This past summer Shana and Jackie found that we’d both taken on a unique experiment within some of our classes–we had decided to strip them of whole class novels and instead focus on independent reading, book clubs, and smaller whole-class texts. As workshop teachers confident in the power of choice reading, we each felt that this shift would be both empowering and inspiring within our classrooms. After our year of experimentation, we both left our classrooms with unique perspectives on the power of whole-class novels as well as how we would incorporate them moving forward.
Here is day two of our insights and discussion we’ve had over the past week using Google Docs (click here for day one). Please, join the conversation in the comments!
Jackie: At the beginning of the year, I felt like a rebel. The thought of not only allowing but also empowering students through independent reading went against the entire curriculum within our department. All of my colleagues taught whole class novels, which meant that none of my students had experienced the pure freedom of choice. That being said, three-quarters of the way through the year, I missed whole class novels. Despite having unique successes with the independent reading, my classes lacked the communal experiences of reading, discussing, and simply just enjoying (or sometimes hating) a novel together. By the end of the year, I found that both my students and I missed some components of reading whole class novels.
Shana: I reflected on my teaching after a year without whole-class novels (mind you, many novels were read through book clubs, literature circles, reading challenges, and independent reading), but I felt like the one thing that was lacking in all of my instruction was the idea of sustenance. I wasn’t seeing my students sustain an idea for an extended period, or grapple with an issue over time, or try to live with a topic for more than two drafts and three weeks. The case was the same in their reading and writing–I wanted them to have more length in their thought processes and I wanted us to engage in those long thought processes together.
Question 4: Why is teaching a whole-class novel valuable? More specifically, why do we do it, and what skills are taught?
Shana: I am not sure why I used to teach whole class novels, or, specifically, why I taught the novels I taught. I know that there were valuable instructional methods behind the way I taught them (thematic units, Socratic circles, exploratory essays), but I don’t know if I had a sound rationale behind the obligation I felt to actually teach multiple novels to all of my students.
After a year without them, though, I find that the collective classroom experience of reading, interpreting, and discussing a novel produces a route for a unique connection to a text that cannot be achieved without reading as a group. I missed the experience of coming to a new, shared understanding of a text as a whole class, and I felt that my students missed out on that experience as well. I don’t believe that when I read plays independently in my undergraduate Shakespeare capstone that I would have comprehended, connected to, or engaged as passionately with those plays alone as much as I did through our frequent in-class discussions, activities, and writings. I don’t want my students to miss out on that experience either.
Jackie: This year I am teaching AP Literature for the first time. I took the challenge believing that this new course would be somewhat of a paradigm shift for me compared to my contemporary-lit based freshman English class. The more I prepared, the more I yearned to discuss my thoughts, questions, and analyses of texts. I went so far as to ask everyone around me to read these canonical classics and discuss them with me. Preparing to teach AP Lit reinforced the social significance of reading literature. At its base, dissecting stories as a group is interesting and engaging. Beating the crap out of them is not. I agree with you, Shana, in that the experience of sharing a text is one of the blessings of being in an English classroom. Once students graduate from high school, they rarely have the opportunity to interact with texts in a classroom setting.
Shana: I love that the way you prepared to teach was to ask friends to read books with you, then discuss them. You engaged in an authentic book club there, as I know you have your students do now.
More of our discussion will follow tomorrow. Be sure to join the conversation today in the comments!