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

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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.