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Guest Post: Lea Jones on Teaching Whole Novels

Several months ago (before the publication of my book, Whole Novels for the Whole Class), I received an email from Lea Ellen Jones, a literacy facilitator for grades K-5 in Arkansas. As Lea describes in her post below, she had read my article in Ed Week, Reading Fiction Whole, and was interested in trying out the whole novel approach. I answered her questions and a few months later, she wrote this fabulous reflection on her process trying a whole novel study with 5th grade ELA teacher, Carla Nelson. (Carla and Lea are pictured left, respectively.)  

This is a story of teacher leadership, collaboration and risk-taking to transform student learning--and it is also a story that shows the value of being connected educators and sharing knowledge across geographical divides. Lea learned about a new method for engaging students with literature, and through her work and writing, I learn more about how whole novels can look at the elementary school level. 

                         ***

“So, which chapter do we stop at?” asked the fifth grade student. 

“You don’t have to stop.  You can read as far as you would like.”

This was the discussion I had with several students in our 5th grade classrooms in early fall.  I went on to explain that each student was going to be responsible for his/her own learning and would need to follow the schedule that was given to them.  They had to be prepared to “check in” with us on specific chapters according to the calendar they were given and have their sticky-notes ready.  We were ready for a new journey in reading fiction WHOLE!

My interest in whole novels was sparked when Education Week posted past articles within their “Teacher Professional Development Sourcebook” back in September of 2013.  Different articles were being featured and when I read the title, Reading Fiction Whole”, a spark went off inside me!  This is what I had been looking for as a literacy facilitator in grades K-5.  I have been struggling with my 3rd-5th grade teachers in balancing small group differentiated instruction and exposing on grade level class novels. What was the balance? How were we going to achieve the expectations of the CCSS along with pulling our below grade level readers up to grade level? So how in the world was this teacher in New York exposing her kids to the same text, at the same time, differentiating the learning for her students?

Then I read the notation at the end of the article that stated where Ariel taught and mentioned that she had a book coming out on teaching whole novels.  Realizing the article was written in 2012, I thought surely her book was already online.  I quickly searched Ariel’s blog and found where I could get her book, but of course it wasn’t coming out until October 2013.  It was September 2013 and we were starting a whole class book in two weeks.  What does any rational literacy facilitator do?  I search out Ariel Sacks.  I stalk her and discover where she teaches and found her email.  I constructed an email that asked for her help without sounding like a lunatic from Arkansas.  There are rumors about us southerners, and I didn’t want her to think I was a total crazy person.  When Ariel emailed me back, you'd have thought I had won the lottery.  I was so excited that she actually contacted me and was willing to give me some insight into this project I was getting ready to embark on with my 5th grade teacher. 

I quickly found a teacher to jump with BOTH feet into “Reading Fiction Whole”.  We had a text that we were getting ready to start in 5th grade that went with the content of our curriculum maps, which happened to be the Renaissance.  We have 28 copies of The Apprentice by Pilar Molina Llorent and I wanted this teacher (Mrs. Nelson) to try the strategies suggested in this article:

·       Let students read novels in their entirety

·       Let them talk about what they find interesting

·       Facilitate group discussion

·       Provide independent reading time for the book

·       Track progress with the use of sticky notes

·       Create group mini-projects

After meeting with Mrs. Nelson and having her read the article, she was ready to try it.  We happened to be in a coaching cycle together, so my schedule was blocked off for all of her literacy times.  (Our fifth grade departmentalizes and Mrs. Nelson teaches all the ELA standards.) But, in typical teacher form, we were under a time crunch and needed to get started with this book quickly.   

To get ready:

·       We actually read the book before the students started reading it.  This sounds like, “Of course you would read the book,” but you would be surprised how many books kids read that the teacher has never read!

·       I  gathered all the student materials that we needed to follow the system Ariel emailed to me:

o   Large plastic bags

o   Sticky notes

o   Letter with student expectations

o   The actual book, ready to go

·       I created a “teacher note page” that had all of our plans laid out for the next 2-3 weeks concerning our whole novel.

·       We looked at the scoring guides we use with our ELA standards, to see how we could score students through this process.

Then, the day finally came.  We were ready to start and I was so excited I could hardly stand it. (It’s amazing how educators can get worked up over these things.)  It was such a joy to give the students a book and tell them that they could read the entire text without having to stop.  This book had a mystery involved and the kids loved the fact that they could continue to read without us telling them to stop.  We did make it clear to the students that they had to follow the schedule that was included in their bag, and that we would have brief discussions about certain chapters on the days specified on their calendar.  So after going through the process with 5th grade students, and reflecting on our glows and grows, here is the summation:

·      Glows:

o   Students gained independence.

o   Everyone was included.

o   Students respected the responsibility of keeping up with items and own reading.

o   Students realized that taking an Accelerated Reader only scratches the surface of comprehension.

o   The mini-projects were a way students could express their knowledge in various forms.

·      Grows:

o   Students needed more knowledge on how to write thoughts on sticky notes.  Should have modeled this strategy more before having them do it on their own.

o   There were at least 3-4 kids per class that could not read this text; was it worth it for them to miss instructional level reading? How could we support them better the next time we have a whole novel?

o   Have more structure for checking in on students:

§  Need to stop more after 2-3 chapters and have students answer text-dependent questions.

§  Check on how they are using the sticky notes

§  Have days assigned for checking in on below grade level students.

What I realized:

·      Now that I have the actual book, Whole Novels for the Whole Class, I am going back into 5th grade and go through the process of telling a story orally and adjust it  just a little by using the folk tale to model the expectations that need to be seen through a whole novel study.

·      Reading a whole novel with your whole class builds community.

·      There is great opportunity to bring in text dependent questions.

·      As a literacy facilitator, it is a good thing when your teachers see that you are learning just like them!

The strategy of reading a whole novel without interruption from the teacher can be used in different ways in the third through fifth grade classrooms:

·      To start out, choose to do a whole novel with one of your literacy groups that are based either upon grade level or strategy (fluency, comprehension, accuracy).

·      Use the strategies suggested in Whole Novels for the Whole Class and modify it for the small group.

·      To expose students to on grade level material and exemplar texts, implement the 3 ways of thinking (ch. 3) with a shorter piece of text. 

Always remember that we will never grow as teachers if we aren’t willing to jump in with both feet sometimes.  It is nice when you have a team member that is willing to make the plunge with you so that you can both grow professionally together.  I am very thankful for the opportunity to work through the strategies that Ariel implements in her classroom, and I look forward to continuing this journey of reading whole novels with classrooms. 

--Lea Ellen Jones, Literacy Facilitator for Grades K-5 in Rogers Public Schools, Arkansas

 

 

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