10.28.2011

Defending the Whole Class Novel




As you can tell, I support teaching the whole class novel, at least for a couple of books. I have found so much success with teaching The Hunger Games trilogy in my own classroom with students of all levels and ages ranging from freshmen to seniors. I know many teachers in middle school AND college are having success with them, as well.
Whole-Class Novel: Yay or Nay?
Do you teach a whole-class novel?

I also teach To Kill a Mockingbird as a class. It's definitely a classic that I believe is important enough that every student should read at least once in their lifetime.

Kristen from Secondary Solutions alerted me to this controversy and she wrote a great blog post defending teaching novels in the classrooms. You can read her post here: In Defense of the Whole Class Novel

She touches on four arguments that the opposition brings up, which are: range level of students varies, students should choose their own reading materials, too many assessments, and teaching theme, plot, and literary elements can be taught with poetry or short stories instead of the novel. Her counter-arguments are valid against all these points.

I do understand the arguments for and against teaching the whole-class novel. I have to admit, for some books I completely agree. If I do not like the book, how will my students like it? I simply refuse to read any material with my students that I don't truly enjoy myself. I have to be enthusiastic about it if I expect them to want to read it.

But I do give my students silent reading time to choose reading materials of their choice. They can read graphic novels, magazines, newspapers, etc.. I want them to read simply for pleasure and enjoy it. But how can I justify my job if this was all we ever did in class (though I would simply love that, I tell ya!). I have had years where we only read one novel the entire year as a class (To Kill a Mockingbird). I spent more time on free-choice reading, short stories, poetry, drama, and, of course, fitting in all the writing instruction, as well. I had more complaints from students during those years because we didn't read another novel as a class. The fact is, the majority like it. Many are not comfortable enough to read a novel on their own and be responsible for knowing what they should about it. Some students really need that structure and guidance that a whole-class novel offers.  (Yes, others are more advanced and can handle analyzing the text on their own.  This is why I also believe in separating students by ability rather than age. If a freshman is capable of taking an upper-level honors course, let them! If a senior is at a freshman level, that's the class they should be in. If that student needs to repeat two years of that particular level in order to master those skills, they should be allowed to do so. Why do we automatically advance them when they aren't ready? I don't think we'd be arguing over the whole-class novel if we had students at similar abilities in our classes.)
The Hunger Games is an excellent choice for a whole-class novel.

I think at the high school level, teaching one or two books as a whole class is not harming the student. It may be easier to accomplish at the middle school level where the books are shorter and less complex. I love Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer and middle school teacher (who I had the pleasure to finally meet last year at the Illinois Reading Conference), and agree that we need to offer choices for students. But another essential element is the time devoted to reading in class. How can I give my students quality reading time in a 44-minute class period when I also have to teach writing, as well? I do try as best as I can, but, truthfully, most of us have our hands tied once they get into high school. We take a subject area that is traditionally split between reading and English in a nice long 1.5 to 2-hour block each day, then cram it into a 44-minute combined class period in high school, yet expect the high school teachers to cover all the same standards in half the time. In addition, the materials are longer and more complex. Then we wonder why students struggle in high school.

Believe me, I would love to have my students for two class periods. And I would love to let them read novels of their choice all the time. I would also love to have a classroom where all the students are enjoying what they read; one that is more like a book club meeting where we get to share our thoughts about what we read each day. Oh wait, I do have that classroom. It happens every year when I am teaching The Hunger Games...as a whole-class novel.


9 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for the shout out! Love your point (well I love a lot of them) that "Many are not comfortable enough to read a novel on their own and be responsible for knowing what they should about it. Some students really need that structure and guidance that a whole-class novel offers." I absolutely agree. Thank you for being such a great teacher, and for touching so many students with your clear passion!

    -Kristen Bowers
    (aka) Secondary Solutions

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  2. With differentiated education, we're not supposed to do whole class novels anymore. I miss it. I get around this by doing a novel as my read aloud to the class, and I teach concepts and elements through this novel. I also do novels (I choose) with my guided reading groups. My students have free choice during their independent reading time, but I do have certain genre requirements they must fulfill.
    Oh, how I wish my students were old enough (and by that I mean mature enough) to do Hunger Games with them ...

    Jen
    Runde's Room

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  3. I think that is just a tragedy. It is sad that teachers cannot be "trusted" enough to differentiate, according to the powers that be. Jen, what about The Giver? I LOVE that book, and it is perfect for grades 6-8, or is that too high level for your kids?
    Kristen Bowers (aka Secondary Solutions)

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  4. Kristen, I've done The Giver with one of my guided reading groups - and they LOVE it! But still, as I can only meet with them once every 4 days, there's still something missing - it's just not the same as a whole group, with whole group discussion. Last year I had a 6/7 class, and for read alouds we read The Shadow Children series - loved by all. I have a much lower 5/6 class this year, and we're currently reading The Titanic series (Gordon Korman). In guided groups we're doing Jerry Spinelli novels. Everything's going well ... but as of yet, I'm missing that true love and excitement of reading from the students ... frustrating!

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  5. I completely understand. I would so miss that too. And I am sure the kids don't even know what they are missing!
    Kristen Bowers (aka Secondary Solutions)

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  6. Jen - That is so sad. I'm glad you are finding some ways to work around it. I know our elementary stopped teaching novels altogether. One of our 4th grade teachers made the switch to 5th grade literature (our 5th is with the middle school) as a result. It is disheartening to see because I seriously think I can teach every single standard with a novel. There's so much to draw from than just short stories and poems. And don't get me wrong, I do love teaching those, as well. But if I couldn't teach The Hunger Games or To Kill a Mockingbird. Oh my. I might be asking Kristen for a job. ;)

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  7. OMG Tracee! That is the entire premise of me starting Secondary Solutions!!! People were getting rid of novels for the sake of the standards, and I said...seriously we can do both!!! I go to conference after conference begging admin and the "powers that be" to not go there! And I show them that it IS possible. I don't care if I were ever to make a penny more...I just want teachers and admins to realize you can do both...DO NOT GET RID OF THE LITERATURE (NOVELS INCLUDED) Ok, off my soapbox ;)

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  8. I have never really taught "novels"...I've always used literature circles and read alouds. However, I am now working as a curriculum developer in a school district in which many, many (maybe even all) teachers teach with whole-class novels. My main issue with this is that most of the teachers purchase the book on CD and the kids listen to it being read to them. I'm fine with that in some instances, but I also think that kids should read on their own without someone reading it to them. When you teach whole-class novels, do you read the novel aloud? How do you manage it?

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  9. I am 1000% with you. :) I teach in a small district where I AM the English department, and a variety of strategies--from whole class novels to short stories, drama, and poetry to lit circles to a bastardized form of reading workshop--is my saving grace. I have students for four consecutive years, often for multiple classes, and I have to have a variety. In a given year, I usually read two whole-class novels, do a lit circle or two, and pop in short stories, essays, and poems that we practically dissect as mentor texts in our writing workshop. I can't imagine losing the richness that provides. It's a beautiful thing.

    @Reading Scene, when I do whole class reads, sometimes I read the novel aloud, sometimes I play a chapter of an audiobook (Sissy Spacek reads TKAM much better than I do!), sometimes I let kids read on their own or in small groups, and I try to always have some way for them to play (and I mean play...write letters, write horoscopes with predictions for their characters, etc) at the end. Sometimes I do this with a specific purpose--I decide kids need to practice fluency, so I make them read out loud or I want them to work on listening or I want to model expression, so I read out loud. Other times, I put all of the different ways on popsicle sticks and let fate decide what we're doing when I choose a stick out of a cup. :)

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