Tag Archives: novels

Thinking Differently to Do More Thinking

I think most teachers would agree, no matter our content, our number one goal is to help students develop as critical thinkers. And in a world where technology rules much of their lives, impatience governs their actions, and emotions overcrowd the adolescent brain, this can be daunting.

We must keep trying.

Every day we see see headlines spouting fake news, and more and more we see headlines shouting “This news is fake.” We see sites on how to spot fake news, and analyze fake news. We have access to lessons on fake news — Google “lessons on fake news, and you’ll find 5,250,000 resources. We even see the hashtag #fakenews (a fabulous lesson on paradox btw).

A few months ago I read this article at Forbes. Then clicked through and read this one at BuzzFeed. I shared them with my students. We had an interesting discussion, but one comment left me thinking:  “So, basically, everyone’s making stuff up. How are we supposed to believe anything?”

If we are not helping our students find answers to this question, we are doing a disservice to our students — and by extension a disservice to ourselves. What kind of world will we grow old in if we do not help the students in our classrooms today, determine fact from fiction, identify bias, value diversity of thought, be open to new ideas, support their opinions, and seek to understand before passing judgment?

First, we have to be willing to step outside our comfort zones and seek to understand other perspectives. (If you haven’t seen Outside Your Bubble, it’s an interesting starting place.)


Next, we must school ourselves on rhetoric. And then, we must weave it more overtly into all aspects of our instruction.

As English teachers, we have a prime opportunity:  let go of the nine weeks novel study where we focus on characters, conflict, plot, and theme. Bring in speeches and essays and news articles that invite discussion about the use of language. At the very least balance the study of both.

A few weeks ago a group of teachers from a neighboring district visited my classroom. They observed as my students and I read two blog posts about the Fearless Girl and the Raging Bull statues: Seriously, the guy has a point, and an opposing view, No, the Wall St. Bull Sculptor Doesn’t Have a Point. The discussion was rich. The thinking was richer.

At the end of the class, I chatted with these teachers. We talked about the routines in my workshop classroom, the book talks I conducted, the way I transitioned from one thing to the next. Then, the conversation turned to novels. One teacher asked how long I spend on novels. I don’t. I responded. My students read novels in book clubs where they facilitate the discussion. They talk of plot and themes and author’s craft. They bring meaning to the text, based on their experiences reading the books. (I am not opposed to novels. I am opposed to spending too much time on them.)

I hesitate to challenge anyone on what they do in their classrooms. I do not know their students. I do not know their routines or their motivations, the goals they hope to accomplish as they instruct their students, or the limitations put on them by mandated curriculum.

I do challenge the idea that studying a novel for “a long time” like this teacher told me, is a valuable use of the limited time we have with our students. Our students’ need to navigate the language of their world is too great to spend week after week with a book “they really like” that “I read to them.” We must put the focus on the needs of the reader and not the book.

What our students need right now — what our country needs right now — is critical thinking around a wide variety of texts. We need a focus on how language works to persuade and to manipulate and to cause outrage. Really, that’s our best, and maybe, our only hope.

As we go into summer (I’ve got three days left), I hope we will think about how we might shift our thinking about the needs of our learners. As we read by the pool, vacation with family, attend conferences and trainings, work our part-time jobs, I hope we will think about language and how it can either make or break the communication that is so vital to a society, a society that will thrive on diversity, respect individuality, and foster empathy and productivity.

Teacher friends, that is our job. And I think it’s our duty.

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3. She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies. Facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy keeps her focused on her own learning. Amy adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all aim higher. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

Whole-Class Novels: To Teach, Or Not to Teach?

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.

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