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Use Whole Novels to Teach Lit to the Whole Class

In order to teach students about literature, a long time ago someone decided that we should do it in pieces. Give a student a reasonable amount to read, ask them questions, and then plan lessons around the read part. 

The only issue is that when teaching literature like this students miss out on loving the reading experience.

Consider if you were in a book group and you were only allowed to read up to a certain point or had to read at a certain pace. What kind of meaningful conversation would happen with your peers if you didn't know what happened later?

Why shouldn't students have the opportunity to love reading too?

Whole Novels for the Whole Class: A Student-Centered Approach by Ariel Sacks offers a solution to the old way of doing things. Told through the perfect balance of anecdotes and research, Sacks provides a rationale, then a step by step approach for changing the way literature is taught in classes from 5th-12th grades.

Unlike most pedagogical texts of this length (352 pages), Sacks has a way of making the reading light and interesting, sharing her stories and context throughout, actually showing the learning in a meaningful way. Since she has worked in three different schools, it's useful to know she's been where the reader has and her approach works in different settings.

As a teacher of literature, I shifted to whole novel reading because I noticed that fragmented reading ruined the reading experience. It's our job to help students at least learn to appreciate literature and it's impossible to do that in pieces.

The book is split into two parts: Essential Practices which covers big ideas and the "why" and Making Whole Novels Work In Real-World Contexts which gives practical solutions for all classes. The chapters are then further split up into readable chunks that make for easy stop and go if you're reading in during breaks at school. It would also make a great desk reference as it has many really excellent activities and organizers to help make whole novels work in your space.

In addition to great activities and ideas throughout the book, there are also links to videos to support the learning and show student responses. Every idea is thought out, start to finish, so the reader doesn't have to worry about the approach. The reader only read and then follow the steps provided.

One story in particular that stood out to me was at the beginning. Sacks discusses her student Hector who always thought reading was boring and he wanted nothing to do with it. Until one day he was given the opportunity to listen to an audiobook while he read. Sacks knew Hector had reading challenges, so she found a way to help him see that reading was "interesting."

We've all known Hector in his many different forms and as literature teachers, we must find a way to make reading accessible. And what English teacher wouldn't want a handbook on how to do it?

One chapter I really enjoyed and found useful and will definitely try with my 12th-grade students was the authentic note-taking section. Sacks already advocates for letting students read the whole novel and use post-it notes to track reactions and thoughts as they go. This makes them ready to talk in class and also provides an opportunity for student questions to lead the discussions instead of teacher planned lessons about what specific things mean.

Ultimately it was comforting to know that an eighth grade English teacher was already teaching students how to read this way. It's hard to refute the evidence she's shared for this method's success.

I strongly recommend this book for any teacher interested in helping students love the written word, as well as turning non-readers into readers.

How do you teach novels in your classes? Have you tried the whole novel approach? What are your thoughts about it? Please share

This post originally ran on my Education Week Teacher blog in July of 2015.

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