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