I knew I had to teach reading when I was first hired as a 4th-grade teacher. After all, every teacher teaches reading. Yet, I didn’t know how to really teach reading. I knew components of effective literacy practice, and yet, what those actually looked like within my own classroom was a bit of a mystery. How did actual teachers of reading teach reading to kids who already knew mostly how to read?
My very first answer? Whole class novel, of course.
Thinking back to my own days of learning how to read, I knew to not go the basal approach, and yet I remembered that shared experience of reading the same novel as everyone else. Of discussing. Of trying to find meaning within its pages as we drove each other to deeper levels of understanding. Of even finding a few books I never knew I could love (For Whom the Bell Tolls, anyone?!) to remembering the year together (9th grade honors English with Mrs. Vincent at Lenox Memorial High School, Massachusetts)because of the very books we shared.
Since I knew my students were not quite ready for Hemingway, I picked what I hoped would be a great anchor text for us – Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, the beloved classic rite-of-passage read by Judy Blume.
I now had the book.
All I needed was the work to go with it.
So I found it on the internet, an entire packet just for the book, with questions, activities, and word searches galore. The students could even color in the pages if they so chose. Prep work done, I was ready. And so we began our fourth-grade year together within the pages of a very short book, 144 pages to be exact and we split it up evenly within the 7-ish weeks I had set aside for the task. 4 pages a night could certainly not be too much to ask. Let the reading begin.
And it did. So did the packet work. The lackluster discussions. The rigid instruction, and perhaps even some scolding when students dared to read ahead.
Rarely do I remember us marveling at the audacity of Fudge. Rarely do I remember gathering the kids around the pages of the book to look at something together. Rarely do I remember coming to class excited to discuss, to share, to connect around the book.
But the work pages. The long-drawn-out reading. The lack of excitement. That I remember.
And so for a long time, I swore off whole class novels. Even jumped in the camp of telling everyone else how awful they were. How they are killing the love of reading in kids. But what good does that type of rigid thinking do when my very own memories betray me of my own whole class novel experiences. And so it turned out that I, once again, was proven wrong.
Because it wasn’t really about the whole class novel. It was about me and my own adherence to terrible decisions that surrounded the experience.
So now, let’s look at this concept of the whole class novel and how we can actually make it work within our reading environments without killing the love of reading. It turns out what we need are just a few tweaks and perhaps a dose of common sense.
Step 1 – Redefine the purpose. Rather than using whole class novel to produce a lot of work, how about we redefine the expectation to producing a whole lot of talk.
Idea – Cut out the written work altogether or boil it down to one main product. Does it have to be written or can it be filmed? Does it have to be an analysis or can it be a discussion of relevance? By connecting the book read with other issues in our current society? Does it have to be produced alone or can it be produced with others? Can we assess the discussions as they happen and not worry so much about the end result? And can we please roll back on the annotations. There is very little reason to annotate an entire book, other than to prove you have read it. Is that really what we want kids to work on?
Step 2 – Redefine the access. One of the major problems within a whole-class novel is that for many students the book is not a great match for their current reading capabilities. While it is good to stretch students with challenge texts, you don’t want to put it so far our of their reach that they simply feel defeated and it becomes yet another nail in their “I hate reading coffin.” For others students, the book is way too easy and they would rather read other books after they have read this one.
Idea – Offer choice in accessibility. Do all students have to read it with their eyes or can it be listened to? Can it be shared as a small group read aloud? Can kids partner-read? Can kids read it quickly and show up ready to discuss when needed? Provide multiple access points so that all kids can focus on the purpose; engaging discussions.
Step 3 – Redefine what we read. Why is it that our literary canon are still the same books that I read more than 20 years ago in high school? Yes, there is merit at some point in your life to picking up some of the classics, but you will get infinitesimally more out of them when you are invested. To Kill a Mockingbird was incredibly boring when I read it in 9th grade, but when I re-read it as a 23-year-old, I had a better experience. So how about rather than using this format as a way to expose students to classical texts that they otherwise may not pick up on their own, instead use it to garner deep discussion that can mirror the societal discussion surrounding us? Besides, what about how problematic some of these texts are? we cannot keep hiding behind the cloak of “that’s how they spoke in that time” to make it okay to read them. See this great article here discussing some of the major issues with our current literary canon.
Idea – Critically evaluate the classics and give choice. Perhaps some kids do want to read the same books as their parents did, but others don’t. Take a critical lens to what you are offering up. Who are these choices for? Why are these choices offered year after year? When were these books selected? Simply saying its because they are classics is not enough when we have brilliant books that have been published within even the last 50 years. (Even this year!) There should be a balance.
Step 4 – Redefine the time. One of my major mistakes was to stretch our whole class novel out over way too long of a time period. I have seen some schools use an entire book for a quarter of the year. I don’t care how great the book is, few people can sustain their interest for 12 weeks or more.
Idea – Shorten the length. Three weeks max. That way you have to move through it at a good speed and you can focus on the most central or interesting parts. Within a three-week period, there is also a sense of urgency that otherwise can get lost. Students have to keep up with the text to keep up with the discussion rather than assume that they can simply read it later when it really starts to count.
Step 5 – Redefine your role. One critical aspect I lost within our whole class novel was that it was all centered on me. I generated the questions (or purchased them in my case). I led the discussions. I assessed the work. That is easy for kids to get through and exhausting for the teacher. There is also very little buy-in as far as responsibility and it is easy for kids to coast through, especially those kids who have pretty great reading skills. That is not the intent behind the work.
Idea – Share the responsibility. Start as a role model for how to lead discussions but then share the responsibility with students. Delegate who will come up with questions and who will steer the conversation? Getting students invested beyond the quick answer can lead to more engagement and definitely more understanding of what it means to engage others.
Step 6 – Use it sparingly. I have heard of school districts that mandate that every single reading experience is through a whole class novel for an entire year. In fact, my own amazing niece is currently a victim of that. I don’t use that term lightly, but you know what it has done for her love of reading after several years of this? Yup, totally quashed it. When I ask her what she reads for fun, she says nothing. That’s what doing the same thing over and over can do for you. It may have been great at first but going through the same routine over and over is sure to lead to routine fatigue.
Idea – Everything in moderation. Reserve the whole class novel for those one or two incredible books that you just know will light your class on fire. Reserve it for the fall as you establish your community and perhaps once more in the spring when you know each other so much better. Use it as a tool to challenge their thinking, their analysis, their communication. Put your all into it and then do something else; free choice, book clubs, anything but another whole class novel. Make it special and treat it as such.
While it has been a while since my students actively dove into a whole class novel with me, I am always on the lookout for that amazing text that I feel we all need to digest together. Once I find it, I cannot wait to dive in with my students. Until then, if you need more ideas and inspiration, please read Kate Roberts new book, A Novel Approach.
If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child. This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block. If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first 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.