Ideas don’t sneak up on me. They hit me from just beyond my peripheral vision like a swift backhand to the kneecap. I can’t possibly go on as I had been only moments before. The ideas explode onto my consciousness, and then my to-do list, and then leap onto my calendar, and then to most of my waking moments until I actually do something about them, or surgically remove them somehow from my obsessive brain.
Translation: I had been happily proceeding about my merry workshop way with the start of the second semester, until this weekend when I met Kate Roberts from The Educator Collaborative via her recent blog post “The Healthy Skeptic.”
And now I can’t stop thinking about whole class novels. Or the brilliance of Kate Roberts. Or whole class novels. Or nostalgically gazing in the rearview mirror of my career at some whole class novels.
However, it would be disingenuous of me to paint my work with whole class novels, even The Scarlet Letter, with rose-colored glasses (Sorry. Hester has enough to deal with. I shouldn’t try to make this punny). Self-reflection and engaging students in honest dialogue, often reveals that my students, like most students, were experts in the art of fake reading. We were experiencing texts together, in many cases for far too many weeks at a stretch, but few were reading.
So while the merit of the texts in and of themselves might be harder to shake, it was easy to admit that the value to my students was relatively low in comparison to the amount of time we took, form writing we constructed, and smiling/nodding (on a good day) that was had.
I wasn’t teaching the readers, that’s for certain. And if students aren’t reading, I’m not really teaching reading either. We’re unnaturally drawing out the process for avid readers at best, turning young people off to or supporting preexisting negative feelings about reading at worst, and going through the motions far more often than our nation’s tenuous relationship with literacy can afford.
Yesterday, I found myself in a nearby district sitting around a huge conference table with two administrators, one reading specialist, and a dozen or so high school English teachers. I had been asked to come in and talk about Franklin’s experiences with high school workshop as this department weighs their options in moving forward with balanced literacy, daily practice, and all the options to start parting ways with traditional, and explore the unknown. This group of educators had incredible questions, a healthy amount of skepticism I think, and most importantly, a sincere desire to do right by their students.
We talked a lot about the nonnegotiables of workshop, considerations when structuring daily lessons, the difference between engagement and compliance, fake reading, assessment, classroom libraries, and the notion that teaching students to be English teachers leaves far too many students on the sidelines, nodding along or possibly disengaging from reading once and for all.
Mostly we talked about control. How hard it is to let go. How necessary it is to work to balance the power in your classroom. How creating a “reading love fest” as one cross-armed gentleman yesterday suggested, really is the best way I have found to get kids seriously, joyously, consistently reading. Is it a personal savior for every single kid? Sadly, no. Does it solve some problems and create countless more, absolutely. But here is the bottom line in my book: Letting go of some control to hand it over responsibly to the students whose education we are entrusted to support is one giant step toward getting our students to value that education that so many take for granted, can’t afford to really embrace, or think they don’t need for one societal reason or another.
Letting go of some control and embracing the very specific needs of the students can come in many forms. Right now, I’m thinking about how it might impact the selection of a whole class novel.
This needs to look different and it must be intentional in every class, and my estimation of what my students need is only going to take me so far. Selection of a whole class text must serve the purposes of addressing the specific needs of the students in front of me.
My ninth grade teachers know, from speaking directly with their students, that most read, but don’t necessarily challenge themselves. Additionally, many have had longer texts read to them (excellent!) but have rarely finished a longer piece independently (not good!). In this case, the team feels that starting the year with a pointedly chosen whole class text is needed to really help students see what they can be looking for, thinking toward, and discovering when they read on their own. Many simply don’t have that skill developed deeply enough yet, to really do the type of critical thinking we’re asking them to do. And if that’s the case, the changes that their skills will develop independently are markedly lessened.
At the upper levels, I now have students who have been working in the workshop for over a year. As evidenced by students with books across campus, there is more reading happening now than in years past. However, the push toward challenge is spotty and in some cases, the real depth of understanding when challenge is pursued seems even spottier. In this case, our AP Language classes are considering using Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates to not only tackle some recent unrest in our own school community but to work carefully together to analyze author craft across the main ideas of this dynamic text.
The key is to choose with purpose. To invite student input into that choice. To spend a reasonable amount of time working with the text (3-4 weeks is a general recommendation based on my recent experience and the advice of those far more seasoned than I). To have student-centered goals in mind. To celebrate the text without covering every inch of it, and possibly killing the book AND a student’s hope of becoming a reader in the process.
Our students deserve what our careful analysis of their needs would suggest we best use our limited class time for. The unifying study of a text can be just such an activity. Your professionalism, the unique make-up of your classroom, and the social events/factors that should drive national discourse – these are some of the most important factors in selecting any curriculum; however, the goal should always be the same. We want our students to value the power that comes with better understanding the human experience. Powerful books can take us there. Let’s read them together.
Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her personal mission statement is a work in progress but needs to involve equal parts readers, writers, thinkers, believers, and dreamers. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum.