Thursday, February 16, 2017

No More Powdered Doughnuts: Why Secondary Teachers Should Stop Teaching Whole-Class Novels

From time to time, I write a post that I know will cause a ruckus. A kerfuffle. A nice, juicy controversy. This is such a post. I will make some of you angry. I'm hoping I at least make you think.

Today, I'm challenging a generations-long institution of teaching English: the whole-class novel.

First, a poll:

You are a student in 9th grade. Your teacher pulls out a 300-page novel and tells you the whole class is going to read it together over the next few weeks. At the end of the novel unit, you are most likely the student who...
read the book from cover to cover
started reading the book, got bored during chapter one, and didn't read past page 12.
read something else under your desk instead of the assigned novel.
quotes to know


As many of my readers are teachers and librarians, I would guess that many of you are in the "A" category. Teachers and librarians were very likely successful students who had good study habits and generally earned good grades.

I would also bet that, as voracious readers and fellow rebels, many of you fell into the "C" category.

I fall firmly into both the "B" and "C" categories. I cannot remember one whole-class novel I actually read after about fifth grade. My teachers assigned them, but I didn't read them. Even when we read in class (aloud or silently), I furtively read other books I was more interested in under my desk. I still made As and Bs in all my classes, so it didn't even matter if I read the books. I was a pro at BS-ing essay questions; all I had to do was listen to the class discussions we had of the book. That was enough.

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WHITE POWDERED DOUGHNUTS


I am writing this post today because I just can't put it off any longer. I am so tired of seeing secondary school teachers still clinging to the whole-class novel. I've even seen a disturbing trend toward whole-school novels. Groan. I'm sure forcing students to read a book that someone else picked for them makes all the reluctant and non-readers out there just fall head-over-heels in love with reading. Who doesn't love being force-fed something they don't want? That doesn't fit? That they don't care two licks about?

And we wonder why so many teens say they hate reading.

Whole-class novels are the white powdered doughnuts of the education world. We eat them when they are all that's available, but virtually no one would choose them when given other choices like chocolate eclairs, bear claws, or lemon-filled pockets of gooey goodness. No one bites into a white powdered doughnut and rolls back their eyes because of the taste explosion in their mouths. And are there any white powdered doughnuts in existence that are not completely stale? I think not.

I'll admit that I taught whole-class novels myself when I was a new teacher in the early 2000s. Back then, I didn't even question it. I was a new teacher. It was what everyone else did. It was the way I had been taught.

But looking back, I remember that I didn't love teaching those novels. I had no passion to read Chapter 11 of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry on audio CD for the fourth time that day. And while some of my students were somewhat engaged, many were bored, doodling, or--gasp--reading something else. And I didn't stop them. I completely understood because I had sat in their seats only a few years before. They would still do fine on the test because I would go over it all anyway, just as my teachers did when I was in school.


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WHY ARE WE STILL TEACHING WHOLE-CLASS NOVELS?



In preparing for this post, I asked some of my professional colleagues at my school whether they as students did whole-class novels in school, and if so, did they actually read them as their teachers expected them to. Everyone I asked (about 6 people, so this isn't a scientific poll) said that yes, their teachers did teach whole-class novels. Maybe I work with a bunch of miscreants, but not one of them said they read actually their teacher-assigned whole-class novels.

Now, I know my school poll isn't scientific and only includes a handful of people. But all of these people are professional teachers. We all went to university and hold at least one Master's Degree. We are not strangers to completing our assignments and doing what we need to do to achieve good grades.

So, if we didn't read the whole-class novels, what makes us as teachers think our students--far too many of whom are apathetic or frustrated by school--are doing their whole-class reading? What are they getting out of those weeks of "teaching a novel" if they aren't bothering (or maybe not able to) to read it? What did we get out of it when we were in school?

Why, after generations of students who fake-read their whole-class novels, are we still teaching this way? Well, I think it's due to many factors:

  • We don't question it. This is why I did it as an English teacher. It was what everyone else did and the way I was taught. It did not really occur to me to allow self-selection.
  • It's different. A teacher interested in 100% student self-selection would have to revamp her teaching methods to suit self-selection.
  • School or department resistance. It isn't easy when you are the only one who wants to do something different. Sometimes, you are not allowed to stray from what the English Department or school district wants to do. In some schools, everyone has to teach the same material at the same time. Even if you are allowed to do it your own way, you'll probably be planning it on your own.
  • Lack of control over assessment of student-selected novels. If a teacher has 32 students in his English class, how can he make a test to fit all the different books they are reading? How can he have a class discussion of the theme of "home" if not all of the students' books might have that theme?
  • Lack of trust that students will self-select "appropriate" materials to read. Should we allow them to read graphic novels for English class? (yes) Should we allow them to read magazines or picture books or books that are not on grade-level? (also, yes) The more students enjoy reading--any kind of reading--the more they will choose to read.
  • The belief that "everyone" should read whatever book. I feel this way about Palacio's Wonder, that the world would be a better place if "everyone" read it. But to force everyone to read it regardless of reading level, maturity, or interest? Students won't revel in the awesomeness of Wonder if, by being forced to read it, they learn to hate it.

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PROBLEMS WITH WHOLE-CLASS NOVELS


I do actually think whole-class novels could work well in elementary schools, provided the book is engaging, can be finished within a couple of weeks, and isn't accompanied by a test or assignment. My fourth grade teacher Ms. Schiffanelli read us all seven books in the Narnia series, which I loved. I've seen kindergarten and first grade students completely devour series like Junie B. Jones or Magic Tree House because their teachers read those books aloud each day after lunch.

But for secondary schools, whole-class novels pose some problems:

  • Students' maturity levels vary greatly. I can remember the first whole-class novel I read with my seventh graders: Crash by Jerry Spinelli. It was my second week of my teaching career, and it was what all the seventh grade English teachers taught in the first six weeks of school. Sure, many students liked it. We read the whole thing out loud, and I remember the boys especially liking it. But I also remember feeling sorry for my more mature readers. I was reading V.C. Andrews and Stephen King when I was in seventh grade; Crash would have been completely LAME. How many of my more mature readers that year felt the same way?
  • Reading levels vary greatly. What if the book is too hard for one of your readers? What if it is too easy? No matter what book you read as a class, someone will find it way too easy and someone will find it impossibly difficult. Students who find it too hard will become frustrated, especially since novel units often last several weeks. That's a long time to be frustrated. Or bored.
  • Interests vary greatly. As a seventh-grader, I would have had zero interest in Spinelli's Crash, and I know I had students who, like me, could care less about the story. Crash appealed to many, but it wasn't for everyone. Why should students be forced to read Crash when they were really more interested in Cinder? I don't think they should.
  • Class sets are expensive. When I taught whole-class novels, it seemed we never had enough books to go around. A class set of books might contain 30 books, but we had 32 students in the class. We would have to borrow from another teacher, who may or may not have any to spare. So students would have to share. Have you ever shared a novel with someone else? Not easy! Book shortages are compounded when students have extended absences and need to take a copy of the book home in order to catch up with the class. And let's not even talk about copies that walk away or get lost in all the shuffling of books.
  • The storage room is FULL of old, unused class sets. In every school I've worked in--five so far--there is a storage room full of hundreds of class sets that may or may not have ever been used. How is this a good use of our precious school budget? Why can't we use the money spent on class sets to develop strong classroom or school libraries with lots of variety and reading levels? Where's the logic here?


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IS ALL WHOLE-CLASS READING BAD?


Please do not take this to mean I don't agree with ANY whole-class reading.

For secondary English, short whole-class reading can be a great way to expose students to poetry, short stories, and essays. Some of my favorite lessons as an English teacher were on classic poetry like Jonson's "Song To Celia," Hughes' "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," and Blake's "The Tyger" and "The Lamb." Unlike our interminable whole-class novel units, my class had some excellent discussions of stalking and slavery and growing up. My students got a lot out of those lessons, which were deep and meaningful and ended with that class period. We got so much more done because these lessons lasted a day or two, not several weeks.

I only taught English for three years before I became a school librarian. But as I gained experience in those three years, I found that I deviated from the whole-class novel more and more. By my third year, I was head of the reading department, so I did not encounter resistance from someone who thought all the classes should teach the same thing at the same time (ugh--I hate that, too). That year, my class read only two whole-class novels (Hinton's The Outsiders and, ironically, Fahrenheit 451), down from five in my first year. Instead, I immersed my classes to all kinds of poetry, song lyrics, picture books, TV sitcom theme songs, and (very) short stories and essays.

I continued to read YA novels widely, but focused especially on reading the Texas Lone Star List and books my students had recommended to me. I invested in a classroom library full of recently-released titles I knew my students would love. I gave them lots of DEAR time, which was sacred, and I read right alongside my students. My class became energized about reading and talking about books.

As did I.

It was my best year as a teacher, and I regularly had students tell me that they never liked reading until they were in my class. It was this third year that gave me the push I needed to enroll in a graduate program to become a school librarian. The very next school year, I had my very own school library.

Had I taught a fourth year, I know I would have nixed the whole-reading of Fahrenheit 451, choosing instead to compare short selections of F451 with themes from other classic sci-fi like 1984 and Brave New World, picture books like The Librarian of Basra, and popular YA science fiction/dystopia novels and films. I had thought about nixing F451 in my third year, but I wasn't quite confident enough to fight what I perceived could be a battle with higher-ups. It probably would have taken me a bit longer to phase out The Outsiders, which was always popular with students. If I taught English today, I would offer The Outsiders as an option for family- or hero-themed discussion groups, rather than as a whole-class novel. There is not much point in taking weeks to read The Outsiders when the majority of my students have already seen the movie (or will seek it out once we start the book), which was well-made and closely follows the book.

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THINKING ABOUT TOSSING THE WHOLE-CLASS NOVEL? MY ADVICE...


I hope I have at least gotten you thinking about whole-class novels in your school or classroom and whether or not they work--or have ever worked--for students. If you are teaching in a school with a whole-class novel culture, brace yourself to go against the grain. Teachers and administrators cling to whole-class novels because they are they way they were taught as students. It won't be easy to initiate a change. Here's my advice for those who want to try to make this change:
  • First and foremost, you must, must get your department colleagues on your side. Your school librarian could also help you advocate for self-selection.
  • Gather your research--I've included some resources to back you up below. Also be sure to read Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer. Twice.
  • Develop a plan--what will you teach instead of the whole-class novel? How will you ensure adherence to state education standards and your district's curriculum?
  • Demonstrate how self-selected novels will improve student reading and ultimately, standardized test scores. 
  • Focus on shorter literature for whole-class projects or discussions. Poetry, picture books, short essays, and short stories work well for this and are more likely to keep your students' attention.

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STILL NOT CONVINCED? SOME EDUCATORS WHO AGREE WITH ME:


Allyn, Pam. "Against the Whole Class Novel." Education Week. 14 June 2011. Accessed 1 May 2016.

Finley, Todd. "11 Alternatives to 'Round Robin' (and 'Popcorn') Reading." Edutopia. 1 Dec 2014. Accessed 1 May 2016.

Miller, Donalyn. "Rethinking the Whole-Class Novel." Slideshare. 3 Feb 2015. Accessed 1 May 2016.

Mizerny, Cheryl. "Whole Novels vs. Choice Reading: Or Both?" MiddleWeb. 17 Apr 2016. Accessed 1 May 2016.




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Got an opinion on whole-class novels?
I'm waiting (on pins and needles!) to hear your comments!





49 comments:

  1. Way to go Leigh! Great post!

    -Kristina

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  2. You raise such valid points! We actually do a lot of self selection at the elementary level. We use Google classroom to manage the different groups. Kids are given a discussion prompt after they have reached a given point in the book. They discuss it amongst themselves. Teachers can see everything and comment as well. It works great! Any online class program would work. I also booktalk the books at the beginning to increase student engagement.

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  3. I can see both sides of this discussion. I have enjoyed many books that I would not have chosen to read myself, though I do not like being forced to read anything. I'm a narrow reader...horror and suspense are my favorites. As a student, we often do things we think we won't enjoy. The teacher can make the difference in the situation by making it interesting through discussion. There is value in reading a classic or timely book together. When I taught junior high reading, we bonded through discussion of history, social issues, etc. that we saw in the book. If I was tired of reading during a class, I asked a student who was often a more entertaining reader than myself to do it for me. Some students chose to read it themselves, and some needed to be read to and guided more closely through the book. Short stories were always my favorite to teach, but I can't say we should throw out the class novel. Some people like powdered doughnuts, and some do not. I like them. There's just something about that powder...like Drake's coffee cakes! ;)

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  4. I strongly believe in self-selection but I think about the books I may not have tried had they not been presented in class. I like the idea of 1 novel for the group but pushing self-selection for the rest of the time and offering lots of D.E.A.R. opportunities throughout the day. Students can benefit from our guiding them through some of the classics.

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  5. I was one of the mostly-A, a few-B students that resented being told what to read. For book reports I read first & last chapters [and middle if I needed more info] & always made As & Bs. I'm not sure what that says about the books my teachers chose, but the ONLY book I read from cover-to-cover was The Red Badge of Courage because I couldn't put it down after the 1st chapter. What I was reading was my mom's books that never seemed to make it on my teacher's list.

    When I was in about 6th grade I had a teacher who allowed us to report on ANY book & I thought she must be God! I reported on East of Eden, because naturally at that age I identified with Cal, the rebel. [I also came from a religious family.] So I could easily have designed my own English class when it came to exposure to lit.

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    1. Great points, Anon! I'm glad you had that one teacher who let you read anything you wanted. If I ever teach English again, it will be with self-selected books or choice reading based on wide themes or genres.

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  6. I LOVE this post! You are so right. I am an avid reader who can honestly say I hated reading until 10th grade when a teacher gave me free choice and helped me find something I would love (in my case R.L. Stine's Fear Street series)! I thought I hated reading because I hated all the novels I was forced to read. If it hadn't been for that teacher, I likely would still think I hate reading and definitely would not have become an English teacher and librarian. Thank goodness she was willing to reach for a nice jelly donut!

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    1. I can't imagine you being anything other than a reader and librarian! I'm thankful to that teacher, too!

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  7. Good points, good arguments, but.. I disagree.. part of education is exposure to larger culture, history of art and literature, what's been written that's important, vital, special.. if we don't teach by exposing our children to what we over time value, I think we shouldn't be surprised when a generation has no idea who they are, where they came from, and feel disconnected from their own society.. asking someone to read Hemingway or Steinbeck or Baldwin or Woolf isn't something we should stop.. yes, a full whole novel, yes, someone else "choose" it for them, yes, it's a bit of time to read, but the value at the end is worth it for the student, IMHO.. I'd say asking a student to read any of these on this list is a worthy goal for any English teacher.. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=103869541

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    1. I can't argue that teaching classics is important, but what about giving students a choice of classics based on a theme, rather than everybody reads the same one? We have to account for reading Level and maturity. And if we have several small groups reading different classics Witt similar themes or genres, it exposes all of the students to more classics. Maybe they don't love this one, but they might really love that one.

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    2. Everyone reading the same novel enables discussion in class where top students are provoking less able students to think on a deeper level. I agree with Dr Web.

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    3. Agree with Web and McNamara - I couldn't disagree more with this article. I successfully teach whole class novels to all my classes (grades 9, 11, and 12). I do use short stories and poetry quite a bit and at our school we only do one book per quarter, but we focus so much on discussion in our class I couldn't imagine not reading together. That being said, I do work in a private school for student with language based learning disabilities and a focus on differentiated learning with smaller (actually manageable versus when I taught in public school) class sizes. I honestly think if you cannot get the kids engaged or reading that reflects on you, the school, or the public school system in general. The biggest issue is teacher to student ratio. Whole class novels work, but teaching 32 kids by yourself without any ability to give one on one attention or truly engage individuals regularly does not.

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  8. No matter what side of the fence you fall on, everyone should always take the time to reflect and answer the question of "why." Why do you teach what you do? If you teach a whole class novel, do you have the answer to that question? If you don't have the "why" answer, it might be time to rethink until you do.

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    1. Great comment, Shannon! The WHY is exactly what I am saying here. I think the WHY is too often status quo or it's the way I was taught. Lots and lots of today's students are disengaged readers, and I think part of the reason for that is that they often aren't reading books that fit their reading and interest levels.

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  9. I do not understand why high schools are STILL teaching To Kill a Mockingbird! Of course, selecting our own novel and having to journal it to death wasn't a great assignment, either. I'm with you on the excerpts, then selecting an individual novel on a theme. It does take librarians a while to put together 150 books, say, set in ,the 1960s, though. Good to have some warning!

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    1. Please tell me you're not serious. You don't understand that having a novel about rejecting people based on surface traits is important for high schoolers? You don't understand why the theme of actually meeting and knowing and understanding people before you slight them is still an important issue?

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    2. Why shouldn't they read To Kill a Mockingbird? Because it's 'old'? Just because it takes place during the Depression doesn't mean its themes and other messages are not relevant (if anything, in today's world, they are more relevant). Students also need to see where we've come from and how aspects of their lives are not that different from those of another era.

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    3. There are lots of books that teach the same themes as To Kill A Mockingbird. It's not the only book available, and it may not be right for every student at the time it is taught. We should meet our students where they are in their reading abilities and maturity, not where we wish them to be.

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  10. Would also recommend Kelly Gallagher's book Readacide as another great resource to support this! Love the connection to white powdered donuts'

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  11. I teach sixth grade, so while we are still in an elementary building, we are considered middle school. I start each year with a class novel, but it's not the same for each section I teach. I always assess student interests, reading levels, etc. before choosing a highly engaging book. This year, I went with Kwame Alexander's The Crossover, as it was also a way to get my students to buy-in to poetry! We learn how to discuss the whole-class novel by participating in socratic seminars with students eventually leading the seminar themselves. This bridge from pre-packaged reading curriculum students encountered in 5th grade to reading novels in middle school readies students for literature circles, which students self-select books to read and discuss. This scaffolded process works well for my students and when I loop with them to 7th grade next year, we can dive right into self-selected text!

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  12. I always did whole class novels wrong. It was read, answer questions, and quiz. I read Sacks "Whole Class Novels for the Whole Class" and changed my approach. It's a great resource! https://www.amazon.com/Whole-Novels-Class-Student-Centered-Approach/dp/1118526503

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  13. "I didn't like it; therefore, it's bad." I wish your post had been based on something other than that.

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    1. Hi, Terra, thank you for your comment. You are correct, I personally had multiple ho-hum experiences with whole-class novels, both as a student and as a teacher. However, in the post I outlined multiple other reasons for my position on this, including student reading and interest levels, student maturity, and the amount of money spent on whole-class novels that ultimately collect dust in storage rooms. This has been my experience based on 16 years in public and private education, both in the USA and internationally. If you really love teaching with whole-class novels and it works for you, then by all means, keep doing it. I'm trying to challenge the status quo, to get people thinking. I'm truly sorry that all you got out of the article is that "I didn't like it; therefore it's bad."

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  14. I am a Special Education, 5th & 6th grade teacher (ELA + other subjects). Whole group reading is how I get the kids to read, period.
    I use a whole group book to: practice read aloud; model reading skills like pacing, determining context clues, finding important information; learning to identify character action & motivations; event sequencing, etc.
    Just like all other ELA teachers, I use my whole group book so that the students can watch how the story evolves and changes over time - so they have consistentcy, and clear-cut, tangible examples of the main "literary concepts" I am aiming for - because they can't figure/identify these literary devices independently.
    Using a whole group book allows US, as a class, to foster class communication & relationships - a hard thing sometimes with students with special needs. Reading together allows us to discuss/debate a shared story, characters, events, etc.; and with this one story we might be on the "same page" for the only time all day.
    The vital part of this is... I pick the book! Not the school, not the kids... I choose my class books based on kid interests and grade level, while also aiming for what I want to teach them. EX: I might start off with a 2nd grade book for my 5th grade class; and it will be about zombies!
    Doing this allows them, the reluctant / nervous readers, sometimes with behavior issues, Autism, dyslexia, social-emotional fears, etc. to come together over something silly, fun and ENGAGING. They want to read. They want to discuss. "Who is the monster going to attack next? How do you think the infection spread? What did the character just say about how to get rid of the zombie virus?"
    For me, whole group book reading is essential, and can make class better. But... you have to make it VALUABLE to the class. You have to make it accessible, interactive, poignant, and focused on an outcome - with the ability to show the students how it all fits together. And when you do that.. when they began to read aloud together, and LIKE IT... when they can explain what symbolism is in the book OR what was ironic about the characters action... you've done it! And you did it as a whole group!

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  15. And this is precisely the thinking that is leading to current and up and coming generations being a bunch of spoiled, self-righteous, whiny young adults who feel they are owed the world and they should be catered to. Hand in hand with "participation trophies". God forbid kids have to read something they don't want to! It's called learning to be responsible and understanding that there are going to be things in life you dont want to do, but guess what? That's not real life. One cannot go into work as an adult and not perform a task because they don't care for said task. I was always an advanced and avid reader. Did I despise The Catcher in the Rye and The Canterbury Tales? Yes. But it was my assignment to read the literature and do my school work pertaining to it accordingly. I didnt do the work? The consequence was a poor grade. Stop coddling these children!

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    1. Wow, Anon, I really do hope you are just having a bad day and don't really feel this way about today's young people. I've worked with teens daily for many years, and I promise you, it's definitely not as bleak as all that. Sure, some may be a bit spoiled, but the vast majority are talented, personable, interesting, complex young people who will grow up and work jobs and pay bills just like the rest of us do. Allowing students to read books on their reading level and on topics that interest them isn't coddling them; it's helping them to fall in love with reading. If they see how fantastic reading is, they are far more likely to do it on their own.

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    2. And I've coached teens in athletics for many years. And I have one of my own. I see parents trying to be their child's friend more than their parent, so as not to upset them and seem too harsh. And vast majority? Really? Did you somehow miss the aftermath of the presidential election? Colleges had to cancel classes and provide counseling because the students couldnt cope? As I stated previously, hand in hand with participation trophies. Did you want to stop assigning homework and start offering options in math, and science, etc so as to make everyone happy? I know not all children are coddled, mine is most certainly not. But I do believe majority are. You dont get choices to please everyone in the workforce in adult life, or even in college for that matter. You do the task at hand. You dont like it? Then you no longer have a job, or you fail your course.

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    3. Okay, Anon, I think we're just going to have to agree to disagree on this one. It sounds like we have very different experiences.

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    4. I can agree on that.

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    5. Maybe in middle school...but I definitely think there are certain classics that all kids should read at the high school level. I also think that whole class novels allow for fantastic whole class discussions. I teach 11th grade English and it's my job to introduce kids to different styles throughout American literature starting with the Native Americans and working our way to contemporary. I do allow them to select the contemporary novel from a list and we do lit circles for our last unit. But the discussions from small group lit circles are never as in depth as our whole class discussions get. It is also so much more difficult to really dissect the novel when I have to balance our short time together between 3-4 different novels. Maybe this would work in the lower levels because you are not doing as much in-depth analysis but for the high school classroom I think taking away whole class novels is doing the kids a great disservice.

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  16. Bravo!!! Arnold Middle School 6th graders have utilized self selection for years!

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  17. I actually just had a dream about teaching To Kill A Mockingbird (which I don't) through a Black Lives Matter lens.

    Here's how I see it -- I think Kelly Gallagher said this -- you can teach students ABOUT literature or you can teach them how to read it, but you can't often do both. Honestly, both are important.

    My mentor teacher was an expert at teaching about literature. He could have students eating out of his hands over his enthusiastic readings of books like The Scarlet Letter. Students were thrilled and engaged with his storytelling, his explanation of the ideas, etc. But did they read it? Well...

    My strengths tend to be on the other end of things, and I'd much rather be in touch with 100 readers who are all reading books in 100 different ways than force everybody to read books MY way.

    And the good news about assessments is that if kids are reading in a way that's supported by teachers and librarians, they are likely not books available on spark notes and tutors can't write essays on them easily. So you might exchange quality for authenticity.

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  18. There can still be great value in the entire class reading an entire novel together. A novel that is carefully selected by the teacher that students can engage with and connect to can be the foundation for an incredible reading community. After all, when adults join a book club/group, it is because they want to read the same whole novel the other group members are reading.

    I recommend you read Whole Novels for the Whole Class by Ariel Sacks (http://arielsacks.com). Her ideas paired with Penny Kittle's Book Love, Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild, and strategies shared by Jim Burke and Kelly Gallagher give a much more balanced approach. To say that whole class novels shouldn't be taught is to throw the baby out with the bath water. The issue is not with the Novels, but with how we select, frame and teach them.

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  19. A few points to consider - what you propose is much easier actually in elementary school. Even if you read-aloud a whole class novel in elementary school, our reading blocks are multiple hours and can easily contain independent reading time which can be organized enough to promote themed independent reading. Second - there is a skill to be gained in reading an entire book and analyzing it that can never be replicated by excerpts, and therefore on some level it should be modeled and guided toward independence. Example - the extended metaphor, for example the conch in the lord of the flies as the construct of society and it's customs, which ends with it being smashed when the boys turn violent and inhumane, or Simon being the archetype of Jesus as the sacrifice after establishing himself as selfless and innocent, etc. If you're not willing to go multiple chapters you can never get that simmering symbolism, characterization, core knowledge etc. As such, what you're describing might be great for 'getting kids to read' but there's a chance whether you liked it or not, you got to university with those skills and didn't get crushed when you were assigned a novel to read on your own. As with all things, I think this is best when you strike a balance. Do things to pepper in short text for comparative purposes and fun, have independent reading, and set aside time for the socratic discussion on the longitudinal common text. Certainly the best college classes I took blended a couple of anchor novels with a Norton anthology of excerpts to get the right breadth and depth. I'm always a little skeptical when teachers latch onto what they like or anecdotally believe to best to wield it against a common practice that plenty of people adhere to and have also shown works.

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  20. Love this article. Can I suggest Guiding Adolescent Readers to Success by Mark and Julie Donnelly

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  21. Love the challenge here. Totally agree it could be fine differently. I was bitterly disappointed that this whole class forced novel approach put one of my nephews of seeing a movie he had been forced to read at school. When we put our young people off experiences there is something not quite right.

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  22. Well, the elephant in the English classroom has been exposed: The majority of students who are assigned whole class novels, particularly at the secondary level, are not reading them. And if students are not reading, what are they doing? They're listening to teachers talk about books they haven't read and/or regurgitating plot summary information found on the web. In both cases, there's no engagement with a narrative text and student literacy objectives are not being met. There's also the inherently dangerous message that students are not smart enough readers to select, read, comprehend, and make meaning from their own novels.
    High schools have been historically successful at creating non readers by continually assigning dusty tomes like The Scarlet Letter, a book which serves neither as a mirror nor a window for most of our student readers. I have conversed with dozens of high school seniors from multiple school districts who have regretfully told me that the last book they completed was in the eighth or ninth grade.
    So, what's the solution? Integrating workshop classroom approaches which provide students with a wealth of high interest YA and adult selections, opportunities to take part in engaging conversations about their books, and frequent teacher feedback.
    As a twenty-five year teacher of English, I can proudly say that 100% of my students are currently engaged in self-selected novels, are regularly maintaining meaningful discourse about books with peers, and are developing reactionary and reflective writings about their readings with me. Recently I published my first book, Between the Lines: Actively Engaging Readers in the English Classroom, along with YA advocate Joan Kaywell. (https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781475829150/Between-the-Lines-Actively-Engaging-Readers-in-the-English-Classroom) The book is loaded with usable materials, student models, classroom library tips, hundreds of YA book references, and directions for social inquiry based classroom activities and journaling approaches. It's essentially a how-to manual for ELA teachers grades 6-12 interested in integrating differentiated novels into their classrooms. Please consider checking it out and contacting me if you require any support.
    Michael Anthony

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    1. Thanks, Michael, for your comments. I love the "elephant in the room" analogy and totally agree with you about self-selected novels that provide mirrors and windows to students' lives. I'll definitely take a look at your book. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

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  23. So many comments on this one - I hope I'm not repeating one... I'd add BOOK LOVE by Penny Kittle to the list of books teachers should read, and then WHOLE NOVELS FOR THE WHOLE CLASS by Ariel Sacks. It's how we "teach" THE OUTSIDERS at my middle school now - done in 8-10 days, students reading at their own pace! My post on that one here: http://geniushour.blogspot.com/2014/05/whole-novels-with-outsiders.html

    Also, this video is great for convincing HS teachers... https://youtu.be/gokm9RUr4ME :D

    Thank you for this post - such good food for thought!

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  24. There is an abundance of research to back up your view, or the opposing view. But the most convincing argument is with the students. I wonder if, without bias or a leading tone, you have asked them?

    Our grade level initiates each class with 20 minutes of students self-selected, independent reading with no strings attached. We do not encourage them to 'read within their Lexile' with this book, read a 'genre bingo' of sorts, but simply choose the books they gravitate towards. This is my first year to do this (with no strings attached) from the beginning and there are multiple students who have taken the time to come to me to say such things as, "I love reading now" or "You made me like reading". Well, I just tell them I gave them the time and freedom to read.

    One important difference this year is NOT requiring that every 50 page reflection or summary. True book-loving students were brave enough to give feedback that it was killing their love of reading. I was glad to see that requirement go for many reasons, including loathing reading those summaries on books I didn't even always know.

    But here is what I really wanted to say. There is NOTHING I have found that bonds a class like a whole-class novel, particularly when each child has a copy in their hands and follows along (a read along), which remarkably, even after closing in on 20 years, almost every student does. Even the 'squirrelly ones'. The way we can go back during teaching a lesson where something in a past book applies - months later - to a particular scene or chapter and all I have to say is, "Remember when...?" and the class all gets it, is irreplaceable.

    As another commenter noted, at the secondary level, being able to 'go deeper' and teach 'with vigor' is not as complete with only fractions of books. It takes chapters to see the metaphors. It takes chapters together to see the development of a character. If I'm reading aloud, it is the only time (other than good 'ol standardized testing) that you can hear a pin drop. They want it. They BEG for it. We don't do tests over it, we don't do worksheets. We discuss. We question. We write the author. We create an artistic response to say good-bye. It's a beautiful thing. But just ask the kids - mine will tell you, years later, THAT'S what they remembered about our year together. As high school and even post-high school students have repeatedly made clear to me, they remember those novels and associate that grade's memories with them.

    I do, too. I loathed reading as a high school student. Teenage rebellion mixed with a side of boy-craziness, I think. No time for reading nonsense. Turns out, my adult friends most admit to the same. I'm not a bit proud of this, but I graduated with honors from both high school and college and never completely read a self-selected book through all 8 years. What I remember as literature was 'Great Expectations', 'To Kill A Mockingbird', 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer', and other classics. If it weren't for those teachers doing the criminal thing and exposing us to classic literature, I think of the conversations, jokes, analogies, etc. that I would have not comprehended because by golly, I certainly would not have read those either if given the choice. But now, as a teacher 2/3 'done', I am certainly glad they didn't give me the choice.

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  25. So I'm in my 3rd year of teaching 6th grade. This year I've taught two whole class books (so far). The first was a novel where each chapter is presented as a short story (Seedfolks) and the second was Walk Two Moons. The second is lengthy and we read 3 chapters a day to finish in 3-4 weeks. I read aloud the first chapter, they read aloud the second chapter and partner read or silently read the third chapter. Why do I do a class novel?
    1. Because their fluency and expression are awful and they need to hear that reading is interesting and (with all due humility) I can rock a dramatic reading like nobody's business.
    2. Their comprehension as a whole is iffy and they need the discussion to process what they read.
    3. They will not read a self-selected book for more than 10 minutes without getting distracted. Every year I've tried to do a self-selected novel unit and it fails because they cannot self-monitor.
    4. (and most important) Because when we finish, they say, "Can we read another class novel?" "What are we reading next?" "Can we read...? I think everyone will really enjoy it!"

    Like anything else in education, this is a ridiculously subjective topic. If I was not over the top with my readings, I can't imagine that this would be 1/2 as successful. The kids are affected by our own preferences, strengths, and weaknesses. I wish we stop telling each other what to do or what not to do and just share what works for us.

    Side note: Class novel does not have to equal no choice. My kids had already ruled out historical fiction before I even went to the book room which would have been my first pick so fair enough. My next novel was voted on from two choices. Each class picked a different one and voted almost unanimously. I also have a small group of advanced readers in each class that I offered an alternate option and both groups eagerly accepted with the stipulation that I won't be able to oversee much because I'll be doing the class novel. They trust my judgment and they're invested because we've had success. They're eager to learn, willing to work, and happy. That's the most important thing.

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  26. Isn't there ample room for both approaches? I have found 24 years of success in teaching whole-class novels ALONG WITH requiring my students to read at least one self-selected book per month. Modeling and practicing the reading process (comprehension, analysis, inference, discussion, and response) as a whole class makes students better independent readers and thinkers. My former students often return to tell me how they loved the novels we read as a class and how no other teacher since has inspired in them a similar passion for reading.

    For some interesting novel choices, see my latest Edutopia article, "Young Adult Novels that Teach a Growth Mindset": https://www.edutopia.org/article/young-adult-novels-teach-growth-mindset-robert-ward

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  27. I'm not sure what is up with you and your colleagues, but I read every single book assigned to me in school. As a result, I enjoyed some great books that I know I would never have chosen and was much more challenged than if I had been left to my own devices. This is just a continuation of the watering down of expectations in American schools masked as reform.

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    1. Hi, Unknown,
      There is nothing "up" with me or my colleagues. If you look at the poll results above, you will see that, as of today, 39% of the people who took the poll said they either read a little bit and got bored or they read something else under their desk. I only published this poll on this blog page, nowhere else. The readers of this blog are mainly teachers and librarians, degreed professionals reading A blog about their jobs in their spare time. People who likely did well in school if they got far enough to finish college and grad school. Obviously, teaching while-class novels wasn't such a fabulous experience for us as it was for you.

      Just because something worked for you, doesn't mean it works for everyone. Maybe instead of suggesting something is wrong with the children and teens who prefer to read something else or don't enjoy the novel their teacher is forcing them to read, perhaps take a look at how novels are chosen and taught. And WHY.

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  28. How do teachers have enough time for whole novel reading anyway? I can barely fit in grammar, spelling (really phonics - and I teach high school, grades 9 to 12) and WRITING! I strongly believe that if they can write, they can get a decent job.

    Novel reading is our homework. Students have a decent pool to choose from. Only 2 students can read the same book at one time. At the same time that they check out a book, they choose a weekly activity guide packet to go with it. Each packet has a few key questions that require reflection on the chapters read, and various vocabulary worksheets. I get them straight from activity guides that go with the book, and they have answer keys. I buy them from Amazon. I make up about three different packets for each book. I scan the pages in, then use the snip app to cut and paste to make the different activity guides. Each activity guide has a few choices for a final project that is shared with the class. No two students can have the same guide.

    I add no more than 2 books each year - all that the Board is willing to vet for approval. It works surprisingly well.

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    1. I have no clue how they have time to teach the whole novel, especially if there are class sets and no one can take them home. That's how it was when I taught 7th grade, plus at my last school and at my current school. There often aren't enough copies of the book for every student to have his or her own copy. Unless there was a copy for each student, the reading would have to be completed in class or there would have to be some sort of trade-off of days to take the book home.

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    2. They must be able to take the books home for me to teach one novel with the whole class. And ability to get class sets of novels that I have chosen specifically for my students (frequently changing the titles; not just going with what is available) has been a priority for me when I choose where to teach, and in terms of choosing my battles within a school where I teach.

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  29. I agree with all of your reasons and would add one more. Whole class novels take several weeks to read. This limits students exposure to the various literary elements and skills practice to one book. They only see a couple characters, one or two themes and one type of conflict/climax - one style of writing. By reading several short stories you can expose students a much wider variety of genres and literary elements- they are able to practice the skills several times in different stories. My pacing guide doesn't allow for tons of time on fiction and I need to capitalize on that time and short stories allow me to spiral the skills where a whole class novel would be one--and--done - if they didn't understand how to determine theme that time then too bad.
    I'm thinking college prep high school students may benefit from whole class novels most. But for my 8th graders - they need a lot of practice in the short time they're given.

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  30. I feel as if I have been following this debate since, well, forever. When I was a teacher, I spent years trying to incorporate more choice into my classroom and my school. My impression is that teachers and schools resist student reading choice for many reasons, but a big one is logistics. I too spent too many days wishing my school had a tool that would track and organize student independent reading choices.

    I finally decided to leave the classroom and build that tool myself, and so created loosecanon.com. Loose Canon tracks each student's book choices from year to year (grades 3-12). On the site, students collect past titles, rate and review them, and share those reviews school-wide. (Every review they publish is visible to every student and teacher in the school, but to no one outside.) Students carry their reading resumes from grade to grade.
     
    Loose Canon is a subscription-based business, but we also provide (to all) a list of 8000 book titles that teachers are using right now. That aggregated list is a terrific resource that is continually growing.

    And now we're starting to get out there and into schools. Please take a look (loosecanon.com), make suggestions, spread the word. Thank you. The right tool can often make a difference.

    Best,
    Julia Franks

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