The Whole Class Novel

There is a lot of debate about the use of whole class novel instruction. I don’t really want to get into that, because like on most things, I see both sides, and just wind up hanging out on the fence.

Well, sort of. I actually believe in limited use of the whole class novel. Here’s why – It’s a valuable way to build community in our class, and to create some touchstones for work in the course. This is important in my room, because I teach thematically, and it serves everyone well if we build some commonalities to help us work with our own ideas and opinions about the theme.

(In some quick Googling of the debate, a lot of it comes down to the time spent on a single text, as well as the question of the novel being chosen. We do our reading within a week if we can. My novels are chosen based upon what I feel they offer us as a “touchstone text.”)

I really like to start my courses by diving right into a “touchstone text.” What I’d like to share, however, is my approach to this.

I begin the process by introducing the text and associated tasks. In Grade 10, that’s meant Of Mice and Men, and in Grade 11, Fahrenheit 451. (Grade 9 doesn’t have a consistent touchstone text, yet, and my 12s do a memoir study.) I’m open about my love for these books, but I also make a point of highlighting that for the students, the reading of these texts is primarily an academic task. Do I hope they love these books? Of course, but if they don’t, they still need to get through them, and the associated tasks. Though there are other, creative things that I do, the one that the students are most concerned with is the essay.

Once we’ve established that this is an academic exercise, I break down the process. Kelly Gallagher and Jim Burke pointed out in their work that the traditional post novel essay is ridiculously unfair. We read, get the assignment, and then, if we care about doing our best, we essentially wind up rereading. Boo! I give them the task up front!

I tie our essay to our theme. In the case of Of Mice and Men, I tell them that the novel deals with “sub-themes” that fit within our overall theme of Heroism & Facing Adversity – relationships, discrimination, loneliness, hopes and dreams, strength and weakness. Sometimes, I kickstart the thought by having them respond to and discuss “belief statements that deal with those themes. (Sometimes a person has to break the law to make sure appropriate justice is served.) Right up front, before we even begin reading the novel, they are told they will be writing an essay that will highlight what the novel has to say about one of those themes.

When we’re studying Fahrenheit 451, we’re working in a theme that has to do with society. I tell them that their essay will be an extended answer to the question, “Is our society approaching a future like the one Bradbury predicted in Fahrenheit 451?” Again, before they even read the book, they know what the essay is about, what they are expected to say.

Generally, I like to do the class novel as a read-aloud. It puts us all, literally, on the same page. (They can read ahead if they want, but guard the secrets of what we haven’t read as sacred!) As well, reading together gives us a chance to discuss as we go, highlighting key things, the craft, touch upon the themes, material that responds to our question, not to mention dealing with any tricky, or confusing, aspects of the work. I curate our conversations on the board, allowing the students to focus on the chat. The board notes are then photographed, and posted in our LMS for them to access. I encourage them to take notes that they’ll need for their individual work.

I also encourage them to pull quotes as we go. I reserve board space in the room for them, and have them put quotes on note cards, and stick them there for all of us to use. We organize around the themes, or answers to the question. These come in handy during the writing process.

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Our board during last year’s reading of F451

When we’re done, it’s time to get to the writing of the essay. Experience, as well as my need to subvert structure sometimes, has shown me that the start of an essay has no definitive right way to happen. The best I’ve done is to create what I call The Big Sheet. On 11×17 paper, I print them a booklet. The interior two page spread is composed of two pages dedicated to the two things they need to write the essay – a thesis statement, and the things they want to say. (The outside is composed of the transitions outlined in They Say, I Say.) With both in front of them, they can decide where they want to start – do they have a thesis first, and find the corresponding material, or do they write down what they want to say, and then decide what thesis that gives them. There’s a lot of talk and movement as we figure that out.

It’s at this point that the pulling of quotes begins to pay off. Watching students walk to the board, pull off the quote they need, walk back and write things down blew me away. They looked and decided, they compared quotes, and were able to find what they needed without the stress of going back into the novel, searching through hundreds of pages to find what supported their point.Or Googling and hoping it fits.

The beauty of this approach is that our classroom community has a resource we’ve created that we can use as we see fit. I am able to sit with students who need more support, while other tables conference, and other students work independently. I find myself having more meaningful conversations about the pieces while we plan them. I take a few moments, and explicitly teach a handful of writing strategies that are helpful, talk about organization and reinforce expectations.

The end result, for me, is that not only have we built a common understanding of a text that we can use as we study other things, but I get to read a diverse group of essays responding to a novel we all read. No longer do I get to read a stack of mind-numbingly similar essays that say the same things. The divergence in student thinking becomes more apparent because we’ve worked on a whole class novel as a whole class, worked towards an understanding together, and used this structure to support each other through the associated academic task.

Where do you stand on the issue of the whole class novel? Do you use “touchstone texts?” Which ones, and for what purposes?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!

-Jay

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One thought on “The Whole Class Novel

  1. Love these ideas! My Eng 11 kids are finishing Impossible Knife of Memory, and I want to incorporate some of these ideas into a final writing piece that acts as a “test” for the novel. I love the idea of the quotes and the “big book” as well. Mine have recorded group video discussions each week (they’re reading it in 3 weeks outside class while we’re doing companion things inside class) as they have worked through the novel, but I think this week’s videos will be on the overall theme and supporting quotes/scenes. Thanks! Perfect timing!

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