Ariel Sacks, author of Whole Novels for the Whole Class, shares five reasons to try a whole novel approach. She also explains how this approach works and some advantages for teachers.
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Below is an enhanced transcript, modified for your reading pleasure. For guests and hyperlinks to resources, scroll down.
5 Reasons to Try a Whole Novel Approach in Your Classroom
Vicki: Today we are talking to Ariel Sacks about Five Reasons to Try a Whole Novel Approach in the Classroom.
Now she does have a book on this topic, and I know that you’ll probably find it intriguing. So Ariel, help us understand — what is a whole novel approach?
What is a Whole Novel Approach?
Ariel: Ok, so the whole novel approach is really kind of like a workshop approach to a whole class novel study.
Instead of the teacher leading the students through all of the novels, bit by bit, students receive the novel, they receive the schedule, and then they receive a lot of individualized support to actually read the book independently. Or partners or small groups, kind of depending on the needs of the students.
So some students will finish way ahead of the deadline and some students will really use every moment of it, perhaps listening to it on audio.
Then when students finish at the deadline… We meet up, and we come together for student-driven discussion, where the students decide what we talk about.
We go back into the text. We re-read sections together. We investigate it and get to a deeper meaning, in all the ways that are wonderful about class discussions and whole class novel study. But it is really different because the teacher moves into a facilitator roll.
How do You Motivate Students to Read with This Approach?
Vicki: So what do you say to those who say, “They won’t read a chapter! How are they going to read a whole novel?”
Ariel: Right. So, I do get that question a lot.
Once you switch the focus to the students-supporting-students reading process, and really conferencing with them and being very open about where each student is a reader, and giving them the support that they need… They do read!
And they read much more than when the teacher is front and center. And the students can rely on the teacher to do the reading and interpreting for them. But those supports are really key to making sure that students do their reading.
Vicki: So what’s your first reason to try a whole novel approach in your classroom?
Reason #1 to Try a Whole Novel Approach: You’re Tired of the Traditional Model of Teaching Literature
Ariel: My first reason is just maybe you’re just sick of that traditional whole class novel study.
There’s so much wonderful work being done out there with choice reading, genius hour, project based learning.
And then, maybe you love whole class novels because there are really amazing things that can happen when a group of students reads together.
But you go back to teaching a whole class novel and it’s back to the traditional. And you find yourself bored. So you want to try something different.
Vicki: It’s a new way, so we can try something different and see how it works!
Reason #2: You Are Struggling to Have Enough Time for All of Your Novels
Okay, what’s the second reason?
Ariel: The second reason is time.
One of the big pitfalls of the traditional whole class novel study is that eat an entire marking period.
When teachers feel that students need to grasp every point that they see in the novel, and the teachers need to oversee that and help them through that bit by bit. It takes forever!
So that can lead to burnout, and when I say “burnout.” I mean getting burned out on that particular book.
So by the time it is finished, you never want to look at it again. But also, you’re not reading enough books throughout the year. You get the feeling that kids are stagnating.
Then when students finish at the deadline… Okay, so you can go faster. What else?
Reason #3: You Want More “Real” Reading
Ariel: Well, my next reason is you want more real reading.
So we kind of touched on this before, but I do think in the traditional model there is a lot of “fake reading” that happens.
Students will look for the answers to the teacher’s questions in the text, but they’re not actually reading through the text. They’re not actually experiencing it.
Another thing that happens — even for the student that is reading along and doing exactly what the teacher is asking for — sometimes the experience gets really chopped up. So it’s taking way too long, and it’s almost (I’ve actually had students tell me this) — It almost becomes hard to pay attention to the story, because they’re doing so much, in addition to actually reading. With the whole novel process, they’re really privileging that story experience. And trying to support that.
Vicki: That makes sense! I remember reading Jane Eyre in high school. Fantastic teacher, but I got so into it that I read it in three days. And then it was (discussed for) another eight weeks. It almost made me not like the book — except I liked it so much.
Reason #4: To Bring in More Student Voice and Agency
Ariel: So, next is student voice, for teachers who want a classroom that really welcomes student voice and gives students a lot of agency in their learning.
Students have voice in how they respond to the novel. They decide what’s important in the text. We do this through a very open forum of annotating during the reading process.
And then when it comes to those discussions which happen after all the students finished the reading, those are entirely student-driven so I do put on a facilitator role. It’s not a Socratic seminar where I sit back and just watch it unfold. But they’re deciding what we’re going to talk about. It’s really powerful.
Vicki: So you’re there, deciding what you’re going to talk about?
How Do We Direct the Conversation to Cover the Content When Students Are Leading?
So let’s say you’re an AP teacher, and you know that certain things are going to be on the AP test.
How do you direct the conversation, when you know there are certain things that need to be covered? Or do you let them have the conversation, and then redirect them?
Ariel: I definitely start by letting them have the conversation.
I think it’s really important for them to feel what happens when they have that power.
Nine times out of ten, let’s say I’m doing several discussions with different classes throughout a day. So every discussion begins in a different place.
But nine times out of ten, because of the power of the book itself and the literature, they will find themselves going to some of the same places in a natural way.
And if they don’t — if there are things that I know are really key — I do have tricks to have them pay attention to something. But (I do this) without really taking away from them — without jumping right into it and without taking away that experience.
Vicki: Ok, what’s our fifth?
Reason #5: to Have Fun
Ariel: The fifth is fun. It’s not boring. I can actually read the same text with students many years in a row, with many different classes. And every time different things come out of it.
Even though I said the literature will lead students in certain directions, the shape of those discussions are unique every single time.
Also, who kind of “comes out of the woodwork” in those discussions is really interesting.
We do it in half groups, so every student gets a more intimate experience.
So it’s a task for class, and every student gets more talking time. And the students that were empowered by the actual, authentic reading experience and come prepared for the discussion will speak way more than they may normally speak in class.
And they will share ideas with their classmates and amazing connections and moments come out of that. So it’s stays fresh. And that is because of the students.
Vicki: Ariel, tell us the title of your book.
Ariel: The title of the book is Whole Novels for the Whole Class: A Student Centered Approach.
Vicki: Okay, and we’ll link to it in the show notes because there are lots more ideas about how to do that.
You know, it’s hard to cover in ten minutes, but there are tricks and tips for facilitating conversations for helping kids read.
And if all you do is the traditional version, why not try the whole novel approach?
You might be surprised.
Bio as submitted
Ariel Sacks (arielsacks.com) has thirteen years of experience as a teacher of English Language Arts in New York City public schools in grades seven through nine. She writes about teaching and education issues on her blog at Education Week (http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/whole_story/), and supports teachers around the world to implement student-centered methods, most notably the whole novels approach. She is the author of Whole Novels For the Whole Class: A Student Centered Approach (arielsacks.com/book). She is a co-author of Teaching 2030: What We Must Do For Our Public Schools–Now and in the Future, and was featured in the book Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead Without Leaving.
She studied progressive pedagogy at Bank Street College of Education, where her mentor and longtime collaborator, Madeleine Ray, first introduced her to the whole novel concept. She is a member of the CTQ Collaboratory (www.teachingquality.org) and an advocate for teacher voice in education and leadership of the profession.
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