The Whole Class Novel: Is It Worth It?

I have to admit that I am struggling these days.  I’m not sure what’s going on, but my students aren’t reading like they used to.

To be honest, I’m not reading like I used to.  I go in spells.  I’ll binge-read a series, or read the latest installment of Outlander or some other series I started “once upon a time.” But students aren’t doing the assigned reading as I expect them to do.

As a life-long reader, even when I couldn’t read, I cannot imagine anyone not wanting to get lost in a good book.  According to my mother, I could get lost in the “begats” of the Bible stories and even in encyclopedia articles like “How Cows Make Milk.” (Now, I can’t say I’m a fan of either topic, though I have been known to read the ingredients list on cereal boxes with interest when there was nothing else to read.)

So, how do I teach the whole class novel?  How do I engage students in meaningful instruction? I’m shifting my thinking after forty-plus years of teaching.

I still believe in the value of whole-class novels and shared reading experiences. I believe that these experiences can teach students to think critically about texts.  I believe that shared reading experiences can develop empathy for others. I believe that shared reading experiences can broaden “horizons,” if you will pardon the cliche. But what do you do if students haven’t read the text or if they refuse to engage with the text?  Therein lies the problem.

To start, I am returning to something I learned almost twenty years ago, but have put on the back burner:  the value of a good essential question.  I am working with the amazing Amanda Cardenas of  We are developing some vertical aligned units for grades five through eight, concentrating on my eighth grade English I class.  As we looked at units I have taught already and the ones to come, we came up with a year-long essential question, “Who controls my future?” The EQ for the upcoming Romeo and Juliet unit is “Which is more reliable, the head or the heart?”  The latter question does tie in with the year-long question as students think about how their decisions determine their futures. (By the way, way back when, I took part in the Intel Teach to the Future training.  Essential questions were the core of the unit planning for the Teach to the  Future units.)

How is the idea of essential questions affecting my thinking about the whole-class novel and shared reading experiences?  For one thing, I am reluctantly accepting the fact that not all students will read the entire novel. With the EQ in mind, though, I will select passages from the assigned reading for close reading in class.  For me, that include reading the selection aloud with students, pausing to discuss the literal content (the who, what, when, and where–the first levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy) and then moving to the more complex levels:  the analysis, application, synthesis, and evaluation levels.  In the analysis stage, I want students to pay attention to the craft of writing as well as the interpretation.  For synthesis, I want students to be able to put together a variety of ideas to create new meanings for them.  For the evaluation and probably application levels, I want students to think about how what they have learned from the text has meaning for their lives.  Have they learned more about themselves, about human nature, and about the world–and the way those things operate in their lives?

I know how ambitious these ideas sound. . . . Perhaps I am asking a bit much from my middle school students. But I believe in the power of literature to change people and the world.  I want my students to believe in that power as well.















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