Banish the Whole-Class Novel?

the infernoI’ve been thinking about Pam Allyn’s article in Education Week for a couple of days. I read a few of the comments, too. While I think Allyn makes some valid points about putting the right books in the hands of students, I also think that can be accomplished through independent reading and literature circles without eliminating a whole-class novel study. More goes on in a whole-class novel study than just reading books. Critical thinking—synthesizing ideas, analysis, compare and contrast, application of one situation to another, interpretation—the list could go on. Sometimes, students actually do enjoy those books, too. I’ve seen it happen many times, even with books you wouldn’t think. I have had students not want to stop reading when class is over when we studied The Catcher in the Rye. I have had professed non-readers tell me how much they liked The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. One former student told me when she packed for college, she had room to take three books. One of them was Wuthering Heights, which I had introduced her to (granted, our study of the story was based on the film and I gave her the book to read when she showed interest in delving deeper).  Do all students like all books? No. I didn’t like all the books I read in school either. And sometimes I think we try to teach books that students are not ready for. I’m not sure I was ready for The Scarlet Letter in high school, but I enjoyed it when I read it in my late twenties for the first time. Same thing with The Great Gatsby. However, I have also taught students who were ready for those books in high school and enjoyed them. One student who was in my class in ninth grade blossomed in his English class when his tenth grade teacher taught The Great Gatsby—he loved it. Would these students have read The Great Gatsby or The Scarlet Letter if we hadn’t done a whole-class study? I’m not so sure. Sometimes it does happen that a student finds a book that means a great deal to him or her through a whole-class novel study, and I and other teachers I work with have been personally thanked for introducing that student to that book. And students do enjoy whole-class novel discussion. It’s not a novel, but whole-class study of Romeo and Juliet has been a hit every year I’ve taught it.

While I think we really do want to create life-long readers, and establishing independent reading in our classrooms can go a long way toward accomplishing that goal, studying a novel as a class is not a waste of time, and we can and should incorporate more nonfiction and more books that appeal to boys as well as girls. To me, it’s about balance rather than an all or nothing approach—balancing choice reads with whole-class or literature circle selections. One commenter on the original post said, “It’s not the whole-class novel that’s the problem—it’s how we choose those novels.” I agree. The example Allyn uses to demonstrate problems with the class-novel study is of a twelve-year-old reading To Kill a Mockingbird. I read that novel in eleventh grade, and it was the perfect book for me at that time. I taught it for years as a ninth grade text until students began coming to me having studied it in middle school. Even though I see the value in re-reading a novel, I also had to contend with parents who thought I was teaching a middle school text, so I gave that one up. My personal opinion is that To Kill a Mockingbird is perfect for high school students, but there may be some middle school students who are ready for it. So what do we do in the face of pressure to include more rigorous reading in the middle school? What should all literature teachers be doing to foster a love of reading while pushing students forward as critical thinkers?

Well, the commenter I quoted previously went on to say that “[a]ll choice is no better than no choice.” We need to think about what studying a text will teach us that we can’t learn from studying any other text—the first step in backward design, by the way. When we studied The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I asked my students themselves to justify its place in our class. Should it even be taught? Wasn’t it racist? Couldn’t some other book do just as well without exposing students to the n-word over 200 times? They put the book on trial, and the conclusion they came to was that it was important for us to study Huck Finn because it captured a moment in our history that was important not to ignore. We should be thoughtful about why we teach anything that we teach.

Next year, I will not be teaching literature classes for the first time in my teaching career, so this is perhaps not even something I need to chew over very much because it’s not a decision I will have to make. However, I do know that any time I ever teach a literature class, I will always teach the whole-class novel as a part of my curriculum.

P.S. Unrelated, but speaking of Education Week, Katie Ash interviewed me for her article “Language Arts Educators Balance Text-Only Tactics With Multimedia Skills.” Key word: balance. Check it out!

Creative Commons License photo credit: church mouth

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