I'm so excited to introduce you to veteran teacher & librarian Stefanie Cole, who has begun implementing whole novel studies in her 7th grade Language Arts class.  In this post, she shares how the whole novel method is helping her deepen her students' literature experience, in an already thriving workshop-based classroom.  ~Ariel

Stefanie Cole (@MsColeQVPS) has taught for 18 years in Southern Ontario for the Durham District School Board. For the last 11 years, she has been a K-8 Teacher Librarian at Quaker Village Public School, with the exciting addition last year of intermediate language arts teacher.  

 Stephanie Cole is a librarian and 7th grade Language Arts Teacher in Ontario, Canada.

Stephanie Cole is a librarian and 7th grade Language Arts Teacher in Ontario, Canada.

I am a teacher who loves reading and a reader who loves teaching, so when I was given the opportunity to teach Grade 7 language to balance out my library time two years ago I jumped at it.  In the spirit of Ariel Sacks’ On The Shoulders Of Giants blog, I turned to one of my giants to help me.  Nancie Atwell’s In The Middle became the basis of my program.  I wanted my students to develop their reading habits, find authors and genres they loved, while discovering and learning about various aspects of literature.  Through a superb Twitter PLN (professional learning network), which gives much more than I can ever return, I’ve discovered more giants like Donalyn Miller and her books Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild, as well as Penny Kittle and her book, Love of Reading.  Both have shaped and refined my program.

My students and I have had many successes over the last two years.  They are reading novels and finding authors & genres they like, admittedly some more than others. A number of my students have found they love reading and experiencing stories, but they just had never put enough time into reading to discover the pay off.   They tell me they now gossip about their books, authors & next reads, instead of just what they did on the weekend. 

I find their weekly journals are showing critical thought and deeper understanding of the books they’re reading. When a number of students are having trouble with an aspect of reading, we discuss it through the mini-lesson format & it often shows up in their journals.  I’m able to nudge understanding of concepts through journal responses and see them grow in their responses to their reading, but something still didn’t feel quite right. 


A Need To Go Deeper Into Literature Study

I wanted my students to get an even deeper understanding of what they were reading and to have the chance to discover and explore the ideas together and my reading program didn’t seem to allow this.  It felt more like I had the knowledge and they were the recipients of it.  The following problems kept bouncing around in my brain:

1) My students seemed to be just on the edge of exploring the deeper ideas in their books, but the format I provided didn’t allow closer reflection (except through my own questioning).

2) When I would post a “graffiti board” to highlight aspects and discovery in their reading, they weren’t buying in beyond what was being marked in their journals.

3) My most insightful students were sharing their thoughts with me, but not with others in the class.

4) Literature Circles were coming up in my annual curriculum plan, but the format I had used previously hadn’t brought the results I wanted. Students were often annoyed with the assignments and found the literature circle activities disrupted their reading.   

 I wanted an experience like I have in my own adult book club, where we discuss, laugh, disagree and always come away with an appreciation of the book that we didn’t have before our discussion.

 I didn’t know what to do. 


Discovering the Whole Novel Approach

In January, I was on Twitter and @mardieteach had tweeted about @RAMS_English’s post on Whole Memoirs For the Whole Class. He had launched a Memoir study in a new way using Open Response (OR), Language Notes (LN) & Conflict notes (CON) based on Ariel Sacks’ Whole Novels.  That piqued my attention.  First there was a language I didn’t understand and, secondly, it was addressing an issue in my teaching, so I ordered the book.  I read it and, ironically enough, put a ridiculous amount of sticky notes in it highlighting what I wanted to further explore! I was overjoyed that it addressed all the issues that were bothering me and gave a detailed, practical outline that I could implement with my class, while staying true to my vision of helping students to really read & love it.

Whole Novels for the Whole Class: A Student Centered Approach

We first tried Madeleine’s Famous Three-Ways-Of-Thinking Lesson (Chapter 3) using The OtherSide, by Jacqueline Woodson. The purpose of this was to introduce Literal, Inferential and Critical thinking as a basis for the program, but also to try the discussion format Ariel outlines in Chapter 4.  The process of the discussion circle allows for each student to have a voice.  We sat in the circle and each student was expected to respond to the story as we went around the circle. “What do you think? What do you notice? What do you remember? What stands out for you?” are Ariel’s guiding questions.  While they responded I typed their responses as a reference for sorting and discussing. 

 I loved the way the students responded.  In only being asked to respond to the book, they explored the major themes, they commented on character development and they showed all levels of thinking. They all spoke and listened.  This was what I had wanted to see in my Literature Circle discussions and in discussions on shorter texts throughout the year, but this group-based open response process led more naturally to it.


Laying the Groundwork for Whole Novels with Sticky Notes

I also changed the focus of our weekly reading.  Here’s what I outlined for my students in a letter.

Continue to choose books you like, at your level, and read for two hours a week at home & at school.

Write a minimum of 12 sticky notes a week in the book you are reading.

  ? – One part you don’t understand, isn’t clear or you think there might be more to it.

  ! -  Find something you think is important to the story or the theme the author is exploring.

  * – a part you really like

  9 Open Response sticky note minimum with any thoughts you have to categorize as Literal, Inferential & Critical responses.

Every week we will tape the sticky notes into a journal so we can see our thoughts and categorize them as Literal, Inferential & Critical.  You are expected to have the title of your book, pages read & date.

Every third week we will pick a sticky to do a response on your blog.

You will comment on two other people’s blogs. 

This purpose of this assignment was to get the students into the habit of using the sticky notes and thinking about them before we start our literature circles.  It also gives me a different focus during our Independent Reading time as I conference with students and monitor what they are reading.  I can also direct the focus for a sticky note during a week so that they can look for something specific like the character trait development, similes or various time jumps in their novels, and my direction has place in our program that “counts” in the students’ minds. 

 Stephanie's students categorize their own sticky notes into literal, inferential, and critical responses. 

Stephanie's students categorize their own sticky notes into literal, inferential, and critical responses. 

First Steps In Implementing Whole Novel Studies

I know when I say we are going to be starting Literature Circles I am going to be met with a series of groans. It’s sad, but it’s true.  Our students are tired of only reading to a certain page a week, of the typical assignments they’ve done for years, of students who don’t pull their weight and don’t add to the discussion.  I’m looking forward to being able to say to say that this time we are doing it in a way that better supports real reading. I also know which students are going to finish the book early and embrace the Seeker Opportunity allowing them to explore another book on the same theme. (Discussed by Sacks in Chapter 8)

I’ve closely followed Ariel’s structure in my first attempt with a Whole Novel type literature circle.  I’ve typed up my letter and outline in Ariel Sacks’ style (Chapter 6) and am focusing on Character (CH), Theme (TH) and Open Response (OR) sticky notes. (Chapter 3)

 I’m not ready to do one novel with the whole class yet and I don’t have the resources to go there, but my students will be choosing three of five Coming of Ages novels so I can sit in on the official “whole novel” discussions with three groups of nine, using the discussion circles, the go around, typing their observations and using that sheet as a platform for discussions for the next day. (Chapter 4)  I’m excited for the conversations that I know this group is capable of, to see them argue and have to refer back to the novel to prove a point.  I’m looking forward to us developing questions we wish to explore and which they will be posting to their individual blogs to share with each other and I’m looking forward to their work on the character mini-project (Chapter 7) to help clarify the concept of protagonists & antagonists we’ve been circling lately.

 I’m truly thankful to Ariel Sacks for doing the hard work, both thinking and writing, in the development of a program which allows students to have a chance to really read, share opinions in a way which validates their thought process and develops a deeper understanding of important literary concepts.  I appreciate how Whole Novels is a detailed overview providing me with more than the framework of her program. I’m thankful to her for providing me with the chance to grow, yet again, as a teacher, being boosted just a little higher on the shoulder of a new giant, for me.

Stay tuned for Part II, following Ms. Cole's first whole novel study. 

Stefanie, I'm thankful to YOU for giving this idea a try in your classroom and for sharing your thinking and process with us. It is inspiring to see a community of teachers across the country--and around the world--adapting this method to meet the needs of their students. Thank you for being an early pioneer!