When I last shared about my first experience with the whole novel approach, I was in the middle of my Speak unit with my 9th graders. At the time, I loved the approach, and was pleased with the results I was seeing overall. I thought I would try the approach again, and had some modifications that I was already noting that I needed. It was the second half of my unit, however, that made me see how truly amazing this approach is.
During the second half of my unit, I tried and learned the following:
1. Students can be challenged; the Common Core standards can still be met. I’ve met a little resistance during this first whole novel unit. Other educators were unsure of how successful this unit would be, for they didn’t think I could challenge my students if I was not quizzing them on the reading content or handing them a daily study guide. Though I already have some changes I’d make during the independent reading portion of this unit, I can honestly say that I believe I was able to challenge my students more than any other class novel unit I’ve ever taught. For example, instead of giving students themes to find in Speak, I helped them learn how to find themes on their own using the reoccurring topics on their theme/brainstorm sticky notes. (See the activity here: Mini-Project – Theme) It was difficult for my students, for theme is a topic that I find is always something that students struggle with, no matter the grade level. They did it though, and many students did it quite well. Modifications were needed for some of my students with learning disabilities, but they were still able to create their own themes. In Ariel Sacks’s book, she shares activities to find conflicts, assess the change in characters, along with many other topics that are important when studying literature. I also created a few of my own. Now the that New York State Regents exam in 11th grade requires students to use multiple sources and write a persuasive research paper about a certain topic using three out of four texts, I incorporated that skill into my unit, but at a 9th grade level. At one point, students were given a short news article, as well as an excerpt from Speak, and they had to make connections between the two pieces. Students also practiced this same skill with two or three excerpts from Speak. By the end of the book, I was SO proud of all that my students accomplished. All of these activities allowed for students to analyze the text(s) on their own, though sometimes they got to work with a partner or in small groups. I was there so they could ask questions about the directions and/or the process, but they did it themselves, and that was important to me.
2. Discussions are the heart of whole novel units. Though I was immensely proud of how well my students were doing with analyzing the text while reading, it wasn’t until we started the discussions that I truly got to see them dig into literature analysis. The discussions went differently in each class. Because of snow days, my Honors class started with a whole class discussion, and then their remaining three discussions were in smaller groups. (Half the students would be working on an independent task, while the other group participated in the discussion.) I liked the smaller discussion groups, for students felt more comfortable, and it gave them more of an opportunity to make sure their voices were heard. In my Regents level class and my two Regents co-teaching classes, we started with smaller groups the very first time. The first discussion for all classes was a “surface-level” discussion. Students shared their gut reactions to the book, as well as initial observations, opinions, and questions they had. I stayed in back of the groups and acted as a moderator. I also typed what they were saying in a “transcript,” though I apologized in advance, saying I probably wouldn’t get everything they said word-for-word. These transcripts helped all of us remember what was said in each discussion, for I gave students copies of them at the beginning of the next discussion. In order for the discussions to go smoothly, I went over the discussion “rules,” and kept them up on my SMARTboard during the discussion so students could reference them. I also put helpful “sentence starters” on their desks, so that way they could share their ideas in a respectful manner. During the first discussion, I had to remind a few students of the rules, but they soon picked them up quickly. If students needed to explain their ideas more, I interjected and asked them to. If students simply repeated an idea that was already said previously, I asked them to put their own spin on it or explain further. In the second and third discussion, we dove deeper into Speak. Students were required to support their ideas with textual evidence, so they had to use their sticky notes and the novel to prove their points. These discussions went a little slower, for the students needed to take the time to find the textual evidence. I was extremely impressed with these discussions! My students really stepped it up! In the second discussion, a few students saw that their ideas that worked in the first discussion now needed more support from the text. (A few students even admitted to me that they wished they read more carefully, or wrote more sticky notes. I told them this is a lesson they learned for the next whole novel unit. Some students did go back and reread parts.) Students not only discussed challenging topics like the writer’s style, symbolism, themes, and the choices characters made, but they also got into a few debates about them, going back and forth trying to prove why their opinion was correct. (Here is a transcript from one of my Regents level classes: Period 3 – Group 1 Day 3.) I was quite impressed at how well they made inferences and explained their ideas without my assistance. They came up with some ideas that I never thought about myself, and they also mentioned many topics I was worried they would not hit on. In the fourth and final discussion, I encouraged my students to connect the reoccurring topics in Speak to current and historical events. They did amazingly well with this. Connections were made to Bill Cosby, the Holocaust, Ferguson, and many other events. I loved how well these discussions turned out. I learned more about what each student got out of the book than I ever could have thought possible. I’d say well over three quarters of my students proved how well they understood and thought about Speak, while others realized they will have to work harder the during the next unit. (One student even admitted he “faked” reading the book, hoping that he could learn from class discussions. When he saw that those discussions were not truly happening until after the book was finished, he started staying after school with me to start the book over again. He did eventually finish, and only missed one discussion.) Once we were done with the discussions, both the students and I were sad to see them go. Many students told me how much fun they were, and they couldn’t wait for the next unit. I felt the same way!
3. Strong discussions lead to strong writing. After the discussions concluded, students prepared for the final essay test. Using the transcripts I typed up, I found topics that we discussed thoroughly and turned them into essay questions. Students chose from five different questions, and, using the Step Up to Writing method they learned at the beginning of the school year, they wrote organized, developed essays. I haven’t finished grading all of them–that’s what Winter Break is for–but I am impressed with the explanation I am seeing. In previous class novel units, I recall students writing essays that used some of the same wording I used in our class discussions. That’s because I led and participated in those discussions. Now I am seeing authentic student responses and explanation. They found their own quotes to prove their own points, and, from what I have seen so far, they are proving them well. In my Honors class, they also wrote a creative writing assignment, which they thoroughly enjoyed. My students studied the writing techniques Laurie Halse Anderson used in Speak, and then tried to “copy” those techniques in their own creative piece. Very impressive!
I really cannot say enough about Ariel Sacks’s Whole Novels for the Whole Class. When I originally found Sacks’s book, I was searching for new ways to invigorate my current units. I wasn’t happy with them, for I was doing much of the work in discussions and activities. Now I will never go back to those old activities and teaching methods, for I saw the added benefits of using Sacks’s. I loved that I could challenge my students, but also allow them to read at a pace that suited them. I saw discussions take a positive turn, and writing assignments were developed more. Most importantly, students seemed to enjoy this unit more than in years past. I’m also excited to try whole novels again later in the school year with William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. I know using a Shakespearean play will be different from using a novel like Speak, but I know it can be done. Time to start planning!