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

I read a lot of educational research. I enjoy it, for I love to learn. I know its importance in my growth as an English teacher, as well as how it will then benefit my students. At the end of the 2013-2014 school year, I had a plan to read 5-6 different books over the summer about topics such as writing workshop, struggling readers, vocabulary study, and close reading. As I finished up Ariel Sacks’s book Whole Novels for the Whole Class two days ago, I decided that this book–the second of two research-based books I read this summer–would be the last one. Why? One reason for this decision is that in past summers, reading 5-6 books always overwhelmed me. I thought I had millions of changes to make every year. Today I made a promise to myself that I would not become that stressed this time around. Another, and more important, reason is that I don’t think I need to read anything else. I believe in the methods I learned from Sacks’s book; she effectively made her point that the whole novel approach is the way to go. Therefore, my energy will be spent preparing myself, and my students, for this new approach. In my previous post about whole novels, I mentioned that choosing the proper literature and taking the student-centered approach are two keys to success. I now have more to add to that:

1. There is always an opportunity to write. By keeping a close eye on what students discuss, I can look for topics that they struggle with, or have conflicting opinions about, and then have them take their ideas one step further by writing about it. This could start out being a simple journal for a homework assignment, or it could end up becoming one of many questions for a literary essay. Students will be studying the author’s style, and then they can “copy” it for a creative writing piece about their own lives. (Sacks described some of the assignments she created, including vignettes students wrote after The House On Mango Street, as well as poems similar to those in Bronx Masquerade.) These creative writing pieces can lead smoothly into a writing workshop unit.

2. Students are held accountable. An organized teacher can lead to an organized classroom. Sure I may be the one creating the materials and layout of the classroom, but beyond that the students are doing the work. They will receive an organized reading schedule and guidelines to stick to, so there should be no reason why the book is not finished on time. If a few students don’t finish by the scheduled date, discussions will start without them. The discussion itself will be a motivator for those students, for they will be allowed to join when they finish the book. Sticky notes will be checked during in-class reading time, and that will also be a great chunk of time for me to confer with students about the content of the sticky notes. Those conferences will show me my students’ thinking, and I will be able to give additional support to those that need it. Before students finish the book, they will participate in mini-projects about various topics that connect to the book. One mini-project might be based on analyzing the changes a character goes through, and another might looking for patterns to find themes. Through all of these conferences, discussions, and mini-projects, I will know whether or not the students are reading. It will be impossible not to!

3. Whole novels can be used in co-taught classes. There are SO many ways to modify and challenge ALL students in a whole novels unit. I loved that Sacks devoted a whole chapter (Chapter 8) to differentiating instruction for students with IEPs and 504s, as well as advanced readers (see #4 below). Sacks shared how her own co-teachers felt about whole novels, with one mentioning that he loved whole novels because “…kids, especially with learning disabilities, to go at their own pace and access the book in a way that works for them…” (254). Students can share their reading process with one another, thus helping their classmates learn new techniques to use with struggling with the reading. Teenagers are much more willing to take advice from peers than from adults, so these conversations will be an integral part of my class “check-ins.” Throughout the past 12 years, I have learned to diagnose when students are reading and when they are not. I’ve gotten pretty good at it, but Sacks’s in-depth conferences with her students gave me even more “ammunition.” These descriptions of her conferences will be beneficial to new teachers, or really anyone struggling to tell if a student is reading and comprehending the text. Other techniques such as rereading, partner reading, and parallel tasks can all be woven in.

4. Advanced readers will receive “seeker opportunities.” I always have at least 1-2 students in every class who read quickly. I love that the whole novel approach allows for these advanced readers to earn credit for doing more work (not extra credit). They will be able to read other books that connect to the topic of the whole novel book, as well as begin writing more in-depth sticky notes. I also plan to allow my advanced readers to make their own suggestions for what they could create after they complete the book. Sacks did this, and the results were astounding! I have never been a fan of book reviews, but one of Sacks’s students made the most amazing book review I have ever seen, and I teach high school students (see Appendix F). This one review analyzed the setting, plot, characters and their development, conflicts, minor conflicts, themes, writing style, and “level of thinking” all in one review! Now I am just as excited to use the whole novel approach with my Honors class as I am with my Regents and co-taught classes!

After reading Ariel Sacks’s book Whole Novels for the Whole Class, I have to say I feel cheated. I should have known about whole novels when I first became a teacher 12 years ago. Why didn’t any of my professors at UB know about the whole novel approach? I will say, however, I was pleased to see that some of what Sacks does I already do. I have an extensive classroom library, and I incorporate independent reading throughout the entire school year. My writing workshop units sound similar to some of the creative writing activities Sacks uses in her classroom. But, I have never allowed my students to read the whole book before discussing it. I look forward to changing that this year, and I cannot wait to share how the first unit goes!

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One thought on “Whole Novels: A New(er) Approach to Teaching Literature – Part II

  1. Pingback: An Author & Her Readers Create Community Online | MiddleWeb

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