Is the Whole (Novel) Equal to the Sum of its Parts? August 29, 2016


Is there anything in English teacher school that says I have to teach a whole text?

I have tried to teach entire texts – provided the obligatory reading schedule, comprehension quizzes, “gotcha” summaries, vocabulary lists, and the like. Yet, I myself hate reading novels (plays, stories, etc.) in this manner.

What would happen if I stopped trying to read the entire text with my students?
Would the world stop spinning and fall from its axis into some deep black hole?
Would the sun stop shining, causing darkness to settle upon the earth for centuries to come?
Would the English teacher community shun me and make me wear a scarlet “A” for Anarchist, to be remembered by generations to come as the one reject who didn’t like to read boring “classics?”

In all my years of teaching, I have varied the way I have taught novels, but never actually forsook reading the novel:

  • I have assigned some parts for at home reading (None of the students read, then they just failed the quiz and didn’t really care – I still had to refer to the text and they still hadn’t read.)
  • I have attempted “popcorn” reading (I might prefer white-hot ice picks being inserted into my eyeballs to this one – my personal opinion is that reading should be modeled by fluent readers showing expression and comprehension of the reading.)
  • I have read some aloud in class (My voice was always hoarse by the end of the day and many students were drifting into dreamland. Plus, once I tried to sing “Beasts of England” from Animal Farm and I don’t think they – or I – have ever fully recovered from that disaster.)
  • I have played recorded professional readings in class (Talk about a snooze-fest; even I had trouble staying awake, and I was walking around trying to keep kids awake!)
  • One year I tried to select excerpts to read and pose a question at the end of class that was meant to provide some suspense that the students could only fulfill by reading at home. (They still didn’t read it.)
  • I have allowed them to read it in groups – “reciprocal reading” (More like “reciprocal gossip and what happened to everyone over the weekend.”)
  • I have let them read the entire novel at home then tested them at the end (Yeah, more Fs and nobody reading it, although this high-stakes scenario probably at least motivated some to cheat rather than doing nothing at all.)

So, why make kids read books that are above their reading levels on topics they don’t care about, from dead writers who have never stepped into their world?

What if I stopped reading whole-class novels? Are there any teachers out there doing this? Surely we can learn from DBQs (sets of Data-Based Questions) in social studies that close readings can be done with excerpts? Couldn’t we skip the long novel and just focus on the meaty parts, or would that be sacrelige? Must students build endurance and resilience by reading entire books or whole literary works? I researched a little today and found some answers. It seems that almost all experts I found (on the first page of Google advocate whole-class reading for some purposes. Here are the pertinent sites:

I researched a little today and found some answers. It seems that almost all experts I found (on the first page of Google advocate whole-class reading for some purposes. Here are the pertinent sites:

Common Core Argument – In favor of whole novel with some time for close reading

Ed Week – Ariel Sacks – In favor of a whole novel approach

Pernille Ripp’s Ideas – Not in favor of assigned books all read at the same time, but still advocates reading novels

Whole Class Novel Without Comprehension Questions – Alternative activities while reading a whole class novel to meet the needs of diverse learners

Just One Whole-Class Novel per Semester – Interesting take on the question.

Why You Should Finish Books – meh.

And finally, from a Barnes and Noble reading expert, some advice: “So, when should you quit books you don’t like? Whenever reading becomes a chore.” A good readLiterary Lady

I can see the value of all students being exposed to a text so that the whole class can explore ideas and themes from the book together. I can also understand that teaching novels sounds like it would inspire students to want to read, but I believe this is rarely the case. Does anyone like watching TV shows when  they keep stopping to show commercials? I doubt it – why else would people watch Netflix? I wish all my students read well and wanted to read on their own. I want all my students to love reading and pursue it passionately. But will whole-class novels create that inspiration? I’m beginning to think the answer might be no.


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