Whole Novels: A New(er) Approach to Teaching Literature – Part I

Every year, I have some 9th graders tell me “I hate to read,” “reading sucks,” or even the dreaded “you can’t make me read.” I just smile at them and state, “You just haven’t found the right book yet.” That’s why independent reading is so important in my classroom. I need to give my students a chance to fall in love with reading, and that cannot happen with just whole class novels. But, what about those whole class novels? They shouldn’t just disappear completely, yet every year I find that there are always students that don’t read the novel, no matter how much I show them I love it and why they should too. Last year I asked one student why he didn’t read Of Mice and Men, and his response was, “It was boring, and you told me what I needed to know.” That hurt, but it made me think. How does a teenager of today connect with Of Mice and Men? More of my students enjoyed Romeo and Juliet because they could connect with the star-crossed teenage lovers. I knew I needed to find books my students could connect with, but I was still unsure of whether or not they would read it.

When searching through Amazon.com one day at the beginning of June, I found Ariel Sacks’s book Whole Novels for the Whole Class.

whole novels

I read countless reviews about it, and teachers said Sacks’s techniques were user-friendly, allowed for critical thinking, and most importantly, got students to READ! I was sold. I bought the book immediately and began reading it, and though I am only 140 or so pages into it, I have not been disappointed. Here is what I have taken away from it, so far. This is not everything, for my sticky notes dive in much deeper.

1. Sacks discusses the importance of choosing books that fit our students, as well as a theme. We teachers cannot just choose any book, no matter how much we may like it. Just because it is a “classic” doesn’t mean it is right for our teenage students. I immediately though of Of Mice and Men, for that book is a favorite of mine, but not many of my students. Also, I always thought students needed to read this book. It’s a classic! Now I plan to start this coming year with Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. The protagonist in Speak, Melinda, is beginning her freshmen year of high school after a horrific summer. My students are all freshmen, so there is a connection right there. Most of my students can connect with being nervous about entering high school too. Speak also hits upon the theme of not knowing one’s true identity, which is going to be my theme for the school year. So many freshmen don’t know who they are yet, and I want them to know that they are not alone.

2. Students WILL read a book if the teacher lets them do the thinking AND the talking. I asked myself what so many other teachers are probably thinking: “Will they actually read the book?” According to Sacks, positive expectations, a properly chosen book, authentic response, support, and holding students accountable will get them to read it. Sacks recommends that teachers take away the lengthy study guides and fight the urge to constantly dissect the text themselves, and then more students will be motivated to read and participate. This means the STUDENTS will be dissecting the text, and the STUDENTS will be leading the discussions. Of course the teacher may need to moderate, but more often than not he/she will be taking notes and asking students to explain their thoughts more. Teachers might also ask, “What are the students getting out of it?” For those teachers, Sacks outlines exactly what needs to be done in order to achieve the best results. After reading Chapter 3, I know that my students will be truly thinking about their reading as they go. They will create sticky notes about the “three ways of thinking.” They will learn to write literal, inferential, and critical notes (through mini-lessons), and once they are mastered, they can move on to notes about literary terms, the author’s style, and so much more. I have used sticky notes before, but not continuously so my students could master their purpose. These sticky notes will then be used in the discussions that come after the book is finished. (I haven’t gotten to the chapters that outline how to assign writing and projects, so more to come about that next time.)

I look forward to reading more of Sacks’s book in the coming week. Her ideas worked in her own classroom, as well as countless others. If you have read this book, or have taught novel units this way before, feel free to share!


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