Abandoning the Whole Class Novel

I think about reading all of the time. I try to think of ways to encourage my students to read more. I spent the first few years of my teaching career teaching whole class novels probably like every other ELA teacher. I was excited to share Bilbo’s journey through Mirkwood. I took a risk by singing the dwarves’ story about the Misty Mountains. I like making kids uncomfortable, ok? I love comparing Bilbo’s choices and character growth to our lives, and I like to think the kids in 8th grade got it.

When I think about the whole process in a big picture sort of way, I can see why so many kids start to despise reading. We start the chapter, then stop to ask questions. Then they get a worksheet or vocabulary, then we finish the chapter. It doesn’t flow. I don’t read that way, and you probably don’t either.

Too often when we read a whole novel together as a class, we ask students questions that they probably aren’t capable of answering yet. Most of them haven’t read all the way through The Hobbit (the movie doesn’t count!). How do they know if he’s a hero yet, or not? They don’t understand the history of the Tooks and Bagginses, and how that personal baggage has an impact on Bilbo’s decisions from The Last Homely House to Smaug’s Lonely Mountain. They barely even notice how regularly he whines about wanting to be home by his fire with a nice cup of tea.

What are we to do, then? Do we really need to pack every kid at every imaginable reading level along for the ride? Not if we’re going to stop and analyze every plot point and every characters action. We’ve lost them before we’ve begun.

I had a great conversation with a friend one recent Saturday. She talked of an experience she had in a high school English class. The teacher tried something for the first time that year. He had the class read The Old Man and the Sea all the way through before beginning to close read and ask questions. No extra assignments for comprehension. They just read. Then they came back and started the book again. But now with an understanding of who’s who, and where they are. She talked about how she actually understood the plot, and character motive, and the big picture of what the story is really about. That is amazing to me!

This is my first year teaching at a high school. I teach sophomores, and I’m trying something new. I get the feeling that they understand what they read better than when they were in 7th and 8th grade. Hopefully that’s true, they’ve been practicing for a few years. I don’t know exactly how I will do it, but I have until January to figure that out. We will be reading Macbeth, and I want to give them access to the characters and story all the way through once before I start to ask the why’s, who’s, when’s and what-if’s. I want them to understand the puns, and how the phrases turn. I want them to appreciate some aspect of Shakespeare’s genius. Sure we’ll read it twice, and at least watch a version of it once, but I’m hoping they love it like we expect everyone to love Shakespeare. Does watching one of Shakespeare’s plays count as reading? Is that cheating?

I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for every possible trick to help my students succeed with and love Shakespeare.

Donalyn Miller has a point. If they’re reading ability or reading enjoyment doesn’t improve, then why are we making them read?

Keep reading!


1 Comment

  1. “Curiously enough, one cannot read a book; one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.”–Vladimir Nabokov

    Liked by 1 person

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