This post first appeared on the Share My Lesson blog on July 7, 2016. 

When my classes study novels together using the whole novels method, my students read and annotate the entire book before formally discussing it. One of the most common questions teachers ask me: “So what do you do in class while students are reading the book?”

Broadly speaking, I try to find a balance between giving students time to read the book—whether independently, in pairs, in small groups and occasionally as a whole class—and facilitating other activitiesthat help students engage with each other around elements of the text. There are endless possibilities, but my goals with such activities are to help students go a bit deeper in their reading and to provide a sense of community for them as readers.

I want to share a simple activity I recently tried out for the first time that worked really well. It’s one that easily could be adapted to any text, novel or other reading material.

Students were reading Animal Farm, and according to our schedule, they should have read up to Chapter 7 by today. When students came to class, I had these instructions waiting for them on tables along with a large sheet of newsprint:

  1. In a group of two or three, choose a quotation from Chapter 5, 6 or 7 that is significant.
  2. Copy it on the paper in quotations with page number.
  3. Explain its significance.
  4. Ask one question about it.

I imagined this as a formative assessment for me and a way to get students to engage with one another without my having to ask specific questions or lead a discussion. Most students worked with the person next to them or as a table, which is a procedure they are accustomed to by spring.

The process of looking back to the text and selecting a quote together was simple, yet meaningful. Students had to discuss what they thought was interesting and significant with the rest of the group. Working on the explanations allowed students to build comprehension together, and reading their responses gave me an idea of the students’ comprehension of the story without quizzing anyone.

I wasn’t sure what students would do with the question piece (step 4). I purposely didn’t include more specific requirements, because I wanted to see what they would ask, given the opportunity. I was impressed with the mostly critical, thought-provoking questions they posed. I’m not sure if this would have played out differently earlier in the year or with a different text; however, even if some students had offered literal-level questions, it would still have been useful information for me, and give students a chance to get some answers.

Initially, I thought this would be a quick opening activity and that I would simply display the papers around the room; but I realized we had an even better opportunity to use the students’ questions right away.

When most groups were done with the initial directions, I told them the next step was to go read another group’s work and respond to the question on the other group’s paper. They should sign their name to their response. The students should continue doing this until they had read and responded to most of the groups’ questions.

This part of the activity got students moving, which is important to incorporate into any middle school classroom. It also augmented the impact of the simple activity, because now students got the chance to engage with a range of quotes from the text, chosen by their classmates, which helped build comprehension (a form of rereading). Most of all, I loved that they got each other thinking by interacting with each other’s quotes and questions through written conversations. 

Here are some examples of their work:


It's been a while since I posted here. For those that don't know, I had a baby in 2015, and this amazing joy of a little girl dramatically impacted my ability to blog in my "extra time." For some of my reflections on motherhood as an educator, check out these posts on my CTQ blog:

Leaning in, career teaching, and the superpower I now need

Four Lessons From Motherhood

More recently, I've been getting my writing mojo back!  Part of this was fueled by the realization that the role of creative writing in the study of English Language Arts deserves some attention in literacy and ed policy conversations, especially when the CCLS appear to deemphasize it. I first began writing about this in this article, "Decoding the Common Core," published by Education Week.  I also touched on the topic of creative writing as an equity issue in this blog post, "Who Gets to Write Fiction?" which was a response to calls for more diverse books for children (#WeNeedDiverseBooks). Then, just last month, Education Week Teacher published "Why Creative Writing Still Has a Place In My Classroom," in which I argue for the practice of fiction writing as an essential element in developing critical readers.

As part of my investigation into the role of creative writing in today's ELA classroom, I've created this survey, asking for English teachers and literacy leaders to share their opinions on the topic. If you missed it before, please participate! It's been very interesting and encouraging to see the responses, and I'll be sharing some results soon. 

Finally, also on the topic of writing, as part of a Teaching Ahead Roundtable at EdWeek Teacher, I shared my thinking on "The Problem With Complex Writing Prompts," and why the bulk of expository writing instruction should tap into students' own questions, ideas and drive to communicate.  

More writing and developments coming soon... I hope everyone is enjoying the summer. It sure is hot around here! 

AuthorAriel Sacks

One question I hear often from educators considering the whole novels approach is what do you do in class while students are reading the book (besides reading the book, of course)? One of the best and perhaps underrated activities to aid students in rereading and comprehension of the text, as well as oral reading and public speaking practice, is dramatizing scenes from the novel. What's more, this activity is super easy to implement, it really brings the book to life, and it gets students out of their seats and having fun. 

In this article published on NEA's Share My Lesson site, 3 Ways A Little Drama Can Enhance Student Learning, I share my process, as well as three other, powerful ways to use drama in any classroom.  

I need your help! I'm working on a book idea that's been percolating for some time now. It's been two years since Whole Novels For the Whole Class: A Student Centered Approach was published, and since then, I've felt a big wondering come on about the role of fiction writing in the study of English Language Arts these days. In my own classroom, it is a source joy for both my students and me, and strong experiences like that in the classroom get me thinking. I'm trying to explore the value of this imaginative writing--academically and otherwise--as well as its current role in English classrooms around the country. I'm wondering if and how the Common Core Standards are influencing this kind of writing.

I will share more of my thinking on this soon, but first I really want to know how other teachers view and experience fiction writing within our discipline. Please help me by taking this brief survey... (your name is optional.) I hope you will find the questions interesting and that it will take only about 5 minutes! 

Survey: What Is The Role of Fiction Writing In English Class These Days?



AuthorAriel Sacks