Whole-Class Novels: To Teach, or Not To Teach?

return and talkThis summer, we’d like to return and talk about some of our most useful, engaging, or popular posts.  Today’s post, written by Jackie and Shana in 2015, asks us to consider why we teach whole-class novels, and what happens when we do–and don’t.

Please return to this topic and talk with us in the comments–how do you teach whole-class texts?  By choice?  By mandate?  What do you do to teach readers, not books?

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.

Over the next three days, we will post our insights and discussion we’ve had over the past week using Google Docs.  Please, join the conversation in the comments!

imagesQuestion 1: How did you decide to get rid of of whole class novels?

Jackie: Last year I was faced with a unique opportunity: the English Department voted to end popular College Preparatory Advanced Composition course.  Despite the well established curriculum, I tossed aside the typical whole class novels in favor of independent reading. As a primarily freshman English teacher, I am required to teach one Shakespeare play and To Kill A Mockingbird.  Advanced Composition gave me the opportunity to focus on smaller whole class reads and mentor texts within daily writing workshops without devoting whole units to one book.

Shana:  After six years of teaching, I wasn’t really sure why I felt compelled to teach whole-class novels.  Every year, when I picked up Catcher in the Rye, I dreaded my job.  I hated that book, and I had no idea how to get my students to love it or connect with it.  It felt like a chore to drag my students through “reading” that text (mostly they were SparkNoting it, sometimes with the assistance of their football coaches–true story).  I knew that not every student loved every novel that I did (particularly Their Eyes Were Watching God), and I knew that I didn’t love every novel my students read on their own (particularly everything by Nicholas Sparks).  I started to wonder–what would my teaching be like if I didn’t feel compelled to teach a whole-class novel…merely because I should?

Jackie: The eye opening experience for me was definitely during my first year of teaching.  I began integrating independent reading into my curriculum and I suddenly found out how many voracious readers I had in class.  My teaching was getting in the way of these students’ education! I like how Shana puts it–I also knew that my students didn’t love the novels I did (Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson) and in the end, if I gave them freedom, I too would learn much more about literature, reading, and teenagers.

Shana:  I like that Jackie mentions the issue of devoting whole units to a book–I loved having the freedom to design units of study that weren’t anchored around a novel, but rather a different genre.

Rye_catcherQuestion 2: What were the positives of having no whole class novels and what were the negatives?

Jackie:  After a year, I have found both positives and negatives to removing whole class novels.  Getting rid of whole class novels allowed me more time to focus on the positive aspects of the workshop model.  Naturally student choice led to easier student buy-in, and I spent less time convincing students of the value of reading.  As a result, we spent more time cracking apart smaller whole class reads like essays, poems, and articles and truly contemplating the author’s choices and craft.  Additionally, I liked that I could assess students and discuss their growth based on their own reading goals and progress.  

I have yet to find a solution to the “be on this page by this day” debacle that comes with teaching whole class novels.  Too often whole class novels lead to less differentiation and more stress, which can lead to the “gotcha” feel that comes with discussing larger, longer texts.  

That being said, there was a lot that I missed about having whole class novels.  Losing a longer common text meant that students didn’t have the common classroom experience of connecting over both the successes and frustrations of working through a complex text together.  I was surprised by how much students want to discuss their reading with classmates.  While reading can at times feel solitary and maybe even isolating during the actual act, in reality, reading complex texts is a communal activity that unites groups through a variety of perspectives, opinions, and interpretations.

Shana:  The positives were that I felt like my curriculum map was much more relaxed and flexible, in contrast to the years where I felt like I had to teach a minimum number of novels and “fit them in.”  I also loved seeing my students’ love of reading skyrocket as they engaged in choice and challenges on only an independent or small-group basis.

The negatives were more nebulous–I just felt like something was missing.  Our learners crave a challenge, and navigating a difficult novel is a challenge all readers relish if they have autonomy in their reading of that novel.  Reading a novel together provides an opportunity for me to create instruction that scaffolds a student’s reading skills up to the level of that novel, allowing them to participate in a reading experience they may not have been able to enjoy otherwise.

I also really missed being able to ascertain the barometer of a class’s feelings on a certain theme or issue through discussions of a complex text.  Crime and Punishment explores issues of morality, regret, and psychology in a far more complex way than “The Tell-Tale Heart” ever could, and although both stories have very similar themes, the novel lends itself to the sustenance of thought, evolution of a character, and length of a reading experience that I so craved for my students.  I also think that some reading skills specific to stamina, fluency, and automaticity cannot be practiced or taught effectively without a lengthy text, so I felt that last year, my students missed out on practicing those skills.

Jackie: While we both feel similar in the value of whole class novels , I know that neither of us would return to a set list of novels.  Whole class novels allow us to engage in common discussions but independent reading lays the groundwork for students’ stamina and confidence.  I don’t start my first round of literature circles until the second quarter because of this.  As much as students need a communal reading experience, I believe they first need a taste of independence and success.
Shana:  I still haven’t figured out the whole reading schedule thing either, nor how to create buy-in for every single student so that they autonomously, independently want to read a novel.  I struggle with the this-page-by-this-day conundrum, too, mostly because I feel like that creates a certain accountability that kids get hung up on, because it relates to the dreaded word GRADES. 

More of our discussion will follow tomorrow.  Be sure to join the conversation today in the comments!

Click here to read day two of our discussion.


2 thoughts on “Whole-Class Novels: To Teach, or Not To Teach?

  1. shanakarnes July 7, 2016 at 3:12 pm Reply

    That’s awesome! I wonder if your students indicated why they missed the whole-class reading experience–it’d be fascinating to hear their perspective.

    It seems like majority choice and minority group-mandated reading is a great balance in workshop classrooms!


  2. Erin July 6, 2016 at 12:11 pm Reply

    I switched to independent reading last year. By February, my students were *asking* to read a novel together. So I spent the long month of March doing a whole-class novel. I liked this balance. In my end of year surveys, students seemed to agree. They like doing a novel together, but not all the time. They really enjoyed being able to read what they liked a majority of the time too.


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