There is little more difficult than trying to engage a whole class of students in reading a novel that is a poor match for the group. There are things teachers can do to influence the experience in one direction or another, but a great deal rests purely on the book itself.
I’m a vocal advocate of student centered whole novel studies, even though there are many educators I respect who avoid whole class novels altogether in favor of student selected independent reading and smaller book clubs. I agree the element of choice is powerful, and I incorporate a lot of choice reading time into my class. I also know that a well-chosen book and a student-centered approach can bring students together around a shared literary experience. But how do we make that choice with so many different readers to think about?
For starters, we have to think about our specific group of students and search for the titles that will be most compelling and stimulating, especially for our readers who will be outside of their preferred genre and/or most comfortable reading level. We want to pick something they will actually put the effort in to read, and that we are confident the effort will pay off with the actual pleasure that comes with a good story. Otherwise we might drag them grudgingly through some sort of process that resembles reading, but we will not be doing them much of a service academically or emotionally.
Teachers need the freedom to pick the very best book out there for their group of students, and that means going well beyond what might be in the book room, and beyond titles prescribed through mandated curricula. We need positive influences in the form of teacher colleagues, librarians, bloggers, and online communities to help steer us to great titles. Check out the website and twitter chat #DisruptTexts to think critically about the traditional literary canon and “create a more inclusive, representative, and equitable language arts curriculum that our students deserve.” #WeNeedDiverseBooks is a great organization and resource for finding new and lesser known excellent books featuring diverse characters.
Once we have some possible titles in mind, we need to think through our decisions very carefully, going in with as clear an understanding of what might work really well about the book and what might be challenging about it.
Below is an excerpt adapted from Whole Novels For the Whole Class: A Student Centered Approach (2014) about five key factors I weigh when I select a book for my whole class to read. Note that sometimes my novel studies will involve splitting the class in half and having two connected books read concurrently. But I generally start the year with one book for the whole group.
Choosing For the Whole Class: Thinking In Five Dimensions
Making good book selections for whole novel studies, like the rest of teaching, requires a combination of intuition and calculation. Each whole novel study has a profound impact on the academic development of the class, as well as the group culture. The world of the novel becomes an almost tangible layer of our classroom environment for the weeks that we’re reading, discussing, and writing about it. When we complete the study, as individuals and as a group we are not in the same territory we started in. Each novel study creates a group journey of sorts, and the journey of each book fits into the larger trajectory of our entire year of reading.
In order for a novel to be appropriate for an entire class to live in for a length of time, it must have strengths that on some level transcend the realm of personal taste. Each book selection must be meaningful for students, connected to their interests, and accessible for my heterogeneously grouped classes. It also must be connected in some way to what came before it and what will come after it, so that the reading trajectory builds momentum and complexity across the year and students do not want to miss out on any piece of it.
When I search for books for whole novel studies, I consider the merits of each title in five key dimensions by asking myself these questions:
1. Development. How does the content of the novel connect to my students’ developmental stage? Why do I think this book is appropriate for my age group?
2. Identification / Diversity. How do the book’s content and setting relate to the life experiences of my students? Are they mirrors (familiar) or windows (unfamiliar)? Directly or indirectly connected? How does this title contribute to an overall balance of diverse characters and authors throughout the year?
3. Reading level. What is the reading level of this book in relation to the reading levels of my students? Is this book accessible for all, half, or just some of my students? Is it good for the beginning, middle, or end of the year?
4. Thematic connections. How does this book connect thematically or structurally to what came before it and what will come later in our curriculum? How does it connect to the books students have been choosing and loving most for their independent reading? To issues students care about in the world?
5. Literary strengths. Which literary elements are strongest in this work? What opportunities does it provide to focus on the author’s craft?
This may seem like an overwhelming list of considerations, but once I got used to thinking about each dimension of a single book, it became much easier to see the multiple dimensions at once and determine whether they combine to make a good whole novel choice. There is always an element of experimentation in teaching-- and a bit of a gamble in the choices we make--but the clearer I am on the theory behind my decisions, including anticipating weak points, the better prepared I am for what may come and the better the outcomes become.
Finally, my own assessment of any book is only part of the equation, since I’m not its primary audience in the whole novel study. A young adult book has to earn its respect from me personally, as well as from my students, in order to be accepted into the classroom canon. The classroom canon has nothing to do with the traditional literary canon out there, though. It’s made up of books that my students widely love and, perhaps more important, are respected for their craft by those who don’t love them.
[In the rest of the chapter, I go on to discuss each of the five categories and how I use them in my planning in more depth.]
The opinions expressed in Teaching for the Whole Story are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.