How NOT to Kill To Kill a Mockingbird: Reviving the Whole-Class Novel

(Disclaimer: The main title for this post, How NOT to Kill To Kill a Mockingbird, was a gift to me from a talented teacher, Kevin English. Check out his wonderful blog: English’s Education.)

"It's a sin to kill a mockingbird."     ~Harper Lee

“It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” ~Harper Lee

First things first. I have to get this off my chest: I like teaching whole-class novels. There, I’ve said it. I know it is not a popular point of view in the current English teaching world, but whole-class novels have been good to me. Over the years, I have found the whole-class novel to be an incredible community building and learning process for my students and I have come up with some ways to make it a worthwhile experience. You don’t have to commit Readicide so that all you’re left with is a beaten, bloody carcass of what was once a perfectly fine work of literature. Students will engage with a text if given the opportunity, guidance, and support they need.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Ariel Sacks who put her approach to teaching whole-class novels on paper in Whole Novels for the Whole Class. This opened the door for the rest of us who also want to share. If you’ve read her great book, you will see that many of the things she and I do are similar, but there are a few differences. What follows is a brief overview of my thoughts and of my process.

[An important note: Choice reading and read-alouds (of short texts, not whole novels due to time constraints) are also components of my balanced literacy classroom. As I have stated previously, I believe there is a place for all three.]

1. I believe in teaching the READER, not the READING. I use whole-class novels as a community building and learning experience, not as a means to formally assess students. Because we read the book together, we have a touchstone to refer back to in future class sessions. Not every student loves every book we read, but they all experience growth and gain some appreciation for the author’s writing ability.

2. I also want my students to read like writers so we use our study of the text to explore the writer’s craft. We talk about WHY the author may have written what he/she has and HOW they have structured the novel to achieve their desired goals. We appreciate their use of the language and try to emulate our favorite parts.

3. I have a short attention span, which greatly benefits my students. I do not spend any more than 3 weeks (possibly 4 if there are vacation days involved) on a novel. What’s more, we only read one per marking period. This means that in my current situation of teaching 6th grade in trimesters, we read 3 community reads for a total of 9 – 11 weeks which leaves plenty of time for other activities and choice reading throughout the year. When I taught in quarters to 8th graders—we read four books per year but the last one was in small book clubs with each group reading a different book of their choice.

4. I provide lot of “framing” for the text such as historical context, current examples of the theme in the world, the author’s background, and topic floods to eliminate possible barriers to understanding. Often students will say they don’t like a book, but that is because they don’t always understand what is going on. Imagine trying to appreciate Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry without a knowledge of Jim Crow. My students read a wonderful book called Ties That Bind, Ties That Break, but it necessitates that I teach them about Confucius and about foot binding.

5. I structure the discussion around essential questions and themes. This makes the book, no matter the genre, easily relatable to other material because the themes are universal.

6. I choose a book that is at the reading level of the majority of my students, but is also an engaging work of literary merit such as a Newbery honor/award book. I don’t always go for the most popular books because many of them read these on their own. I choose a book that I think they might enjoy, but might have passed over, or a book that is a little older that they may not have heard about. For those for whom the text is a bit of a stretch, I incorporate many scaffolding and support techniques including audio books, partner reads, read aloud, parent involvement, and guided study groups to ensure that they can access the material. I disagree with the criticism that those students who are not as challenged by the book are getting nothing out of it. For me, rigor is the depth of thought involved in the process and not the decoding of the words on the page. Most of what we do is open-ended and they take the discussions to incredibly insightful levels.

7. I divide the book into chunks and provide a reading calendar of when the class discussions will happen. I always allow for at least a day in between readings due so that we may explore other aspects of the novel as well as incorporate writing. Some of the discussions happen through online avenues as well, but I generally prefer face to face whenever possible. This allows them to piggyback on their peers’ responses in a more immediate way and I can keep them going if they encounter a roadblock or get too far off on a tangent.

8. I allow students to read ahead so long as they do not do “spoilers” during the discussion. They have been very good about honoring this policy. If we get partway through the book and some just could not wait to finish (as often happens), I will allow them the time to work in a small group to discuss things that happened after the chapters the rest are discussing.

9. I find a literacy focus and learning target for reading. Students can’t hit a bullseye if they don’t know the target. For me, the magic bullet in making sure all students can explore and appreciate the novel in depth has been incorporating Notice and Note into the mix. I cannot say enough about how much I adore this book and have written several posts about it. (This one primarily addresses Notice and Note with regards to whole-class novels.) Ariel Sacks reaches the same degree of thought using using three levels of questioning: literal, inferential, and critical. Jeffrey Wilhelm has some great ideas in Fresh Takes on Teaching Literary Elements and Chris Lehman and Kate Robert write about Lens, Patterns, and Understanding in Falling in Love with Close Reading.

It doesn’t matter which method you use to help your students to understand and appreciate the text as they all have merit. However, you will notice that none of these authors advocates the use of study guides, comprehension questions at the end of the every chapter, the memorization of vocabulary words out of context, and endless worksheets. You want students to appreciate the tree that was killed to print such a wonderful work of art, not the tree that was killed in making a blizzard of worksheets.

10. During class discussions, honor their thoughts. There is no one right answer. Nothing bugs me more than teachers who ask questions about a novel and will allow for anything but the answer they have hidden in their head.

11. Gradually release responsibility as the year goes on. In my class, for the first novel, the students lead the discussion of each chunk of text based on Notice and Note signposts they have found. The only writing during the reading required is a one sentence summary of the main event of each chapter. I find that this helps them in the future when they want to refer back to the text. For the second novel, we focus on a couple of signposts, the chunks of text are larger, and students bring in their own questions to ask of peers. During the third novel of the year, students are grouped in Book Clubs to allow for more discussion time. These students determine their own deadline and chunks of text for each discussion. (Note: I teach sixth grade. When I have debriefed my process with students at the end of the year, they have told me that they don’t want to begin discussions after they have read the entire book because it feels like too much. They prefer breaking the novel into thirds because they want to make sure that they understand everything along the way. They also don’t want to wait to talk about what is going on.) Each student brings in things they “noticed” in that section as well as topics for discussion. I appoint a discussion facilitator and let them go to it. They love it and there is no down time.

12. I incorporate writing assignments and active experiences that tie to the book and complement the text. For example, we read Walk Two Moons and there is a chapter where the mother explores the importance and origin of her name. We then read “My Name” by Sandra Cisneros and “Isn’t My Name Magical” by James Berry and they write their own creative piece about their name. You will not that these are not what Donalyn Miller calls “Language arts and crafts.” No dioramas, no character drawings, no book jackets, no travel brochures. I use authentic, meaningful, relevant writing experiences to draw them deeper into the text as well as allow for personal connections to be made. In this post, I gave examples of some of these experiences I used when teaching The Giver.

13. I grade almost nothing during this time. At the end, there is a reflective writing piece as well as some kind of literary analysis writing, but they are ready for this based on the rich discussions they have experienced.

There is no perfect system for teaching everything I need to teach in the limited amount of time I am given, but this way of teaching whole-class novels allows me to achieve my teaching objectives without killing the novels and/or monopolizing the entire school year with these experiences. Give yourself the freedom to try teaching the novel as a reading experience and not as a 9-week worksheet. I think you will enjoy the change. I know your students will.

image courtesy of: freedigitalphotos.net

Whole-Class Novels vs. Student Choice Reading–Why Not Both?

As I’ve said before, I am a PD junkie. Even though I have been teaching for over 20 years, I read every new book that comes out on teaching English. I feel the same way about these books as I do about attending professional conferences. If I gain one new, great idea, then it was worth the price. Plus, I face the same challenge as many of my secondary colleagues—I have to teach reading, writing, speaking, grammar, usage, and mechanics in a mere 45 minutes a day. I guess I figure that someday I will find the Holy Grail book that will give me the answer to how to structure my “Goldilocks” class. So far, I haven’t found it, and this blog is my attempt to work through this challenge.

Through my reading, I found one curricular tradition that has taken a huge beating in the last several years is the teaching of the whole-class novel. It almost feels as if a gauntlet has been thrown down and English teachers are forced to take the side of continuing to teach whole class novels or of an entirely student choice model. I don’t believe it has to be either-or. I find a balance of whole-class novels, free voluntary reading, and read-alouds to be the trifecta of a winning reading curriculum. Erica Beaton also calls for a balance of these concepts and did a fantastic series of posts on her blog that I encourage you to check out: Whole-Class Novels vs. Choice-Only Reading.

What I believe most people hate about whole-class novels is that they are continuing to be the main source of reading instruction in schools, and they are being taught very, very badly. If we address those two issues, we could achieve a winning formula for engaging reading instruction.

I am not alone in my thinking. Many of my professional mentors such as Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, and Cris Tovani still teach whole class novels, but not as the backbone of their curriculum either—whole-class novels are but one component. Ariel Sacks has written an entire book devoted to teaching the whole class novel, Whole Novels for the Whole Class. I agree with much of what she says in the book, and I also facilitate a student-centered class. I have been teaching similarly to Ms. Sacks for several years (ever since I read Readicide and the Book Whisperer) and I am happy to see her book become so successful because it means that there are like-minded teachers out there. Even those who believe all reading in a class should be of a student’s choice incorporate the reading aloud of novels so they are, in effect, also sharing a group reading experience with their students.

I have written about this before (Channeling Goldilocks: Attempting to get it “just right” ), but wanted to go into more depth and also show how useful Notice and Note by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst has been in refining how I use whole-class novels. Stay tuned for my next post: How NOT to Kill To Kill a Mockingbird: Reviving the Whole Class Novel.

Genius Hour for the Greater Good

ID-100254843It is a wonderful thing to be in the position of being in awe of my students. Last year, I dipped my toe into the Genius Hour concept by having my sixth graders complete a mini-research project on the topic of their choice. They truly enjoyed this process and presenting their findings, so I knew I could push it further this year. After learning everything I could from Joy Kirr, Paul Solarz, and Angela Maiers, I took the plunge on Genius Hour this year—with a twist.

I threw out three questions to my students: What do you want to learn how to do? What do you want to create? or Who do you want to help? and told them they could combine any two. Because of the personal nature of the projects, I chose an alternative name for Genius Hour and they became Passion Projects.

I had greatly underestimated my students’ capacity for wanting to make a difference. Many chose to combine learning a skill with helping others or society. The variety of the projects and their causes was impressive.

Among their many projects are:

  • learning to crochet to make hats to donate to premature babies in hospitals
  • making and selling cupcakes to raise funds for scoliosis research
  • designing and building a vertical planter for urban gardeners
  • learning to crochet to make blankets to donate to a women’s shelter
  • research recipes and making organic dog treats to sell to raise funds for the Humane Society
  • writing and directing a video on how to prevent bullying
  • learning how to knit to make baby booties to donate to churches
  • researching and building a model of a “green” home with a living roof
  • holding a spaghetti dinner to raise funds to make hygiene kits for the homeless
  • designing and building locker items to help peers be more organized
  • making bracelets to sell to raise funds for a local animal shelter

NOTE: Although I didn’t allow for any monetary transactions at school, I was a bit concerned that several students would need to raise funds from friends and family for an organization close to their hearts. I generally don’t promote the idea of asking families for money, but I hadn’t anticipated that so many would choose to want to do so. I will be soliciting feedback from parents at the end of this project in December and may make adjustments next year that don’t involve money, but for now the parents and I are extremely impressed with their initiative. Many come from privilege and it is touching to see them realize this and want to give back.

My students are beaming with pride when they share their success with me. For example, Ella held a spaghetti dinner that had over 100 attendees and raised almost $2,000! She had estimated she would raise $800 to make the hygiene kits for the homeless and ended up being able to also purchase socks and laundry soap. She was recognized publicly at her church and her peers clapped for her when I shared this at school. She was most excited when she and her fellow congregants were able to distribute the kits. Madison, who has scoliosis and is raising awareness and fund with her project, make $120 with her first batch of cupcakes and is looking forward to her next batch. She is taking what was a life-altering diagnosis and making it into a positive.

The generosity and huge hearts of my eleven-year-old students has blown me away. They are setting a great example, exploring their passions, and feeling a real sense of accomplishment. What more can a teacher ask?

image courtesy of: freedigitalphotos.net

Plagiarism: An Ounce of Prevention

ID-10067793This is the text of an article I wrote from SmartBrief on Education.

I do not enjoy being the plagiarism police with my middle school students. For me, detecting plagiarism and determining consequences take more energy than investing time into proactively planning assignments that don’t lend themselves to copying.

Here are some steps I take and recommend to try to prevent plagiarism before it begins. I won’t claim that these will make the assignment plagiarism proof, but they will certainly make it more difficult.

  1. Discuss the idea of plagiarism on a personal level. Have a conversation about how annoying it is when someone copies them on a superficial level such as hairstyle, clothing, catchphrases, etc. Then, take it to a deeper level and discuss how they would feel if someone stole the product of their hard labor. Perhaps even share some current plagiarism scandals in the news.
  2. Explicitly teach the skills of paraphrasing and summarizing. It is not enough to tell students to “put it in your own words” or “don’t copy” because many don’t know what else to do. It doesn’t have to be boring. For example, they enjoy when I challenge them to take a couple of paragraphs of text and summarize them in exactly 12 words.
  3. Incorporate some form of collaboration, discussion, and feedback into the project. Also, add the element of publicly sharing their work in on online format. These encourage students to produce original work due to the social pressure of their work being read by more than just the teacher.
  4. Add a personal reflection component—either within the assignment itself, or thinking back on the process of completing the work.
  5. Connect the assignment to something you have specifically done in class. Incorporate a news article they read, a video clip you showed, or a class discussion into the final product.
  6. Break the assignment into chunks and have required check-ins regularly. Some students copy because they waited until the last minute and are rushing.
  7. Conference with the student throughout the process. This will allow you to determine to what extent they are understanding their topic. For instance, you could ask them what surprised them most from their research thus far. In addition, some part of the assignment should be completed in class with teacher supervision.
  8. Designate one specific source they must use (ideally a current one).
  9. Add a piece that cannot be copied. For example, students could interview an expert or design an oral presentation.
  10. Most importantly, design assignments utilizing higher-order thinking skills and creativity. When students are required to explain, problem solve, evaluate, hypothesize, or compare, it is nearly impossible for them to find this kind of assignment online from which to borrow. To illustrate: rather than writing a biography of a president (a sure recipe for plagiarism), have them write a mock letter to the post office or the White House persuading the officials to designate a new stamp or holiday to be held in that president’s honor due to his many accomplishments.

image courtesy of: freedigitalphotos.net

Low-Tech Learning as a Novel Concept

Today’s students have never known a time when computers didn’t exist. What’s more, they have the ability to carry a ridiculously powerful computer in their jeans pocket. Funny enough, even while having an electronic appendage with instant access to the world, I am noticing more and more that students appreciate being exposed to low-tech experiences.

I introduced the concept of Genius Hour (which I call Passion Projects) to my sixth grade students last month. They were given the option to learn a skill, create something new, or find a way to help others. I was quite surprised that, when given completely free reign, less than 15% of my students chose anything that involved technology. Instead, they wanted to learn how to do handicrafts such as knitting, cooking, cake decorating, and sewing. Also popular were model building, designing, and creative writing. Over a quarter of them are designing fundraisers to help charities close to their hearts. I did not expect that they would eschew technology. When I thought about this a little more, I realized it is because technology isn’t new for them. It is completely integrated into their daily lives so when given the task of choosing something new to learn, they opted to stray from their beloved technology.

Then it happened again. The middle school where I teach has an advisory period and a couple of days a month, this time is devoted to teacher-led clubs from which the students may choose. As each of the teachers introduced his or her club, the ear-splitting cheers were for clubs such as board games, knitting, eco-art, brainteasers, and the like. Although there were several clubs involving technology that will no doubt be equally as popular, I was again struck that students were also excited to learn hands-on skills or participate is low or no-tech activities.

The following week, at an assembly on the history of our school, the presenter showed pictures of girls in home economics classes cooking and sewing. This led to a classroom discussion about the “olden days” when students were required to take either home economic or shop classes. As I described these classes to students (because I took them), they were full of questions as to why we don’t still offer this kind of education because it sounded so “cool.” They were clamoring for the opportunity to cook and sew. Who knew this old-fashioned class would sound so interested to today’s students?

As a PD junkie, I come across dozens of articles each month lauding the use of technology in the classroom and detailing the myriad ways that technology can replace the old-fashioned classroom assignments. Don’t get me wrong—I am in no way anti-technology. I am as addicted to my devices as the next girl. However, I don’t find that students are nearly as engaged in most educational uses of technology as adults would hope. I’ve even heard students complain about too much screen time in school. Perhaps this is because some of the crafty, not necessarily pedagogically sound, projects that teachers are enamored of have merely been replaced by digital versions of equally dubious merit.

I think that perhaps one of the reasons so many teachers of all ages have jumped on the digital bandwagon is that we feel it is something that defines us as current or means we are teaching 21st Century Skills. It could also be that the use of technology in school is exciting for the teachers themselves because many weren’t exposed to much when they were in school. I know that I am often excited when I see the classroom possibilities of a new app or program. My point is not that technology doesn’t belong in the classroom, it does. It is that we may be overestimating the amount of engagement bang for our buck that tech provides. Not everything in our classrooms needs to be digitized and our students will appreciate the chance to experience the excitement of analog learning in a digital world. Excuse me while I go read my book (on paper, of course.)

Toward a Culture of Collaboration, Not Competition

The following is the text of an article that I recently wrote for SmartBlogs on Education.

As I read education blogs, news editorials, and twitter, I am struck by the “us vs. them” mentality I see between veteran and newer teachers. The purpose of this article is not to demonize or laud either one of these groups, but rather to promote the idea that teachers should support one another instead of tearing each other down. We all got into this profession for the same reason and I suspect we will find that we are more alike than we realize. What’s more, both veteran (which I am using to describe those in the profession for 10 years or more) and newer (those with 5 or fewer years’ experience) teachers have valuable, unique skills and perspectives and could learn a lot from each other. In the end, we all want to do the right thing for our students.

Veteran teachers can offer wisdom and assistance based on their years of experience. They have already developed curricular materials for their subject area and should be willing to share these with teachers entering the profession. The first couple years are tough enough without having to reinvent the wheel. Those who have been in the classroom for a long time also have the benefit of knowing how best to deal with the nuances of parental communication which can be one of the most difficult parts of the job. Another area of concern for many rookie teachers is classroom management and this is generally an area where an experienced teacher can provide valuable tips. Finally, veteran teachers can share the “need-to-knows” with those new to the district. They know who to contact about special classroom needs, the building climate and norms, the political history, and who makes the best coffee. Newer teachers will appreciate this kindness and it will go a long way in easing their stress.

Newer teachers offer enthusiasm, energy, and ideas. Because they have recently been in school, they tend to have read the most current professional development materials and are aware of innovative teaching methods. Teachers fresh from college can be more familiar with the seemingly endless variety of technology applications and how they can supplement more traditional lessons. Finally, they have the benefit of their idealism because they have not been demoralized by the media who seem content to place the blame for school “failure” squarely on the shoulders on the veterans.

None of this is to say that veteran teachers cannot be well-versed in technology or that rookie teachers are unable to control classroom behavior. I am speaking in generalizations and know this is not the case. Rather, this is a call for us not to be threatened by, but to reflect on our own best practices and collaborate with one another. We will all be stronger teachers for it and our students will reap the rewards.

Collaborative Constructivism in Language Arts Class

At several professional development sessions I attended this year, the speaker reminded us, “The person doing the talking is the one doing the learning.” This hits home for me because I am a constructivist at heart. It is one of my core beliefs that adolescents need social interaction in order to engage with the material and discovery to cement the learning. To that end, one of the instructional techniques I use nearly daily is that of Gradual Release of Responsibility (“I do, We do, You do” process), but I usually begin with the step: “You do together.” I find that the students are very motivated by the challenge of “figuring things out” and end up retaining the material better.

An example of how I use collaborative inquiry is with grammar, usage, and mechanics (G.U.M.) instruction. We are studying the characteristics of a personal narrative so today’s lesson was on dialogue punctuation rules. Rather than going through a book, worksheet, or power point, I had the students open up their choice reading books to a page with dialogue. Working as a group, they determined the rules of how to use commas, quotation marks, capital letters, paragraph breaks, and dialogue tags and wrote their responses in a chart. After they finished, we shared and they all added any missing information to their chart. Finally, I gave them the actual rules for punctuating dialogue and they determined which ones they had gotten correct (resulting in lots of cheering) and which ones they had overlooked. The culminating practice assignment was to write a properly punctuated conversation between themselves and another person (real or fantasy/positive or negative) with each person speaking at least three times. The feedback from the students was that the assignment was great fun and all were fully engaged in writing their conversations.

This same process works well with other topics such as capital letter or comma use, but I also use this technique for lessons beyond G.U.M.. For example, last week, I distributed a stack of eight brief memoir mentor texts to each group. Working together, they each read a couple and then attempted to determine the commonalities between the texts. I was pleasantly surprised at their rich discussion and the resulting list of qualities and characteristics of personal narratives they compiled. They hit the nail on the head and I didn’t have to lecture once. I am excited to read what they write as a result.