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Assigned Reading often Fails where Choice Reading Soars

Sometimes things just hit me wrong. A joke that’s more cutting than cute. A meeting where complaining is the conversation. A book that gets ruined in the rain. A comment on social media that shows we are ignorant or arrogant or just right out rude.

I get asked often about whole class novels. If you’ve read this blog awhile, you know I am not a fan, not a fan in the traditional teacher-makes-all-the-choices-and-all-students-read-the-same-book-at-the-same-speed kind of fan. I do think there’s a place for a shared novel experience. I also think there’s a place for a lot more conversation about the pros and cons of it.

If you read the posts in the NCTE Connected Community Teaching and Learning Forum, perhaps you saw this one Whole Class Novel Studies, which began with this request for help:

Wholeclassnovel

This teacher shares a legitimate concern. I would imagine that most of us who reflect upon our practice and want to do what’s best for students have at some point shared this struggle.

Those of us who read Penny Kittle’s Book Love (or perhaps we came to similar conclusions on our own) understand that every room of readers means many readers reading at a variety of reading rates. And we know it’s not just because students aren’t interested, are too busy, seem apathetic. It just makes sense:  students will be at “different places in their books” because students are all different.

We keep trying to make them all the same.

In response to this teacher’s query, four very helpful teachers shared what works for them. There are some good ideas here. Then, this response, which made my head nod:

Wholeclassnovel2

Followed by this one, which…well, you’ll see:

Wholeclassnovel3

Did a professional just dis another professional? Did a curriculum designer and educator on a public ELA forum just dis Dick Allington, one of the lead researchers on reading acquisition and best practices in literacy instruction?

This is just wrong. Wrong on many levels.

Now, I know that Mr. Allington was being sly in his comment here. He wanted to furrow some foreheads and force some frowns. I’m sure. And it worked to instigate some important discussion, which many of us would like to see more often.

One person commented from the perspective of a parent:

“When my son received the summer reading list to prepare for his first year in high school, Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club topped the list. Being the rule follower I am, I forced that copious and joyful reader to trudge through that text. He didn’t read a thing in English class for the next four years. A brilliant reader and thinker, totally disenfranchised. As Allington said, he didn’t read the text.

“…the abusive pedagogy of the whole class novel described here is oppressive and culturally irresponsible. Sure, there are strategies that teachers can employ that mediate the boredom and disengagement. There are methods that utilize a whole class novel as a shared or mentor text and as a model for instruction or springboard for discourse. And there are a few teachers that can engage the readers throughout a methodical plodding through a classic text. But the question remains: what exactly is taught with the whole class novel? Are you teaching the novel itself? The habits of mind to diffuse any text? Or the student? When do they do their own thinking, independent practice, with influential and engaging texts?”

Shona, you won my heart. My four sons were very similar to yours. All avid readers but not when it came to reading for school.

Yetta wrote this comment:

“Richard Allington is raising a very important curricular issue.  Why should readers only read books chosen by other folks? Self selection of books is a concept that needs to be part of every class concerned with reading development including fiction and non fiction.

Book clubs, reading discussion groups, etc. are organized by many teachers to involve and support students with self selection of reading materials.”

Followed by Yvonne:  “Self-selection works. I was/am always surprised by what students choose to read. Students  amaze me.”

LeslieandYoly

Leslie and Yoly with their favorite reads of the fall

Me, too. And students will read more when they have choice. When we couple volume with instructional practices that teach students what readers do when they get stumped or confused or even bored, using mini-lessons and shorter whole class texts, we help students learn how to navigate and improve their own reading lives.

Shona continues, quoting from the work of Louise Rosenblatt, a researcher who has shaped much of my work:

“A history of the teaching of English (Applebee, 1974, 1996) reports in all periods dissatisfaction at the lack of success in achieving the humanistic goals of literature teaching that school profess and the failure to understand that the traditional approach conflicts with these aims. Literature is treated as primarily a body of knowledge about literary works rather than as a series of experiences. To produce readers capable of critically evoking literary works for themselves and deriving the pleasures and insights claimed for literary study evidently requires different methods and a different educational climate from the from the traditional teacher-dominated explication of literary texts” (p. 71).”

Think about this for a second:  What does Rosenblatt mean by a “series of experiences”? Ones the teacher carefully crafts through engaging and interesting novel studies, or experiences each student knows how to create for him or herself

Reading in English classes cannot be about the books. Reading in English classes must be about the readers. 

I know what some may say. I’ve heard it a lot:  “But I loved English is high school. I read every book. I wrote every paper on every book. I enjoyed the discussion around those books. That’s why I wanted to become a teacher.”

Yes, I know. Me, too. And you know what (and this is embarrassing to admit):  It wasn’t until I was a teacher myself, dragging sophomores through To Kill A Mockingbird in 1st through 3rd period and juniors through The Scarlet Letter in 6th and 7th when I had this epiphany:  “There are some students who are so different than I was when I was in school. They don’t read. They don’t do their homework.”

How naive. How sad that I was so unprepared for the readers I would face in my classroom.

In Lisa’s post last week, among other things, these few sentences rang true for me, too: “Students bought any books they needed for independent reading, and I happily progressed with assigning reading, providing study guides, giving content quizzes, lather, rinse, repeat. This is what I knew. This is what I had experienced myself. This is how I was taught to teach.”

Assigning reading

Providing study guides

Giving content quizzes

For the first three years of my career, this is how I taught, too. I thought I was supposed to teach great literature — and then test on it — instead of helping students become readers who engage with great literature.

I believe we can do both. I believe when we keep the student — his abilities and needs, her interests and desires — as the pilot of our pedagogy, we can do both.

the quiet table reads

My quiet table — readers all.

I know you can click on that link at the top of this post and read the thread on the NCTE forum about whole class novels. I hope you do. In case you don’t, I’ll quote a bit of what Dr. Paul Thomas wrote:

“Teaching ELA/English involves a unique (compared to other disciplines, although somewhat shares by math) tension between our obligations to teaching disciplinary content (knowledge such as Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby as a part of American literature) and also literacy skills . . .

“And thus many high school teachers become trapped in teaching, for example, The Scarlet Letter to make students experts on that specific novel and/or the work of Hawthorne, all as part of gaining so-called cultural knowledge of American literature.

“In that pursuit, often the process negatively impacts students’ eagerness, joy in reading and writing because, as Yetta and others have noted, assigned reading often fails where choice reading soars.

I appreciate Dr. Thomas delineating disciplinary content and literacy skills in such a way. Perhaps this distinction is at the core of the tension between what often seems like two sides of our field: #teamstudentchoice and #teamteachercontrol.

Dr. Thomas goes on to caution against “demonizing” those who choose one approach over the other, and this is where, I’ll be honest, I might be a bit like Screwtape, except in a good way.

My writers and I hold fast to our tag line:  Mentors with Insights, Ideas, and Resources for Secondary Readers & Writers Workshop. We write this blog to encourage others to take a chance on choice, to share student reflections and accomplishments, to promote current books and diverse authors, to show how choice works, and research matters. And sometimes it’s hard to not speak up and speak out a whole lot more.

This semester I have this amazing student teacher. (Anyone in north TX hiring?) He’s brilliant, proactive, a natural. He “gets” our students, and they love him. Throughout the fall semester, Joseph observed my classroom. After “hello” the first thing Joseph said to me was “I have never been in an English class like this. I was so bored with English is high school.” Joseph has stepped right into a workshop pedagogy and embraced its benefits, as a student and as a teacher.

But I share Joseph with a teacher down the hall. He joins her each afternoon and mostly watches as she assigns reading, provides study guides, and gives content quizzes. Heavy boots walk back to my classroom every single day.

And this makes crazy.

We can do so much more. We owe our students so much more.

 

Maybe we can help each other out:  How do you have critical conversations about choice and workshop and the wonders of books with your colleagues? Please share in the comments.

 

For more from Dr. Thomas see his post “We Teach English” Revisited. For more on the research around student learning and choice, see Rosenblatt, Krashen, Allington, LaBrant, and this post on Donalyn Miller’s blog.

 

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 to the Fighting Farmers at Lewisville High School. She adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus Christ: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all love more than we think we can. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

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9 thoughts on “Assigned Reading often Fails where Choice Reading Soars

  1. […] we focus on teaching a book instead of teaching the reader/writer, we can often get bogged down. I am in no way saying this is you, but it is a whole lot of teachers on my own campus and in […]

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  2. […] said she never liked English until she had choice.  She also said she wanted to do more talking about books in a way that connected with her […]

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  3. Elizabeth Oosterheert March 22, 2017 at 2:17 am Reply

    Hi Amy,

    Thank you SO much for this beautiful, insightful post. I’ve been observing and reading about the whole class novel debate as it has raged on among English teachers, and I agree with Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle that the best approach involves a balance of independent reading, reading in book clubs, and whole class texts. I am reading The Outsiders right now with a class of seventh graders made up of about 90% boys, and they LOVE experiencing that book together. However, that being said, I agree wholeheartedly with you when you say that we can’t teach whole class novels in the traditional sense-the way that most of us were taught when we were the middle school and high school students.

    I wish I could be part of your classroom! I am the only teacher in my building that is trying a workshop approach, and I would be so honored to work with other teachers who are implementing a literature workshop.
    Thanks again for your post!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jessica Paxson March 22, 2017 at 6:40 am Reply

      Hi there, Elizabeth! I, too, am a loner in my building! Feel free to reach out if you need support/encouragement! We are fighting the good fight. I’m @jessjordana on all social media and my email address is jessica.gobble12@gmail.com

      Keep up the great work.

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  4. mrsturnerblog March 21, 2017 at 9:57 pm Reply

    I’ve been reading and thinking and working. I changed my approach last year (and continued this year) to run whole class novels as if they were book clubs, and that was a good fix. I’m being pulled towards a full workshop model, but I’m struggling with what exactly that would look like and how to implement it. Could you suggest some good resources? I’d love to do some PD on it this summer, too. Ideas? 😊

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  5. Diane Bennett March 21, 2017 at 4:25 pm Reply

    Somewhat new to your blog…what are you doing in your classroom?

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    • Amy Rasmussen March 22, 2017 at 10:58 am Reply

      My first step into workshop was running whole class novels as if they were book clubs, too. This taught me a lot about how students interact with one another and talk about books — or not. The next step was giving students a choice between two books, then four. As I’ve grown more confident in my ability to help readers develop skills, over teaching a specific novel, I’ve seen a shift in what used to be my teacher centered classroom to a student centered one. In my class now, we do choice independent reading, book clubs, and many many short whole class texts together.

      Regarding PD — Where do you live, Mrs. Turner? If you are close to north Texas in June, the NTCTELA one-day conference is awesome. We have Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher coming — both deliver the most excellent workshop training! http://www.ntctela.org/conference

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  6. Amy Estersohn March 21, 2017 at 4:08 pm Reply

    You can argue that there’s a false dichotomy between whole class novels and free choice reading. The last I checked in with Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher on this one, both had some whole class novels in the curriculum.

    However, I believe independent reading is a prerequisite for being able to enjoy, interpret, and understand whole class novels.

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    • Amy Rasmussen March 21, 2017 at 4:43 pm Reply

      See, Amy, here’s the thing: I think there is a difference between free choice reading and independent reading, where we use students’ choice books as mentors to further reading and writing skills — not just, although important, to experience the joys of reading. Therefore, a face off with whole class novels and student selected books becomes a real bone of contention among some camps.

      And nowhere do I state that whole class novels are a bad idea, depending on how often and the instruction around them — I just do not mandate them like I used to.

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