This post was originally published on my Education Week blog, Teaching For the Whole Story on April 5, 2017.
In a recent post, I discussed the debate around whether to teach whole-class novels. In the field, this conversation can get quite polarized.
Many prominent educators make strong arguments for abandoning the practice of whole-class novel studies completely. Their criticisms of whole class novels are convincing, yet their conclusions are narrow. In some circles, the practice has reached taboo status, to the point that some teachers feel worried about sharing their views if they don't align completely. I find this worrisome; professional debate is important and teaching is complex and nuanced. Though I have strong views about pedagogy myself, I recognize there are multiple ways to teach effectively.
On the other side, teachers defend the value of whole-class novels studies, but many do so without seriously addressing the criticisms coming from advocates of choice reading. This feeds the polarization of the debate by playing into a stereotype of defenders of whole-class novels simply being attached to old-school educational models, sticking to what they know, rather than trying new things.
Of course, many would also agree with me that we shouldn't be limited to this either/or scenario, and that as a profession we can do better than a decades old stalemate. I believe we must revolutionize, not drop, the whole class novel.
The five strategies below are steps toward that end. Trying any number of these will have a posi-ive impact on teaching and learning, but I should add that they are meant to work together in concert. I share the method and supporting practices in much more detail in my book, Whole Novels For the Whole Class: A Student Centered Approach.
1. Build a culture of independent reading.
It may seem counterintuitive, but a thriving culture of independent reading directly leads to stronger participation and outcomes in whole class novel studies. If reading books isn't an active part of your students' day-to-day experiences, they bring that lack of experience to the novel you hope they will read with the class. I think this is one of the reasons teachers tend to over-teach whole class novels, and students tend to "under-read" them. Conversely, if students regularly read, they bring those habits to a book the class reads together—similarly to adult readers who join book clubs. Additionally, by being a part of students' independent reading lives, we gain crucial information about students' reading interests, habits, and skills; with this information, we can more thoughtfully select novels for our groups and better support individual students to read them.
2. Select a developmentally meaningful novel.
Selecting a novel for an entire class of students is no simple task. Though students have varying interests, experiences and reading levels, one thing teachers can be fairly certain they have in common is their age or developmental stage, because of the way most schools are structured. And this is a great entry point for a book choice, because we also tend to be interested in stories that help us sort through major developmental issues. For example, 7th graders tend to be concerned with negotiating with power dynamics within their peer groups, and 8th graders are beginning to understand the concept of a society and critique structures and traditions within it. If the book deals with a theme that will interact with the big questions students are grappling with as they grow up the world—and also passes muster as a title with literary merit—every reader in the room will gain from the story experience.
Using development to guide novel selections will likely rule out some of the classic texts often associated with a given grade level and readily available in the book room. That's just the kind of revolution we need.
- For thinking through whole class text selections, check out this tool.
- Check out this post by fellow Ed Week blogger, Christina Torres, with her take on the value of whole class novels, and how she chooses for her class.
3. Let students read the entire book before pushing for analysis.
This probably sounds like a tall order, and perhaps it is, but consider this: novels are works of art. Imagine being asked to analyze the corner of a painting without having seen the whole painting. Imagine that the person asking you to do so has seen the whole painting and keeps asking questions that hint at the meaning, which only becomes clear when you have seen the whole picture. That would be rather silly. It makes much more sense to see the whole picture (ie. read whole story), and then go back and look closely at pieces of it, now with the whole in mind. That is what I mean by a whole novel approach.
Here are some tips for making this shift:
- Make a pacing calendar, with a reasonable amount of pages for your students to read each day. (Depending on my group and the density of the particular text, I've gone with 10-25 pages.)
- Make sure every student has a copy of the book. Provide class time for reading, and require students to finish the day's reading at home.
- Allow students to read ahead (get the whole picture faster!), using the calendar as a minimum. For those who finish early, reading time is still reading time. I offer a number of choices for their continued reading.
- Avoid leading students' reading with your questions, which are informed by your whole-picture understanding. Focus on supporting students to access the text and enter the world of the story for themselves.
- I teach students to annotate the text with sticky notes as they read. My goal is to get them to pay attention to their own thoughts and articulate them. My rationale is that this is a habit many adult readers use authentically when a text is thought-provoking or challenging, and it can be applied to any text, rather than teaching students to become dependent on my questions.
- Create small group activities that position students to engage with one another to build comprehension and read more deeply. There are many creative possibilities. Here are two:
4. Offer differentiated supports for students as they read.
Some students will be comfortable reading mostly independently. Others will benefit from reading aloud with a partner, or conferring frequently with a partner. I offer all students access to audiobooks, and for those who need it most, it makes a huge difference. Finally, I do some teacher-facilitated small group reading and processing aloud together (either me or a co-teacher). When we "process aloud," we are focusing mostly on figuring out what is happening, and sharing questions or reactions, rather than analyzing. Teacher and author Pernille Ripp (who generally advocates for students self-selecting reading materials) has written this thoughtful piece suggesting that multiple ways to access a whole class text is a small idea that makes a big difference.
5. Let students drive the content of discussions, analysis, and writing pieces.
Once students have completed the book (ideally by the due date on the calendar—I know what you are going to ask... and that will have to wait for another post), I bring students together for seminar-style discussions. I like to do this with half of the class, while the other half works on a creative writing assignment.
In whole-novel discussions, I do not create discussion questions. I don't even ask students to generate discussion questions, though I don't have any issue with that. Instead, I ask every student to say something about the book to start the discussion. After everyone has spoken once, the discussion is open. Questions and debates emerge, which creates authentic purpose for turning back to the text for close reading.
I maintain a role of facilitator. I type notes on everything that is said, which I give to students afterward as a record. I prompt students to turn back to the text, for evidence or to reread sections for a deeper understanding. I try to create opportunities for quieter students to speak, and for students to continually dig deeper into the questions they raise.
We do this for three days. Yes, all in all, it takes six days for both halves of the class to complete their three discussion sessions.
After talking through so much of the book, students develop critical interpretations of themes, critiques of the author's craft, and other compelling ideas. They are ready to write. We create essay questions (not predetermined by me) based on the big ideas and questions that came up in discussions. The notes become a huge resource, and students are highly motivated to put their ideas and arguments onto the paper in a convincing way. The community discussions help them to formulate ideas that matter to them.
I could go on and on (which I why I had to write a book on this). For now, I'll say that a community of learners is a powerful resource, and literature is a powerful art. Bringing these two elements together around a single book is a joyful and humbling experience, one that expands my students' own reading lives and prepares them for the expectations of college level work. I am eager to have more conversations about how and why we make the choices we do in whole class novel studies.