#FridayReads: Whole-Class Novels to Teach, and How to Frame Them

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.

Today is the third and final installment of our week-long discussion using Google Docs.  Please, join the conversation in the comments!

41Cx8mY2UNL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Question 6: How is it different to be forced to teach a certain novel versus to be able to choose the ones you teach?

Jackie: I will readily admit that I am “forced” to teach To Kill A Mockingbird and Macbeth at the freshman level.  That being said, I love teaching both of them and am fortunate that my students respond well to both pieces.  The challenges are certainly different though.  I must create student buy-in or else my students will drag through the next four to six weeks of our unit.  I frame each lesson to fit their needs and I make sure to fit the book into a workshop structure the best I can to create consistency.

I do believe that teachers must have a choice in what they teach, though.  We must be allowed to tailor our lessons to fit the needs of our students.  Independent reading allows us to understand our students as readers and individuals, which in turn, allows us to further assess what books our students might connect with best.  Fortunately for me, the freshman team I work on is progressive and forward-thinking.  They’re always willing to try new things, which oftentimes involves integrating contemporary works.

Shana:  This summer in Tom Newkirk’s class, he innocently posed this question to our class:  “Why is the defining novel about race in our country written by a white woman?”  He was referring to To Kill a Mockingbird, of course, as many of us were discussing its lately-released sequel.  That question, so casually tossed into our midst, made me think about why the canonized novels taught in schools are often so heavily prescripted.  Why does Harper Lee have a voice of authority about being black in America?  Why do my rural students need to read a particular story about race?  I know why it’s important to read stories about people different than us–I would argue that it’s essential to building empathy and a broader worldview to read widely–but why does Harper Lee hold the monopoly on that topic, and not someone like Toni Morrison or Zora Neale Hurston?

As usual, I have raised more questions than I’ve even attempted to answer, but I’m still not sure of the correct solutions.  I think it’s preposterous to have a rote schedule of “books to teach” for all teachers in a school when it’s blatantly obvious that the community of every classroom is different, which means the culture of its students is always unique, which means that no child ever needs the same book at the same time.

Jackie: It’s funny that you bring up Tom Newkirk’s question.  As I was sitting next to you, I had one of those hide-your-face-moments when I thought, “Oh geez, I teach To Kill A Mockingbird!”  As I said earlier, I am required to teach this book, and while I love it, it does not meet the needs of all of my students.  Teaching in New Hampshire, I have a predominantly white population.  This means that their understanding of race relations and their exposure to diverse literature is rather whitewashed.  We desperately need new, diverse voices to help our students understand and empathize with a variety of individuals.  The precious few books we read together should be based on the needs and interests of our students instead of being dictated by a one-size-fits-all approach.

Question 4: What is the most effective way to frame a whole-class novel and create student buy-in?

Jackie: At the beginning of the school year I discuss the different types of reading we encounter as lifelong students.  I explain that, as a reader, I read for pleasure as well as for knowledge.  Oftentimes those two paths can and may cross, but typically my personal reading life looks drastically different from my professional reading life.  I love pouring through popular YA lit, but in the same breath, I can’t get enough of dissecting poetry with my AP Literature class.

This same pattern applies to my students’ reading within our classroom.  As a class we must learn to maintain a fruitful and engaging personal reading life that allows us to not only learn from our literature but to also explore our own interests and passions.  That being said, we mustn’t overlook the power of dissecting and discussing language and craft as a class.  Reading whole class novels reinforces the fact that no two people read a book the same way.

Shana:  If choice is the golden guide to teaching of reading, then I think the culture of a classroom must dictate the novel we read.  While A Raisin in the Sun was immensely popular in my inner-city Cincinnati classroom, it completely flopped here in West Virginia when I tried to teach it.  The inverse is true of Huck Finn; wildly successful in WV, but a total fail in Ohio.  Thus, I seek to hear the themes my students return to again and in again in their writing and conversations–this year, we are engaged in many discussions about political rhetoric, the origin of power, and the struggle that class/social/financial/ethnic differences create.  Thus, I’ll seek out novels that explore those themes to help us engage with them more fully.

In closing, we leave you with a list of the most successful whole class novels we have taught as well as a list of the books we would teach our current students if given the opportunity.

Most successful novels I taught, from Shana:28c4d1f2e8d048f702c3dbf0990aca8c

A Separate Peace by John Knowles

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

What I’d love to teach, based on my current students, from Shana:

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

Boy21 by Matthew Quick

Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Most successful novels I taught, from Jackie…(you’ll notice some repeats):51BWES5VL2L

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (read aloud and performed as a play)

On Writing by Stephen King

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

What I’d love to teach, based on my current students, from Jackie:

Sold by Patricia McCormick

Here, Bullet by Brian Turner

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Be sure to join the conversation today in the comments! We would love to hear your perspective on whole class novels and how you incorporate them into your classroom.

Click here to read day two of our conversation.

Click here to read day one of our conversation.


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3 thoughts on “#FridayReads: Whole-Class Novels to Teach, and How to Frame Them

  1. […] notebooks through a shared bit of reading.  Early in the year, we’d just finished reading a selection from Fahrenheit 451 about halfway through the novel, and were all intrigued by what in the world was going on with the […]


  2. Erin Madigan October 17, 2015 at 11:42 am Reply

    I absolutely LOVE teaching Sold by Patricia McCormick as well! I use it as a transition from short story/choice novels through the fall and winter into poetry in the spring. My students don’t even realize that they are reading, understanding, and enjoying poetry until we’re about halfway through the novel. And my students really respond to it. Once we get to the part in which Lakshmi is sexually assaulted for the first time, they always ask when the story takes places and are shocked to learn that it is, essentially, present time.

    I also loved the book Boy21. I couldn’t put it down when I read it this past summer. I have been talking it up in book talks and recommendations to my students but have yet to have any students borrow it to read! I haven’t thought of doing it as a whole-class book.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Alan Frager October 16, 2015 at 10:37 am Reply

    Regarding teachers choosing books it is important to remember that the curriculum needs to be responsive to the community not just the students in your classroom. That is why each school district has a curriculum director and an elected Board of Education. Teachers generally need to be more active participants in the district curriculum decision-making process. Too often districts make curriculum decisions without involving teachers and teachers just complain about it (or ignore the decisions) instead of getting involved.

    Liked by 1 person

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