I’m sure many of us can remember a teacher assigning a whole-class novel that, upon hearing its name 20 years later, still makes you cringe. For me, it was Beowulf in my college British Literature class. Years later, when I was an English teacher myself, it was Ender’s Game, a novel my school mandated I teach to my freshmen. I don’t even think I finished the book.
In thinking and reading about the whole-class novel approach, I am conflicted. I see the benefits, but I am also aware of the downfalls. Earlier this week, my high school English teacher (now curriculum specialist), the same one who assigned Lord of the Flies as a whole-class novel (I was indifferent about this one at the ripe old age of 16), emailed me for advice. She wondered if I teach whole-class novels and if so, which ones and why. This got me thinking, “Why do I teach what I teach?”
Instead of being strictly “for” or “against” the whole-class novel, I see both the positives and negatives. This is largely rooted in what has worked/not worked with my own students during my tenure as a teacher (which, honestly, is always evolving!)
Whole-Class Novels: Friend
- You’re older now. I currently teach sixth grade and most students come to my classroom expecting to learn from a basal reader or some pre-packaged curriculum. This is what they know from elementary school. Thus, when I tell them we read novels in my class, their minds are blown and there are many gasps and some cheers. For these students, having an actual book assigned instead of worksheets or pages from a workbook differentiates them from their elementary peers. It signals a sign of maturity and growing up.
- Student Interests. I begin the year with a writing unit so I can learn about my students and their interests. From there, I then select a whole class novel that is highly engaging based on student feedback. If I teach 3 sections of the same class, not all sections will read the same novel (although, sometimes, they do if their interests are largely similar).
- Equality. Obviously, all of my students are not reading on the same level. So how do I choose just one book? And is it accessible to all students? I choose a book that is on grade level even though many of my kids are reading below grade level. The reason being is that students should read text above their reading level (but not at their frustration level!) With my students who are significantly below grade level, I do a hefty amount of differentiation and scaffolding. The key is differentiating. It takes a lot of work, but I find that starting the year with a common whole-class novel builds community with students and gives us some common ground to refer to the rest of the year.
- Exposure to various genres. I’m in an adult book club. Sometimes, a book is chosen from a genre I do not necessarily like (ahem, science-fiction). However, I think it’s great to broaden my horizens every now and then. Students need to know there are other types of books out there than the ones they always gravitate towards.
Whole-Class Novels: Foe
- Lack of engagement. Of course, there will always be students who do not find the class novel interesting and refuse to do the reading. These are generally the students who find the text challenging or unaccessible, which is why differentiation is super important.
- Teachers are forced to teach a novel. Sometimes, teachers have no choice in what books they teach. I was in this position once and if I am not excited about a book, then how do I expect my students to be excited?
- Reading levels. As stated above, reading levels in your class vary. Choosing one text for a variety of reading levels and then differentiating it takes a lot of time, which teachers have very little of.
- Cost. Luckily, my school is able to get me class sets of novels I want. This is not the case for all schools and class sets are expensive. Some schools ask students to purchase their own books, but this is not ideal in all schools.
- Lost books. Students will lose their books if they take it home. It somehow always happens. I begin with 25 books and by the time we are finished, I have 22. So do I not allow students to take books home? Do I chase parents down for the money to replace the book? What happens when a student forgets their book and there are no extras?
- Testing. Some teachers test students on the whole-class novel. (I used to and do not any more) In real life, are you tested over books you read? Does failing a test over a book you didn’t enjoy make you a “bad” reader? What are we telling our students by assessing them on a text that did not interest them, was too challenging or not made accessible to them?
What are your thoughts on the whole-class novel? Do you teach it? Let me know in the comments!