After reading Erica Beaton’s terrific 4.15.14 blog post “Whole-Class Novels vs. Choice-Only Reading: Part One (b10lovesbooks.wordpress.com) on “whether novels should be shared as a whole-class texts or if students should freely chose novels according to their own interests and plans for growth,” I realized that this is a decision frustrating many English teachers. Although most teachers I know come down on one side or the other, I believe in a balanced approach because I find value in both. I’m looking forward to her next post where she will continue the conversation. In the interim, I want to share how I’ve applied some of what I’ve read regarding teaching whole-class novels.
Like many secondary English teachers, I began teaching novels in the same way I was taught. I assigned a chapter or two at a time with vocabulary words to define, chapter questions to answer, and a summative comprehension test. The problem was that I hated every minute of teaching that way and the kids were bored to tears. Sure, I loved English classes when I was a kid because I knew this was how the game was played and I played it well. I distinctly remember enjoying reading “The Diary of Anne Frank”, “Flowers for Algernon”, The Great Gatsby, The Fountainhead, etc., but I must have somehow mentally blocked how mind numbing it surely was to complete all of the accompanying busy work. What I do remember enjoying somewhat was the teacher guiding us toward his or her interpretation of the work and the rare opportunities for class discussion. I wanted to capitalize on student discussion and discovery in my classroom. I was already making movement toward eliminating rote work when the right book appeared at the right time. Thank goodness for Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide for giving me research-based permission to do what I’d always felt was right for students.
In Chapter 4 of Readicide, Gallagher discusses finding the “sweet spot” of instruction by achieving the perfect balance between the overteaching and underteaching of books. For me, teaching a whole-class novel in a way that provides depth of thought, development of literacy skills, and student engagement is the quest for my sweet spot. Like Goldilocks, I am searching for what feels “just right.” I am constantly refining my methods, and have come up with some techniques that are working for me thus far. Not only are my students enjoying reading a novel as a class, they are able to meet and exceed the standards required. It’s not “just right” yet, but I’m getting closer.
Because of my background as a special education teacher, I often joke that I teach all of my students as if they are gifted students with learning differences. I say this in jest, but I truly do use the same techniques that I use to meet the needs of students on both ends of the continuum. I scaffold the learning so that each student can be successful while trying to provide innovative, high-interest activities to satisfy their innate curiosity and drive. Below are some supplemental activities, besides discussing the novel, that I used when I taught an 8th grade science fiction unit revolving around The Giver. NOTE: I never spend more than three or four weeks on a novel. I have a short attention span.
Prior to reading:
- As a class, we discussed the idea of Utopian societies and how they have been attempted over the course of history.
- Students worked in groups to develop their own Utopian society including such items as a flag with a representative symbol, a constitution of their beliefs, an advertisement of their unique assets, and a set of rules that must be followed.
- We practiced storytelling with a favorite family memory.
- We determined current milestone birthdays and their societal meaning.
During and After reading:
- We read additional science fiction such as Harrison Bergeron, and watched a couple of Twilight Zone episodes (Number 12 Looks Exactly Like You and Eye of the Beholder). We listened to “One Tin Soldier,” “Utopia,” and “Imagine.” We discussed the hippie movement and its goals. We compared and contrasted these in discussions of the ideas of total equality and the definition of perfection.
- We debated whether it would be good or bad to have our negative memories removed.
- We made connections to global society today.
In future posts, I will share how I scaffolded our whole-class novel experiences from the beginning to the end of this year to achieve a gradual release of responsibility.
Thanks for reading. I look forward to learning with you.