Alicia Hunter, 8th grade English teacher, Berea, Kentucky

Alicia Hunter, 8th grade English teacher, Berea, Kentucky

I first met Alicia Hunter on Twitter.  She told me she'd read Whole Novels for the Whole Class and was really enjoying implementing the approach in her classroom. Not only that, but she was experimenting with allowing students to choose the novels they would study together. This something I've dabbled in at times, but never gone full force. It's always a question people ask me--"If you're so student-centered, why don't students choose the whole novels?" Although I have my reasons for selecting texts the way I do, I've wondered what would happen if I gave that over to students. Now I might just give it a real try-- Alicia's example is terrific and inspiring!  Another neat thing about Alicia is that not only does she teach 8th grade English, but she is also the principal of her school! I'm thrilled that she's shared her whole novel story with us.  ~Ariel

Alicia Hunter is the founding principal of Farristown Middle School in Madison County, Berea, Kentucky.  She taught high school English for fifteen years and has been an administrator for seven years. In 2013-2014, she taught 8th grade English. She lives in Berea with her husband and two teenage daughters. You can find her on Twitter @Hunter_FTMS

Blending Whole Novel Studies and Student Choice 

By Alicia Hunter

As my eighth grade English Language Arts class finished Stargirl, students created service projects. During our Whole Novel-inspired end discussion, students kept circling back to the idea that our school needed a Stargirl. They started asking questions that began with could we…, how can we…, would it be ok if… Their excitement was contagious, and I knew many of our school’s students would benefit from their ideas and their enthusiasm alike. They had already tackled big ideas like bullying, nonconformity, and isolationism. So I asked them, “How can you bring Stargirl to Farristown? What do our students, what does our community need?”

The students immediately started brainstorming ideas. Several wanted to mentor younger students…they wanted to share their experience, pass along the “tricks of the trade.” They wanted to help with homework, social skills, and life in general so younger students would be prepared for 8th grade. Others wanted to just start “service projects.” They wanted to pick up trash around the school, and start a recycling bin in the cafeteria; they even talked about planting gardens for elderly people in our community. We worked on these projects and were ready to implement them.

Giving Up More Control in the Next Novel Study

It didn’t take long before our Whole Novel discussion of Stargirl moved into questions about our next unit of study. Early in the year, I had taught my students that writers always have more than one project going at a time, so we are constantly multi-tasking. Some asked if they could read Love, Stargirl…the next book. One student asked me, “Would it be possible for us to read different books, Mrs. Hunter? You know, choose our own books?”

I said, “So you want multiple books going on at once?” As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I knew I was opening a door I had to walk through. So many things were going through my head: I have suggested this process to many teachers over the years, I have read about this idea, I have watched teachers use this approach, but I have never successfully implemented it. Yes, I have used Literature Circles, but I never felt like students engaged with the reading and formed communities of readers in the ways I hoped they would. I never had a group that I could really turn loose with it.

So after I thought for a few minutes, I swallowed hard and said, “Yes, of course you can choose your own book. Why not?” Then the fear hit me. I had relinquished control.

Making Choices and Framing the Study

Our school is fortunate to have a bookroom organized by Lexile. When students chose books, I encouraged them to choose from a certain area. I wanted students to enjoy, but also wanted them to be challenged a bit. Stargirl was not a challenge by Lexile, but by content. For students to choose their own books, we looked up book trailers, read the backs of books, used our LMS, and students recommended books to each other. Students checked books out from the library, purchased their own, downloaded them, and borrowed them from friends. Students made surprising, liberating, choices. Hatchet, a book many teachers use to get boys interested, was chosen by a group of girls. The Fault in Our Stars was the choice of a group eager to read it before the movie came out. Students were so excited to read that a few of the groups huddled together and began reading while a couple other groups negotiated between several books, carefully weighing their options. I helped by encouraging them to decide which book they wanted to read this time, and that they’d have other chances to read more.

The Farristown faculty worked through Shirley Clarke’s Active Learning through Formative Assessment this year, and with this in mind I talked with the students about what makes a successful book group. I have struggling readers as well as advanced readers, but they all worked together to determine the success criteria for reading groups. Every student had a voice, and students thrilled me by settling on the following criteria:

  •  Groups must have 3-4 members, so everyone can be totally involved
  • Everyone must be interested in the book and ask questions as we go
  • Get along with others; be respectful and take time to help others
  • Meet deadlines
  • You can’t not read

We established a deadline, an end date on which we would share end products, and each group set its own reading schedule. Some groups decided it was important to read more during the week and not on weekends (though they had to decide whether Friday was a weekday or weekend), while others spread the reading evenly to include the weekend. No matter how they structured them, the schedules came to me looking a lot like the one I gave them for Stargirl. Students had internalized the effective pacing I had tried to model. Of course, my model was Ariel’s from Whole Novels. J

Some groups wanted to keep sticky notes, others decided to have try a variety of forms of note taking. During class, I provided some time for reading, other time for activities like those outlined in Whole Novels. I told students on which days we would discuss characters, conflict, and other topics that would be appropriate as they began reading, and they factored those into their scheduling too – not only did they set aside time for class-wide conversations, they also made sure to prepare in their groups for topics they knew would be coming, holding each other accountable for close reading and productive critical thinking.

Familiar with the CCSS, students heeded my warnings to read with our learning targets in mind. I started each class with mini-lessons on language, character analysis, and theme that included excerpts from one of the novels students were reading. We discovered how, for example, Language standard 8.4a, using context to determine meaning of words and phrases, operated in a passage in one book, then students in other groups found similar examples in their books and shared those with the class. Doing so not only reinforced the learning target, it also had the added bonus of suggesting still other books students might want to read.

Letting Them Drive!

The month of our independent novel study flew by. Students were engaged in the reading; books had been well chosen. Group members reminded each other of the good-group-member success criteria we established from the beginning. The one point that frustrated most students involved reading ahead or not keeping up. But collaboration reigned: a group with a “struggling” reader almost wordlessly revised their schedule to build in discussion days just “to make sure we all know what’s going on in the book.” All students loved the freedom of being in charge of their schedule, their tasks and their end products. The group size and camaraderie made it possible for students to support each other in each endeavor.

The phrase most often directed at me during these weeks of novel study was, “Hey, Mrs. Hunter look at this.” Groups called me over to share in their discoveries, to celebrate their breakthroughs, and to support them in their learning process. Ultimately, the independence they gained, their knowledge that they could rely on themselves and each other, may prove to be the most valuable skill they will acquire. I’m glad I got to be a part of it.


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!