Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Sacred Cow: the Whole-Class Novel

On Pernille Ripp's blog, I was struck by something she wrote because I discover this same truth in my own students--from lots of them. Dozens and dozens of the kids who I have taught over the last decade could be the niece Ripp describes:
...my incredible niece who seems to inhale books told me today that since she keeps being assigned books in school she hasn’t really been reading much else. Which means her grand total of books this year is about 10. Rather than the 50 or 60 she usually reads. From 50 to 10. Let that sink in. She also told me the only reason it’s so high is because over the holidays she read a few books of her own choice, ones she had been waiting to read and finally felt she had the energy to. But 10 books is not very high, not for her at least, so there seems to be a problem here. Her English class seems to be killing her joy of reading.
I read this and I thought, my god, this is what my kids tell me. Something is wrong here. I've read Gallagher's Readicide, Kittle's Book Love, Atwell's, The Reading Zone, and Miller's The Book Whisperer, but nothing strikes a deeper more resonate chord than an adolescent telling me the truth and reality of their reading and writing lives.

At the very least, the whole-class novel is a sacred cow worth examining. So much of growing as a teacher is recognizing that what we are seeing is more valuable that what we have been saying...or think we are saying.

That said...let me say something...eh-hem...

For much of the last decade I have built my classroom around choice in reading, yet I have still made room for professional reflection and reading about the possibilities of balance between choice and whole-class selections. What has some value (the whole-class novel) can easily degenerate into something taught badly--and has been taught badly for quite some time.  

Believe it or not, I try to avoid teaching badly.

In my classroom, I have moved to a model where for over 90% of the year students experience complete control over their reading lives. I monitor and confer with students about their reading. We set goals together each marking period. We reflect on our growth. Yet, I have still retained a two to three week segment of the year for a whole-class novel experience...and even in that I offer some choice.

During the whole-class novel structure, students can choose from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, or Little Women. If, after trying those books, they do not feel engaged, I am open to their finding another option as long as it is a piece of classic literature which challenges them and engages them. 

I handle this reading in literature circles. It breaks the class down into smaller classes within the larger class. We discuss the book, their struggles and questions, and any of their observations about the text. I bring no preset list of questions. I bring no agenda of elements of a story. We can teach character and setting and conflict and point of view throughout the year in most any text. We can dip in and out of those examples. We don't have to flog our kids with questions when they engage in a whole-class novel. So, I listen and adjust to them. It is the students' agenda, not mine. It is their reading life, not mine. I am here to support them.

Yet, I find three major issues that I always feel I need to deal with better each time I employ the whole-class novel: pacing, the stop-and-start mentality, and distancing readers. These struggles are no different than from when I was truly struggling during my first few years of teaching...and didn't realize it.

Ultimately, when it comes to any whole-class novel, I find myself reflecting on how to pace each class based on the needs of the students. This is very difficult to do well. I have tried many different strategies. I tried setting a reading pace based on the slowest reader in the room. I tried to split the difference between the fastest and the slowest readers. I tried to chunk according to my schedule. I tried giving a due date far into the future, giving everyone enough time to read it at their own pace and opportunity.

In middle school, none of those work well. We always lose some kids. More than we'd like to admit. And, by lose, I mean kids don't read the book or kids grow disgruntled and frustrated.

Current evidence suggests that a 2-3 week window is most appropriate for teaching a whole-class novel, but what if that pacing is too slow for readers? What if that pacing is too fast for others? What is gained by losing strong readers in addition to frustrating already struggling readers?

Choosing one book and expecting it to help every reader in the room grow--when readers are just developing their stamina--is tricky business. We have the kids in one of the most malleable stages of their adolescence and the decisions we make about reading can ignite passion or dash dreams.

Our decisions can frustrate the hell out of them and snuff out their reading lives.

Stop-and-start mentality
Twenty-two years ago I stepped into my classroom and inherited several whole-class texts that turned the whole-novel into an Odyssean journey of tasks and obstacles. In retrospect, it was truly awful teaching. 

In 7th grade students were to read White Fang and Johnny Tremain. In 8th grade, students were given The Martian Chronicles, Romeo & Juliet, and The Diary of Anne Frank. Some parents bristled--especially parents whose older children had already passed through the gauntlet of middle school. I remember hearing how much their kids hated reading those texts. They told me this in parent conferences--often while rolling their eyes in resignation.

What I left out is that I not only inherited the reading list but also the reading packets for each novel. Each novel came with a thick packet of single-spaced questions organized by chapter. There were over a hundred questions to be answered in each packet. For some books, there were hundreds of questions. Hundreds. Hundreds of arbitrary questions. Along the way, there were arts and crafts type of assignments (make a diorama of The Secret Annexe; construct a Martian mask).

Can you imagine this igniting a love of reading in you when you were twelve?

Distancing Readers
I can recall the purple ink and blurred edges of the letters from the mimeograph. I can recall checking to ensure that everyone answered their questions (ha!). I walked up and down the aisles, recording who did and who did not.

All that effort distinguished was who took the time to complete the task of writing an answer down...or who scrawled a few stolen answers from their friends...not who read. More importantly, that heavy packet did not help me understand who understood what they read, or who enjoyed what they read, or who had questions about what they read.

Actually, I learned more about who read and what they thought when kids drifted up to me on their own time to talk about the book. Can you imagine? Kids had to come up to me on their own time to talk about the book. The kids were modeling and showing me what would work--what they needed--but it took me too many years to pay attention. It goes to show you just how far away from the kids I was. Those packets distanced me.

I had my head buried in those damn packets.

That model did not inspire conversation--all of the questions were already asked. I asked the questions. I was the expert in the room. I held the Rosetta Stone. My gosh, what else of value could there possibly be to discuss?

I wish I had a time machine to go back and shake myself by the shoulders.

That model also did not inspire kids to read more. Unless they came up to me on their own, there was no discussion about what they might read next...it was all about what I was going to make them read next.

I remember reviewing the questions with the kids--because when I did not they openly questioned why the hell they were filling out all of these questions in the first place. (Good point, Jimmy.) And I remember all of this taking a hell of a long time.

Final Thought for the Day
Why do we (sometimes) behave as if we own their reading lives?  Why did I?

I think the answer is because I believed we were supposed to. 

What message does that model send? Where was the space and time for their questions? Where was the model where I honored their struggles, their reading pace, their reading interests, and their reading growth? What hope did I give them of becoming a reader? The answer is, of course, none or nowhere. 

There was no space for the student to grow in that model.

That model was about little else than the content and the examples of elements of a story from that specific book. But, in each case, why that book? Can't we teach conflict, character, setting, et al. from any book? Can't we still teach those elements if thirty different books were being read by thirty different students at the same time. Yes, we can. Of course we can.

Why do we choose the individual books we do?

I admit that there is joy in a common read and that there can be value in a whole-class novel. But doesn't the model I experienced and executed (literally) suck all of the joy and growth out of reading? 

I remember something  a high school senior, Emily, said to me almost 20 years ago. I remember this very vividly. Emily was helping me with the middle school plays after school. She went on to study theater and worked in the biz for quite a while. At this point, I had been divorcing myself from the mimeographed packets for whole-class novels and one of the middle school actors wondered aloud why our class did not do them, yet Teacher X's class did.

Emily interjected and said, "I would kill to able to just read and talk about books again. You guys get to talk about books?" She looked at me, resigned to the fact that it was a lost pleasure in her life as a high school student and said, "I would love that."

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