Ever since I read Ariel Sacks’s book Whole Novels for the Whole Class: A Student-Centered Approach over the summer, I have been anxiously waiting to try out her techniques in my classroom. The premise behind the book is that in order to encourage our students to read the books we assign to the whole class, we need to let them read the books at their own pace, and finish them, before beginning authentic discussions about them. I’ll admit that I was skeptical about the approach, but Sacks’s book showed me how to implement it properly and effectively. After reading it, I couldn’t wait to try it! Fast forward to today, and I am halfway through my whole class novel unit for Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Below is what I have tried in my classroom, as well as what I have learned from it so far:
1. Picking the right book is vital. Ariel Sacks talked about book choice being vital to the success of a whole class novel unit, and I completely agree. Students need a relatable book, so I decided to switch Of Mice and Men for Speak. I personally love Of Mice and Men, but some students find trouble connecting to grown men in rural California during the Great Depression. I chose Speak because the protagonist, Melinda Sordino, is just starting out her freshmen year of high school. My students are freshmen too, so right away there is a connection. The book is set in Syracuse, NY, and my students live just outside of Buffalo, NY, which is only two hours away. When it comes to the topic, I knew the girls in my classes would immediately be drawn in, but I also hoped the boys would enjoy it too. Melinda’s sarcastic tone and her negative opinion about school are obvious throughout the book, so I thought many boys might connect with that. I was right. Many students fell in love with the book right away, and others got into it once they heard their classmates talking about how great it is. I can count on one hand how many students have told me they dislike it, but with those students I had a conversation with them about the book. Two of them weren’t actually reading it, so I had them stay after school and use the audiobook to catch up with the reading. They now say it has helped a little. Another student told me he would be enjoying the book more if he understood it. He’s a struggling reader with a disability, so I told him he can always share his criticism with his class once he is finished. He liked that idea.
2. Students really will read a book on their own, but they have to be held accountable. Sacks mentioned that one of the questions she constantly get is whether or not the students will actually read on their own. Yes, they technically can. I say “technically” because a lot of rules and guidelines need to be put into place. First and foremost is finding the right book, but then comes the proper implementation. Like Sacks, I gave my students a book bag with a reading schedule to stick to, as well as guidelines for the sticky notes they need to complete. I require five sticky notes per reading section, and I went over what I expected to see in the sticky notes. I see my students for 60 minutes 4 out of 6 days, so that is 3-4 times per week, if it’s a five-day week. That means almost each day I see them they have about 20 minutes of reading time. During that reading time, I walk around and check their sticky notes. I admit that I must view them quickly in my larger classes, but in my co-teaching classes my co-teacher checks half the class while I check the other half. I thought about only checking half the class each time, but decided against that. I want my students to know that I will be checking their notes every time reading is due. Students that were behind with their reading tried to catch up once they saw this. Don’t get me wrong. I do have some students that are behind, but most of them were absent a few days and didn’t read during that time. I make myself available after school, so students are willing to catch up with me then. Another reason students are trying to keep up with the reading is because they are seeing they need to have knowledge of the book to participate in the class activities. For example, recently my students created conflict posters about the book. They really enjoyed it, but I had a few students struggling to participate in their groups. When I asked what was wrong, they said they didn’t know enough about the book to help. In the same breath, they then said they’d be trying to catch up with their reading over the weekend. I have also been talking up the class discussions that will be starting in about one week. Students know they cannot participate in them until they finish the book. Overall, I know that not every single student I have is keeping up with the reading schedule, but I will say I have A LOT more reading than ever before. I still need to figure out how to help some of my students with learning disabilities, for some of these students are the furthest behind. I have a few ideas though, so I will have to share how they go at the end of the unit.
3. Students are allowed to read ahead. Yes, I may have some reluctant readers in my classes, but I also have a ton of avid readers. Avid readers are the ones who normally cannot stand the typical whole novel units. They hate being told to stick with the class. I’ve had students tell me it took teachers over three months to read a whole book with a class before. That’s a lot of close reading for sure, but it can get boring. (I know this from my own awful experience of reading Great Expectations for 10 weeks in my 9th grade class. I had my fair share of naps in that unit!) In Sacks’s whole novel approach, students can read ahead, as long as they complete the required sticky notes. I had one student finish Speak the day I assigned it. She came in the following day with all of her sticky notes done. I had “seeker opportunities” ready for her to choose from, so now during reading time she is working on a book trailer for Speak. (Seeker opportunities are additional assignments students can receive credit for, but they are due by the day discussions begin.) If I add a new sticky note requirement, she just goes back and adds it in. I love giving this kind of freedom to my students, for now all students are reading at a pace they like, and all students are being challenged. Most importantly, they are enjoying reading more.
4. Independent reading doesn’t have to stop. I promote independent reading throughout the whole school year, and I don’t think that needs to stop during a whole class novel unit. My students are still reading their IR books during the first ten minutes of each class. Sure, some students are not reading as much of their IR book as they normally would, but I expected that. I even told my students that Speak is their first priority for now. I still, however, showed them that independent reading can be done too. I am modeling it myself. My students know I have my sticky notes for Speak, and that I am also currently enjoying Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave. I show them book trailers for IR books students have read earlier in the year. By still taking a few minutes here and there to promote IR, students are continuing to do it.
5. Study guides and reading quizzes are not necessary. I know that statement may shock many teachers, but it’s true. Reading over students’ sticky notes give me a much better idea of what they are getting, or not getting, in the book. Study guides can be copied. Quizzes can be faked. From what I have seen, sticky notes cannot be faked very well. Sure, I’ve had a few students test the waters. They write sticky notes like, “Melinda’s depressed” on page 105 when we knew that since page 10. They write random notes about a teacher being mean or what the new school mascot is. I’ve told students what I expect in their sticky notes, but I think some students were still hoping I wouldn’t read theirs. That’s why Sacks’s “language” and “theme/brainstorm” notes are so important. The students that have tried to “fake” their sticky notes always seem to leave those two requirements out. That’s a red flag for me, and means that it’s time for a conversation. When I have conversations with these students about the book, most often that’s when they prove to me they haven’t been keeping up with the reading. I make suggestions to help them get back on track, and many have started staying with me after school to read and make sure their sticky notes are up to par. I don’t think this progress would be happening if I didn’t use the sticky notes.
6. Reflection is key! As a teacher, I know I always need to reflect on how a unit is going. When I see problems, I know I need to make adjustments. One issue I had after a week or so of reading was that I noticed I was not getting my students to talk about the book enough. At the time, I knew the major discussions would come at the end of the book, but I forgot that my students would need quick little “check-ins” to keep them excited about the characters and plot. Since realizing this, I have incorporated more partner work, small group activities, and even independent writing that can then be shared with the whole class. When students talk about their favorite parts of a book, or what they are confusing about, it gets other students interested and wanting to participate. I know now that conversation is needed throughout an entire whole novel unit.
I still have another three weeks to go with my whole novel unit, but I am starting to see the results I was hoping for. My students will be finishing the book in about one week, and I cannot wait to start the main discussions! I’ll be sure to share how they went in Part II of this post.