Earlier this year, middle school English teacher and librarian, Stefanie Cole, shared her process as she began to implement whole novels with her seventh graders here on the Whole Novels Blog.  She promised a follow-up post as she delved deeper with her students, and here it is!  The first in a 3-part series, this post focuses on Stefanie's desire to see more peer-to-peer engagement in her students' literature studies--and what happened when she made a simple shift in her approach to leading discussions. Elementary school teachers will be interested to read how she applied the method to picture books with younger learners.  ~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.  

 Teacher and Librarian, Stefanie Cole

Teacher and Librarian, Stefanie Cole

Reflections and A New Goal!

Last February I read Whole Novels for the Whole Class: A Student Centered Approach and saw many applications I thought could fix issues in my Grade 7 language program.  I was enthusiastically tweeting and sharing my discoveries and changes when, author & teacher, Ariel Sacks, asked me if I could share my discoveries on her blog.   I was honoured, excited and really nervous.

In editing the first post, Ariel had highlighted one statement I had made as part of a the list of classroom issues that were circling my mind:

"...Students were sharing their thoughts with me, but not with others in the class."

I had no idea that she had nailed the major issue in my program with a simple Ctrl + B.  I realize that now.  These are my aha moments as I was introduced, truly, to the world of Close Reading and Accountable Talk through Whole Novels for the Whole Class: A Student Centered Approach.

The Power of Authentic Questioning

My insightful students weren’t sharing the thoughts which could scaffold thinking for the rest of the class.  If someone was on the edge of an understanding in their novel, it was difficult to push them to return to it and explore it deeper. Many never did.  One of the greatest lessons I’ve taken from Whole Novels is the power of the structure of discussions in a classroom and how it supports our students, motivating them to return to the book to clarify their opinions and thoughts. Since then I have continued reading on those topics and attended nErDcampMI. My understanding of how discussion within a classroom can work for the teacher and, ultimately, the students has grown.

If you’ve read Notice and Note, by Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst, you would know I needed to move from  monologic to dialogic talk (p. 28)  If you have ever heard Carmel McDonald speak or visited her website, EduMCcation, you would realize I needed to learn more about Accountable Talk.

Carmel came to a similar "Aha moment" when observing a lesson with a master teacher:

The students were constructing their own meaning from the assignment; the teacher hadn’t given them a mini-lesson where he stood up and “imparted the truth.” Rather, he led them to it, and asked them to explain it for themselves.  The students were doing the communicating, not passively listening and then repeating.  They made the learning happen through their conversations with each other—with thoughtful prompts from the teacher to keep them on course   (McDonald, Carmel, The Paradox:  A Control Freak and Her Student-Centered Room, Part 1. EduMcation.  December 26, 2013. http://edumcation.wordpress.com/category/accountable-talk/, July 24,2014)

That is what I wanted in my classroom.  I just didn’t know it yet and Whole Novels helped me find a way to do it.

To lay the groundwork for Whole Novels, I introduced Madeleine’s Famous Three-Ways-Of-Thinking Lesson (Chapter 3) using The Other Side, by Jacqueline Woodson.  The purpose was to introduce the literal, inferential, and critical thinking components central to Whole Novels, but I learned a new framework for discussions.  We decided the broken leg of the rocking chair would be our talking stick.  I like the symbolism of that.  A piece of the chair that represents who has the power in the room became the object representing the shared power in our discussions.  We sat in a circle.  We reviewed and posted Ariel’s rules for discussions:  

1. Listen to teachers/classmates.
2. Raise your hand if you wish the speaking stick.
3. No private conversations.
4. Respect personal space.   (Whole Novels For the Whole Class p. 116)

We began.   After reading, I used the questions that Ariel provided.  I actually had written them on my lesson plan so I wouldn’t forget them.  They are simple questions but are truly authentic, with no right answer, asking the students to think about the story and what it meant to them.

 “What do you think?  What do you notice?  What do you remember?  What stands out for you?”  (Sacks p 72) 

 The responses and observations were better than any I’d ever received with directed questions to prompt answers I wanted to hear:

  • Sometimes children have different points of view than adults.
  • Annie said she wasn’t allowed to cross (the fence) but nobody said anything about sitting on it, so they weren’t breaking the rules.
  • It showed that nobody can tell you who your friends can be.
  • I like how the Mom slowly adapted.  At the beginning she wouldn’t let her go close to the fence and then by the end she was allowed to sit beside Annie.
  • I like how the kids adapted.  A first the skipping rope kids said no & that was it and later she skipped and they were having a wonderful time.
  • It’s kind of like what happened with South Africa and Nelson Mandela.

We then went on with the lesson, but the glimpses of the ideas they shared rocked my teacher brain.

I couldn’t believe the nuances, themes and subtleties my students were providing, and it wasn’t just my higher-level learners.  It was students with learning disabilities, my level 2 students, students with fine motor difficulties who have trouble writing, and students who always have trouble understanding the plot of the story.  I felt like a barrier had been removed due these four simple questions.                       

Extending the Experiment

I’m also the teacher-librarian and had on- prep coverage every 5-day cycle with every Primary class in the school.  We were participating in the Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading Program and I had been sharing one of the Blue Spruce Books with each class every week.  

I decided to drop the format I had been using and try simply reading the picture book, then asking the students the key questions and have them each go around the circle with the talking stick and see what happened.

I was amazed.

That week we were reading A Good Trade, by Alma Fullerton.  It was a tough read for our students.  It portrayed the life of a boy in Uganda.   He fetched his own water, apparently lived in a tent on his own and received shoes from an aid worker who brought them in a truck.  This was a “window book” (Sacks, p. 45) for my students.  We live in an affluent small town in Ontario and they had little understanding of life in Uganda on any level.  In addition to the storyline, the illustrator, Karen Patkau, had provided rich illustrations with many details that caught the students’ eyes and told a story of Uganda beyond that of the text. 

I’ll try to create a visual for you as classes from Kindergarten to Grade 2 gathered with me on our purple puddle carpet, in a circle, bottoms-up, heads-down huddled over the book.  They were comparing their lives to those of the characters.  They were asking questions to try to understand a life they hadn’t lived. Why did the houses look nothing like ours?  They were making inferences about plot and culture and telling me to flip pages so we could re-read sections. We poured over illustrations to see all the nuances caught between the images and the words. 

It was powerful, with all grade levels. Some still spoke more than others.  Some repeated what a friend before had stated, but it was certainly a strong start.  I had seen the absolute difference it makes when students lead the discussion, and I rejoiced in the richness. 

A major question still remained. How do you focus student thinking in the direction they need to grow?  Stay tuned for the second post in this series!


AuthorAriel Sacks