So You Teach a Whole Class Novel – A Small Idea to Help

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I spend too many hours thinking of my students love (or lack of love) of reading.  Of how the things that we do together hopefully is enough to sustain that love for words.  That this year is another part of their journey as readers, as humans who know that reading can unlock the powers of the universe.  And so I think of what is ahead.  Of whether they are truly “Wild readers” to quote Donalyn Miller.  Whether they have the stamina they need to be successful in college to quote Penny Kittle.  And whether the type of literacy instruction they will receive in the years to come will allow them to continue to love books.  To still read something that they choose.  To still see themselves as children who read for fun, not by force.

Today, as I sat next to a friend who teaches high school English, we discussed the concept of the whole class novel.  Something I have opened up for discussion here.  There are districts that mandate that the whole class novel is used for all students, no matter their comprehension ability, which is another blog post in itself, and yet, it reminds me that not everyone works in an environment that trusts its teachers to teach all students, no matter their ability.

So if you teach the whole class novel, whether by choice or force, there is a very little tweak that may make it accessible to all students.  Because if we want the whole class novel to be a vessel for deeper literature conversation and yet we have students who cannot access the text, then we must find a way for them to be successful.  The idea is simple, really.  Create different pathways to access the text by allowing students to select which method they will use.  Those pathways can be:

  1. I choose to read it on my own, ready to come to discussion.  This is the most common pathway of doing a whole class novel but it cannot be the only one.  Think of how many students where this act would be impossible.  Where they would rather defiantly not read then even try.
  2. I choose to read the book with a partner and we discuss as we read.  Sometimes when we struggle all we need is a trusted adviser to bring us through the hard parts.  We see this happen in our classrooms all of the time; students reaching out for help, and then going to back to their task renewed.  Why not let them do that formally?
  3. I choose to have it read aloud with the teacher in a small group.   Sometimes we need an adult voice to carry students through, other times you just need a community of readers to help you process the text, let alone the finer nuances behind the words.  Having a teacher at the helm and making it a read aloud means that it has no longer become an exercise of decoding, but rather one of comprehension.
  4. I choose to listen to the text.  I know some frown upon the use of audio books in our literacy classrooms, but they can be the game changer for some of our most disillusioned non-reading students.  If our goal is to use a whole class novel for students to think deeply about a text, then why not remove the barrier of the text itself?  If a child cannot read a text then the instruction of how to read it should happen with a text that they can access, not something that is far beyond their current skill level.

That’s it really.  Offering student choice in how they access the learning we must do, allows them to find success even within the most mandated curriculum.  We must remember our task at hand; to have rich discussion, so let’s make sure that all of our students can be a part of that, not just the ones that have mastered the act of reading at a certain level.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

8 thoughts on “So You Teach a Whole Class Novel – A Small Idea to Help

  1. Also there are shorter narratives that are less intimidating (fooling kids who at first think they are “easier” short books) but still allow for big questions. Of Mice and Men is perfect for mixing up with informational texts from the era as well as current events. I just recently worked on The Things They Carried with a fellow 10th gr teacher, and even though it presents reading challenges (non linear narrative, tons of subtext) the short chapters lend themselves very well to read louds and whole class activities.

  2. We only one novel now that we teach all the way through at the 7th grade level. We’ve gone the “Whole Novels” route (via Ariel Sacks) for THE OUTSIDERS, and the kids LOVE it. The way they read it (as you say above), the pacing, the activities… so much choice and so many different avenues in order to appreciate the same book. It’s a gift to the students and also a gift to us when we can sit one-on-one with students to see what they’re understanding from it and where we need to scaffold or facilitate to make the text more accessible to them.

  3. I’ll be teaching ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ for the third time to kiwi students. I love history, but I know not all my students do. I issue the book early to allow for option 1 (reading alone at your own pace) yet It’s tough for them to get into it, as the beginning is purposefully slow (not that students realise that until they finish and think back as to possible reasons for it). In the past, I have pretty much left them to it, to read on their own given that they are seniors and we did tasks in class. Now I have my hands on an audio guide, so I’ll mix it up some more. I like the emphasis in your post on the need to discuss in pairs/small groups. I feel I can incorporate more of this.

  4. My district prohibits the reading of “whole class novels” (in their entirety) in elementary school, even when the above-mentioned strategies are used, the teaching is integrated into both reading and writing workshops, and the feedback from students is overwhelmingly positive. Our secondary teachers are frustrated because they feel that students come to them unprepared to read and synthesize longer texts and understand character and plot development in an authentic way. Just curious about reactions to this.

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  7. Giving this a go with seventh- and eighth-graders trying _The Odyssey_. Notable, intriguing differences across three classes. One class had a majority of silent, independent readers; a second class leaned mostly towards audio book read-alongs; and a third class mostly joined a teacher-facilitated group. Further signs that variety can indeed be the spice of life. Thanks for the inspiration.

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