Paul Stoddard, a 6th grade ELA teacher in Las Vegas, Nevada, contacted me with the wonderful story of his first year implementing a whole novels studies in his classroom. With only three years of teaching experience, he's accomplished an impressive amount with his students, and he's taken the time to reflect on it and share it all with us here! His message to other teachers? "Just try it!" Stay tuned for the next part of Paul's story, in which he describes some of the struggles he encountered in subsequent novel studies and how he responded. ~Ariel
I think that the whole novels approach is one of the greatest ideas to come into my teaching life, and I hope to spread the news. I think that with all the structures in place in this method, and an individual teacher's own ingenuity, it is possible to have deeper experiences with whole class novels than I ever thought possible. The truth is that the books and the students themselves discover what is important, because the authors and their magnificent use of language make it impossible not to happen.
After finding Whole Novels For the Whole Class by Ariel Sacks at the teacher and curriculum library of my university, UNLV, I fell in love with the book. Not only did it contain theory and ideology that made the approach appealing to me, but more importantly, it had the day-to-day, practical and specific details that any practicing teacher desires (and needs). Aftre reading it, I was ready to implement and jump into the whole novels approach right away, and throughout my study, I had a guidebook to turn back to. With Ariel Sacks as my mentor (through her book), and my students as my inspiration, I was ready to start alone and unassisted, and confident my students would enjoy this.
Chapter 1: The beginning- The first page
Last year, my students were 6th graders, and it was my second-year teaching. I worked in an arts-integration based school where the Kennedy Center and arts-integration were considered the philosophical lights to guide the school. However much that ideal may or may not have been met on a daily basis, I wished for my students to read more whole-class novels in a student-centered way, in which they could experience and appreciate the art of the story. I worked in a suburban charter school in Las Vegas, Nevada, a rapidly growing area, which had experienced dramatic economic fluctuations over the last 5-10 years. This was an area in the southwest part of the valley filled with foreclosed homes and brand new homes. It was beginning to recover, and the parents were lining up to get into the arts-integration charter school, and to escape the “failing” school district (CCSD).
I was about one-quarter into my second year when I introduced the concept to the students and parents. Although the school adopted a prescribed curriculum, Springboard, we had considerable freedom to adapt and alter it for the students’ needs. The school has a variety of ability levels, and in one class I had students with college-reading levels all the way down to 2nd grade reading levels.
I prefaced with e-mail in which I communicated to families a message along the lines of, “By the way, I have decided we would read more books this year; one is not enough anymore! Please purchase the following books for your student.” I also told the students, “I expect you can do more, so we will!” The students showed the positive attitudes that I was certain would help on this journey.
It all started with introduction to the first novel we read, The Witches by Roald Dahl. The welcome letter and first chapter read-aloud had students excited to begin reading and my class was full of sticky notes right away. We did the model lesson on three-types of thinking (described in Chapter 3 of Whole Novels For the Whole Class) by using Ashputtle, the original Cinderella story, as I wrote down student responses on the board. We classified them as Literal, inferential and Critical a few days later. The reading schedule was a great way to keep students on track. They were reading, I was conferencing with them, and everything seemed off to an awesome start.
Below is the welcome letter I gave to students along with the books: (adapted from Whole Novels For the Whole Class: A Student Centered Approach, 2014)
Dear 6th Graders,
Welcome to your 1st whole class novel study of the year!
I am very excited to lead you as you begin this journey! The first day of our journey starts now. You will read The Witches, by Roald Dahl. It is organized into chapters and features illustrations by Quentin Blake. This book has been a favorite of thousands of young readers since before I was born. This is no ordinary fairy tale; it is a story about REAL witches! You will read an adventure that involves many extraordinary events.
You will need all the following, which we will go over today:
· A copy of the Novel
· A Schedule and reading guide
· Sticky Notes
Expectations: We will read in class nearly every day for about 30 minutes and for homework. You are always responsible for keeping up with the schedule and writing at least four sticky notes for each night of reading. (This applies even if you are absent or there is no class or a substitute teacher.) Keep the books in good condition, and bring your book to class every day!
After the book is finished, we will begin true, real discussions just like we did when I read Ashputtle to the class. Bring your honest reactions, responses, reflections and questions about the story. I look forward to the interesting conversations!
You can do this- little by little, bit by bit. :)
During the novel study, I supplemented the book in the following ways:
· I broke students into differentiated groups and assigned a mini-project on character that is directly from Whole Novels For the Whole Class (see pages 224-225). I think this helped students make sense of the characters in the story.
· We also did dramatic enactment strategies as this is a big part of the school-- integrating English and theatre is a major factor in my teaching. About half way through the novel, I had students act out the scenes that they wished to in small-groups. Then I had the observers say which scene was taking place and give an oral summary the scene back to the performing group.
· Finally, I also had students perform tableau scenes from the witches following the same process as I did for the scenes acted out above.
· We also watched the film version of the book which has a different ending then the book itself.
· Some students partner-read in order to support each other, and others received pullout sessions with the Special Education teacher going over their sticky notes and reading the book together.
On the first day of the discussion circle, I was excited, nervous and thrilled all at the same time. I recorded the thoughts on a laptop and the students discussed in half-circle groups while the other half worked on the short fiction writing scenes. The students surprised me with their deep understanding of the book.
On the 2nd or third day, after prompting from me to go back to the text, we ended up discussing why the author did a couple things the students brought up. First, why did he drag out this one scene in the middle for so long when it was not very exciting? Second, there was so much debate about the ending. After we figured out what actually took place, which took much questioning on my part to return to the text, they debated why the author ended the book the way he did, and where the author went wrong with this. Students discussed how they would have ended the book, and this was a direct lead in to the fiction writing assignment to continue the ending or rewrite a scene.
After reading and discussing the book, we did a newscast activity where the students created “News From Mr. Stoddard’s Class” presentations in the form of news reporters. This was a big hit with the students!
Stay tuned for Chapter 2 about Walk Two Moons, in which I reach my first hurdle.