcomes in whole class novel studies. If reading books isn't an active part of your students' day-to-day experiences, they bring that lack of experience to the novel you hope they will read with the class. I think this is one of the reasons teachers tend to over-teach whole class novels, and students tend to "under-read" them. Conversely, if students regularly read, they bring those habits to a book the class reads together—similarly to adult readers who join book clubs. Additionally, by being a part of students' independent reading lives, we gain crucial information about students' reading interests, habits, and skills; with this information, we can more thoughtfully select novels for our groups and better support individual students to read them.

2. Select a developmentally meaningful novel

Selecting a novel for an entire class of students is no simple task.  Though students have varying interests, experiences and reading levels, one thing teachers can be fairly certain they have in common is their age or developmental stage, because of the way most schools are structured.  And this is a great entry point for a book choice, because we also tend to be interested in stories that help us sort through major developmental issues. For example, 7th graders tend to be concerned with negotiating with power dynamics within their peer groups, and 8th graders are beginning to understand the concept of a society and critique structures and traditions within it.  If the book deals with a theme that will interact with the big questions students are grappling with as they grow up the world—and also passes muster as a title with literary merit—every reader in the room will gain from the story experience.

Using development to guide novel selections will likely rule out some of the classic texts often associated with a given grade level and readily available in the book room. That's just the kind of revolution we need. 

    • For profiles on each age group, try this book by David Elkind or this one by Chip Woods.
    • For thinking through whole class text selections, check out this tool.
    • Check out this post by fellow Ed Week blogger, Christina Torres, with her take on the value of whole class novels, and how she chooses for her class.

3. Let students read the entire book before pushing for analysis

This probably sounds like a tall order, and perhaps it is, but consider this: novels are works of art. Imagine being asked to analyze the corner of a painting without having seen the whole painting. Imagine that the person asking you to do so has seen the whole painting and keeps asking questions that hint at the meaning, which only becomes clear when you have seen the whole picture.  That would be rather silly.  It makes much more sense to see the whole picture (ie. read whole story), and then go back and look closely at pieces of it, now with the whole in mind. That is what I mean by a whole novel approach.

Here are some tips for making this shift:

    • Make a pacing calendar, with a reasonable amount of pages for your students to read each day.  (Depending on my group and the density of the particular text, I've gone with 10-25 pages.)
    • Make sure every student has a copy of the book. Provide class time for reading, and require students to finish the day's reading at home.
    • Allow students to read ahead (get the whole picture faster!), using the calendar as a minimum.  For those who finish early, reading time is still reading time. I offer a number of choices for their continued reading. 
    • Avoid leading students' reading with your questions, which are informed by your whole-picture understanding.  Focus on supporting students to access the text and enter the world of the story for themselves.
    • I teach students to annotate the text with sticky notes as they read. My goal is to get them to pay attention to their own thoughts and articulate them.  My rationale is that this is a habit many adult readers use authentically when a text is thought-provoking or challenging, and it can be applied to any text, rather than teaching students to become dependent on my questions.
    • Create small group activities that position students to engage with one another to build comprehension and read more deeply. There are many creative possibilities. Here are two:

 4. Offer differentiated supports for students as they read

Some students will be comfortable reading mostly independently. Others will benefit from reading aloud with a partner, or conferring frequently with a partner. I offer all students access to audiobooks, and for those who need it most, it makes a huge difference.  Finally, I do some teacher-facilitated small group reading and processing aloud together (either me or a co-teacher).  When we "process aloud," we are focusing mostly on figuring out what is happening, and sharing questions or reactions, rather than analyzing.  Teacher and author Pernille Ripp (who generally advocates for students self-selecting reading materials) has written this thoughtful piece suggesting that multiple ways to access a whole class text is a small idea that makes a big difference. 

5. Let students drive the content of discussions, analysis, and writing pieces.

Once students have completed the book (ideally by the due date on the calendar—I know what you are going to ask... and that will have to wait for another post), I bring students together for seminar-style discussions.  I like to do this with half of the class, while the other half works on a creative writing assignment.

In whole-novel discussions, I do not create discussion questions. I don't even ask students to generate discussion questions, though I don't have any issue with that.  Instead, I ask every student to say something about the book to start the discussion. After everyone has spoken once, the discussion is open.  Questions and debates emerge, which creates authentic purpose for turning back to the text for close reading.

I maintain a role of facilitator. I type notes on everything that is said, which I give to students afterward as a record. I prompt students to turn back to the text, for evidence or to reread sections for a deeper understanding. I try to create opportunities for quieter students to speak, and for students to continually dig deeper into the questions they raise. 

We do this for three days. Yes, all in all, it takes six days for both halves of the class to complete their three discussion sessions. 

After talking through so much of the book, students develop critical interpretations of themes, critiques of the author's craft, and other compelling ideas. They are ready to write.  We create essay questions (not predetermined by me) based on the big ideas and questions that came up in discussions. The notes become a huge resource, and students are highly motivated to put their ideas and arguments onto the paper in a convincing way.  The community discussions help them to formulate ideas that matter to them. 

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I could go on and on (which I why I had to write a book on this). For now, I'll say that a community of learners is a powerful resource, and literature is a powerful art.  Bringing these two elements together around a single book is a joyful and humbling experience, one that expands my students' own reading lives and prepares them for the expectations of college level work. I am eager to have more conversations about how and why we make the choices we do in whole class novel studies.

In this post, Paul Stoddard, 6th grade English teacher in Las Vegas, Nevada, continues his account of his year of teaching using the whole novels approach. He generously reflects on the ups and downs of each novel, as well as some of the writing that his students did in connection with the literature. Read Chapter One, about his first whole novel study in Part I here.  

Chapter 2: Walk a Mile in My Moccasins

     The second book I brought to my students was the required curriculum’s choice, Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech. The students enjoyed this book and since I taught it the year before following the prescribed curriculum, I had great activities to go along with the book. Some activities included: completing a road map of her journey, completing post cards in the role of the character about her journey, acting out scenes (as always), having a mock funeral speech towards the end of the book for the main character’s (Sal) mother, and character interview based where students role-played each of the main characters. I also did activities based on the post-modern, story-within-a-story structure that the book uses. I did this through showing examples from music like hip hop, using a Ted Talk about sampling from Mark Ronson, who was extremely popular that year with the song, “Uptown Funk” with Bruno Mars. I also showed examples of movies-within-movies and we discussed this idea.

I was worried my students would not pick up on these things without the direct instruction and chapter-by-chapter reading and activities we did the year before, but I was mistaken. Everything came together during the whole-class discussions. Another three days of discussion, students had clarified confusion, voiced opinions, became emotional (sad), and critiqued the ending. During this discussion, the students generated topics that I then turned into the essay prompts required by the unit. I put what the students had brought up into essay questions, which were highly unique and complex at times. Then, students selected one to write about and could use any of the text evidence brought up during the discussions. I provided a basic outlining tool for students to use, which I borrowed from Chapter 5 of Whole Novels For the Whole Class.                                                                           

Essay Questions: 

Select one of the following questions. Read the questions carefully.

1.     What did Sal learn about life while going on the trip with her grandparents across the country?

2.      How are Sal’s and Phoebe’s stories connected? What does Sal mean by “Underneath Phoebe’s story was another story. Mine.”

3.     Why did the author end the book the way she did? Do you think it was a good ending to the story?

4.     Sharon Creech writes with style. She uses story-within-a-story (frame story), memories, and goes back and forth in time and place between many different stories. Do these story techniques add to the story? Explain your answer.

5.     Discuss how a character changes throughout the book. I suggest Sal, but you can pick any of the main characters.

6.     How does the saying, “don’t judge a man until you’ve walked two moons in his moccasins” relate to the novel?

7.     How does Sal and Phoebe’s friendship change during the course of the novel?

8.     What do the families in Walk Two Moons teach us about family life and mothers/women?

9.     Why did Sal’s grandparents want to take her on the trip to Idaho to her mother’s grave?

I think that the biggest problems that came up were students not having enough essay writing experience, and I did not provide enough instruction before the essay, so although they had great ideas to write about, they could not cite text evidence or format an essay. I needed to supplement the unit with more writing instruction. Also, having another short story assignment combined with the essay was overload to do within four or five days. Also, Walk Two Moons was fairly unpopular with the boys in the class, and that led to a huge gender divide in both the discussion and the essays.

Chapter 3: Climbing the Ladder

The next book, after a break for an independent reading cycle, was The Jacob Ladder.  I believed this fit in perfectly with the witches and losing a parent theme, but the book ended up being very difficult for the parents to purchase, and, more importantly, it was a big flop with the students.  I think the valuable lesson I learned was to match the books to the students in front of me, not just copy what I think is ideal or perfect. The supplemental activities for this book were amongst the most interesting of the year, because we had so much fun. The first was playing music from the book and reggae music from the time. The next activity is that we went outside to the field and reenacted the Jonkonnu scene after learning about what it was in class. I brought out percussion instruments (I am a drummer) recorders and masks we created then students had to re-read the Jonkonnu scene and act it out exactly as the author describes it. Also, I read a supplemental picture book, Cinderillion that served to further the Cinderella theme as well as introduce Caribbean culture to the students. We also created a map of the village as recommended in Ariel’s book.

We discussed the book and the students found the ending to be quite anti-climactic and questioned what Tall T really achieved. Besides that lively discussion, many students struggled through the book due to language gap and lack of background knowledge. Also, the books realistic structure was found to be boring to the majority of the class.

The culminating activity was to draw on the theme of losing a parent and overcoming challenges to craft an original Cinderella story.

Cinderella Story Prompt: Final Exam for the Unit

2/26/16

Dear Students,

You have read or listened to many stories this year with some similar themes. Let’s start way back when I read you the fable Ashputtle, and we first practiced writing sticky notes. There was also Cindrillion which is based on Cinderella, of course. Then you read The Witches, Walk Two Moons, and, finally, The Jacob Ladder. All of these stories have things in common with the first story we heard Ashputtle (Cinderella). All of our main characters had to learn to grow up without one or both of their parents around. Cinderella’s themes of a child overcoming losing their parents is one of the most popular stories around the world. Now, it’s your turn. You are to write your own story based on these themes. You will create a character, put them in any setting you choose, create the conflict based on losing their parents in some way, and create a resolution (ending) to your story.

Use your creativity and be sure to develop the story with: Dialogue, description (sensory details), and word choice (diction).

 

Chapter 4: You Will Not Recognize Me When I Reach You

 As the final book, we read When You Reach Me and this was hands-down the favorite book (myself included). The students enjoyed the book very much, although some were tired at this point. I will not go into much detail on this as I will bring up When You Reach Me later with my students from this year.

Reflection:

That year I discovered many things but here are some of the biggest take-aways that will help any teacher using the whole-novels approach:

First , make sure to communicate the importance of the approach right from the beginning of the year with both students and parents. Second, make sure to tailor your books to the kids that you teach. Three, always have extra sticky notes. Fourth, three days of discussion is too much with 100 minute blocks, two is just as good, Fifth, although students love to write fiction, do not overuse the “kill off a character” activity. Sixth, they need scaffolding and instruction and strategies in order to complete any of these writing assignments, fiction or non-fiction. Most importantly, fear not, this method truly works, if I can do it, you can do it!

Chapter 5: A New Journey

This year began a new journey, a new school, a new grade (7th and 8th) and new students. So far, I have completed the first novel study. I followed and learned much from last year and here are a few things that have helped me. One thing is that I focused extensively on the three-types of thinking lesson and practicing sticky notes right off the bat. This helped make expectations clear and many problems with both note completion and lack of understanding was solved this year.

We read When You Reach Me as the first book for seventh grade and it was a success! The discussions went very well and the students loved the writing assignment. However, I want to focus on eighth grade as it has been quite the experience!

The required curriculum starts out with a “hero’s journey” theme and the first major assessment is to create an original hero’s journey. I thought this would fit perfectly with The Maze Runner as a first novel. But I have learned a few things. Most importantly, a long book like that is a very poor first choice for a whole-novels class. Students are uncertain of the new methods (many are downright scared) and they are not used to sticky notes either. This led to many problems for me both classroom management wise and grading wise. I think scaffolding with the hero’s journey was a success. I used both Sylvester and the Magic Pebble and the Lion King to lead up to writing the hero’s journey. I just think it was quite a challenge to do a 5-10 page typed short story to begin the school year. The hero’s journey would be better suited for the end of the year. Although many students were successful, many were not and I think spending so much time on one concept, the hero’s journey, was a poor way to begin the year. Luckily, many students completed great works, but the order was all wrong.

The other problem was blasting through the novel and writing that long work, left not much time to work on the mini-projects that scaffold instruction, and without knowing these students well yet, I was unsure if it was poor study/homework habits or skills deficiency. I think it was often both, and the lack of stamina to make it through such a long work without the feedback needed at the beginning of the year.

It is very important to give those mid-way homework checks as well as spot check regularly, but I would highly suggest to use a shorter work to start the year, so students can see the rationale for the whole-group discussion and the magic that comes from it.

The discussions went well and next week I will introduce more terms and lead the discussion in directions of: how does this relate to us? What about how our society is structured?

 One of the biggest challenges is scheduling half-group discussions and keeping the other half of the room quiet and non-disruptive. I am still at a loss for fixing that problem.

Epilogue

One day, an awesome ELA curriculum coach was in my room observing and we were doing a whole-class check-in. I asked, “How’s it going?”

The students responded, “Sometimes I just want to read without doing sticky notes.”

“I really like sticky notes.”

“It helps me share with a partner”

After we got back to reading time, the curriculum coach was whispering a question to a couple of students. They looked over and smiled.

I continued on and the bell rang. A clamor of noise filled the room as students scurried to their next class.

She walked over, kindly smiled and said, “Wow, you are really doing some great things here. It all constructive and makes the students really responsible for their learning. Those sticky notes are such a great idea.”

“Thank you, I think the students enjoy it as well.”

“Actually, those two students I spoke to were just raving about it, ‘I actually really like sticky notes,’ they told me.”

All I could do was just smile.

On The Shoulders Of Giants, the title of Ariel Sacks’ blog, fittingly describes her. She is the inspiration that guided my teaching with her amazing book. A mentor, a guidebook and hope those are the ingredients needed to reach your goals as an ELA teacher.

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AuthorAriel Sacks

This post was first published on March 23, 2016 at SmartBlog on Education in collaboration with Center For Teaching Quality. 

As a beginning teacher, my response to the state test vacillated between righteous defiance of the inauthentic and sometimes cruel measures of my students’ learning -- and a rushed, somewhat desperate attempt to help diverse learners face the realities of the exam that was coming whether we liked it or not. Years later, I’ve worked through some of the noise around standardized testing. I’ve come to a few realizations that allow me to essentially stay true to my principles as an educator without sending students into a high-stakes situation unprepared. I still can’t endorse these tests as especially worthwhile measures of student learning, but I’m happy to share the compromise I’ve made in an imperfect situation:

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Realization 1: Voracious readers do better on standardized tests. Consistently, my students who score well on the state tests read a ton. They read for pleasure, and they read what they want to read -- even if that means plowing through title after title in fantasy series after fantasy series. Though their reading interests are a little myopic, their vocabularies and reading stamina are strong. Put an obscure, lengthy article in front of these readers, and they tackle it without much difficulty. Research confirms that voluntary reading correlates strongly with academic achievement -- and this is one factor that holds true across socioeconomic status. This is one place where my goals as an English teacher and standardized measures of student achievement are not so much at odds.

What to do: Don’t drop pleasure reading during testing season! Throughout the year, I devote plenty of class time to my students’ independent reading, whether they are reading self-selected materials or we are in a whole class novel or other common text. When it’s time to prepare more explicitly for the test, the last thing I want is for students to become disconnected from their regular practice of reading. So, amid claims that there’s no time for pleasure reading “because of the test,” I remind myself that yes, there is, and it may be the most important thing we can do to impact student achievement. With multiple priorities, I’ll preserve at least the first 10 minutes of class for independent reading. It’s also a nice time to encourage content area teachers to provide more reading opportunities for students in their classes, thereby increasing students’ overall “time in text” throughout a day.

Realization 2: Answering multiple choice questions is not a reading skill. Reading is an interactive process, involving a unique reader experiencing, responding and interpreting a text in a specific time and place. I work hard all year to help students understand that there are multiple valid interpretations of a text, and their relative strength depends on how we support and explain our viewpoints. This is rigorous real-world work that literary critics, lawyers, and scientists do to communicate their thinking. Choosing from among four answers presented by an outsider with no explanation is not reflective of an authentic reading process. While reading is a necessary skill for answering text-based multiple choice questions, we measure something else with these question types, especially when they go beyond literal comprehension.

What to do: Teach multiple choice strategies distinct from reading strategies. I remember my mentor, Madeleine Ray, saying, “Don’t send children to battle with no weapons or training” [even if we are opposed to war]. Just be clear with students about what they are preparing to do. Avoid language like, “Good readers read all four answer choices carefully.” This is a strategy of good test takers -- and the difference matters for kids. We don’t want students who are developing their love of reading to confuse the difficulty of test questions with their abilities as readers.

In multiple choice -- especially on new Common Core tests -- there is nearly always more than one answer that responds to the question with some accuracy; students must select the one with the most or best evidence. Simply choosing an answer that they believe is “true” based on their initial reading results in about a 50% chance of selecting correctly. The key is the thought process we engage in to methodically weigh each answer against the other choices, using evidence from the text. Here is a tool I developed to help students practice this, first in pairs, then independently. More than specific test reading strategies, this process has dramatically helped my students respond to test questions.

These realizations don’t encompass a complete approach to preparing for the exam, and there are still many factors beyond our control that affect students’ ability to show their learning on standardized tests. Overall, though, I’ve come to trust that developing authentic reading and writing habits throughout the year serves students better on the test and in life than anything else. I can still give those finite skills that are specific to standardized exams their moment, without letting them take over my students’ education.

 

An oldie but goodie: This post was first published in on March 30, 2011 at On the Shoulders of Giants hosted by Center For Teaching Quality. 

Today I "caught" a student who I would characterize as a reluctant reader reading the walls of my classroom to another student, who has also struggled a lot with reading this year. Mind you, they were both supposed to be doing a different assignment at their tables. While one part of me was about to redirect them both, I realized that this was a great moment I had no interest in interrupting. They were reading together out of a genuine interest for the information on the walls. Voluntary reading—the best kind. 

What was on the walls? Students have been studying the history of the English language, how words get their meanings and how they change across time and place. It has been fascinating. One night for homework, I asked them to research their own names. Where do their names come from? What do they originally mean? How did they get their names? What do their names mean to them?

The written responses shared with one another in class were wonderful. They beautifully reflected the diversity of the students and shared something special about each of them. From a linguistics standpoint, it was illuminating to see the myriad ways that people arrive at names for their children, where these names come from, and what they mean. These stories echoed the word etymologies students had been studying in class at the same time.

Finding the two boys reading the walls was a great reminder that, for every student, there is a way to voluntary reading. Sometimes the wall is the perfect medium for repackaging something from class—especially student voices—to reach more students. Sometimes the timing is just right for reading and the wall is a way to catch a child on a whim and create flexible opportunities for reading. Finally, this reminded me that, though it takes time to update classroom bulletin boards, it is so worthwhile.