I have always taught at schools where the English curriculum incorporates reading of novels as a whole class. This post is not to debate the relative merits or deficits of teaching a whole class novel, but rather to show how Notice and Note by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst [http://www.heinemann.com/products/E04693.aspx] made the task of teaching a class text even more enjoyable than it had been in the past.
Not surprisingly, I enjoyed English classes as a kid and loved that we read novels together. I may never have chosen to read The Great Gatsby or The Canterbury Tales were they not required class reading and I ended up loving both of them. However, I always felt there was some secret code or language that my teachers could understand but which I didn’t speak. They were able to discuss the finer points of plot, characterization, symbolism, and theme, yet I often felt that I was not understanding the books because I had not always found these same things myself. True, I made copious margin notes writing down what the teacher had said and scored well on tests and essays as a result, but I usually beat myself up for not having an a-ha moment about a piece of text until the teacher pointed something out and it seemed so obvious. (Wait, Eckleburg’s eyes are not just there because they’re creepy? Oh, duh!)
Fast forward many years to 2008 when I became an English teacher. When I made the switch from special education, I was determined never to put a child in the position of feeling stupid for not seeing what they I so “obviously” saw. (I also swore never to over teach a novel and kill them with vocabulary and worksheets—but all of that is in a previous post.) As such, I read everything I could on the subject. How fortunate for me that How to Read Novels Like a Professor by Thomas Foster, The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller [Donlayn’s blog: http://bookwhisperer.com] and Readicide by Kelly Gallagher [from Kelly’s blog: http://kellygallagher.org/books_dvds/books_dvds.html] came out at about the same time I made the switch to teaching English. They gave me permission from an expert to do what I wanted to do in class—to help students understand what they read, to promote a lifelong love of reading, and to avoid killing that love when teaching novels.
Based on what I loved in Readicide, I began teaching novels in a student-centered format (similar to what Ariel Sacks recently wrote about in Whole Novels for the Whole Class). She and I differ slightly in approach, but the gist is the same. I want kids to read and talk about the books and don’t want to interrupt the flow of their learning with useless activities. Teaching novels this way was actually more work for me because I had to be an active facilitator and mentally present in each and every class discussion because there were no worksheets to hide behind. It was worth it, though. I found that as I gradually released the responsibility, the students soared. This approach was very successful and the students generally asked me when we would be reading our next novel because they enjoyed the experience so much.
Imagine my delight when I attended a reading conference last summer and saw the genius team of Beers and Probst present on their wonderful book, Notice and Note, that made it easier for me to release responsibility even sooner and enable instruction to be even more student-centered than before. To me, it was a middle-school student friendly version of How to Read Novels Like a Professor that I had enjoyed so much. It was a simple blueprint for helping students find the “important” parts of novels they read without needing them pointed out by a teacher. It gave them the tools they needed to engage in a text and make sense out of what they read. My next post will focus on how I use the Notice and Note Signposts in my class.