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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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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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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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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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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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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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!


  1. Way to go Leigh! Great post!


  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.

  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 Drake's coffee cakes! ;)

  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.

  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.

    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.

  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!

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

  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..

    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.

  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.

  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!

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

  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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