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.
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
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.
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.
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.