Tomorrow I’ll be at the NCTE convention in Philadelphia doing a poster presentation with my mentor from Bank Street, Madeleine Ray, on the Whole Novels Program, a student centered literature program we’ve been developing for some years.  In honor of that, I’m posting a piece I wrote last year about my favorite part of the Whole Novels Program–discussions. Here it is:

It is my favorite time again–discussions of the novel the class has just finished reading. I pull two tables together on one side of the room to form a “discussion table,” and call half of the class to the table. The other students have independent work to do quietly; halfway through the period the two half-groups will switch.  Students know that there will be three days of successive discussions and that only students who have completed the reading are eligible to join.  A few students catch up on unfinished reading in a corner so that they may enter discussions the following day, or even by the end of the period.

This is a tradition I became a part of six years ago as a student teacher at Bank Street College, working with faculty advisor, Madeleine Ray, who teaches this methods each year in her Children’s Literature course.  When I was student teaching in an English class, she instructed me to try allowing the students to read and experience an entire novel on their own.  The point was to hold off on discussions and public interpretations until they had read the entire work.  Then, she urged, let the students discuss the work openly, as adults do in book groups or as art critics would do at an opening. “Don’t script a list of questions for students to answer,” she said. “Just ask them what they notice, what they think and go from there.”

Many teachers wince at this suggestion, predicting that their students will fail at the task, or that they, as teachers, will fail to teach the content they feel obliged to cover.  I also questioned if it would be possible.

Over the years, I’ve developed structures that help me hold students accountable for completing the reading and others that help struggling readers succeed in the process.  I’ve found that this core framework for the study of literature is one of the most sucessful and rewarding pieces of my teaching practice.

“Welcome to our first novel discussions,” I say to my group of nine students sitting around the table holding their novels, packed with post-it notes where they’ve recorded their thoughts over the last 2 ½ weeks of reading. I explain, “First, we will go around the circle and hear once from each student. After that, the discussion is open. The student to my left goes first. You can say anything you want about the book…tell us your general impressions of it, something you loved or hated, a character or scene you want to comment on, something you noticed or wondered…”

And the discussions begin.  Everyone gets a turn.  Students fight to hold back their responses until we’ve gone around the circle once. Then the discussion accelerates as students unleash their insights into characters, challenge one another over what really happened and why, whether the book was compelling or a bore, and frantically searching for the pages that hold proof of their points… All the while I take notes on everything that is said, only occasionally asking a question, or reminding students to take turns and make sure to hear from everyone.

During these discussions, year after year, I have the wonderful sensation that time around us has stopped—we are consumed by the experience—until the bell rings (or the timer goes off, indicating that it’s time for the groups to switch).

“Class is over?” a student usually asks, confused.

“Yes,” I say. “But we’ll continue tomorrow.  Before we go we need to decide on a homework assignment based on today’s discussion.” A student usually comes up with a question or challenge for the group to write a paragraph about.  If there are competing ideas, I ask students to write on something they would like to discuss tomorrow, in round two.  This may include locating a specific passage in the book that supports their position for the group to reread and analyze. By the end of the year, students create these types of assignments for themselves without me.

That night, I spend the extra time it takes to type up the notes from today’s discussions and bring a copy for each student to read at the beginning of the round two.  I give them a few minutes to read over the notes.  They are thrilled to see their words in print!  “As you read, highlight anything you want to return to in today’s discussion.” We begin by allowing everyone to speak once.  Then it’s open and the discussion picks up both speed and depth.  On day one, students mostly offer strong visceral opinions about characters or the book as a whole.  By day two or three, the students progress from analyzing characters, their relationships and conflicts, to analyzing more subtle themes and subtexts in the work.  They become aware of the author’s craft and purpose and are able to critique them.

Due to popular demand from students, this time every class continues discussing for four days straight.  We could have gone on even longer, but it was time to work on portfolio projects—students wrote essays on the novel, based on the ideas from our discussions.

To close, I gave students a quick anonymous survey that asked,What was it like to be part of the discussion groups this week? Describe the experience.  The responses were all favorable, and some were especially telling of why:

  • It was good.  I got to say what I think.
  • It was a good experience because we all got to express what we feel about the book.
  • It was great and controversial.
  • It was interesting because we got to see what each was thinking.
  • It was good because I got to hear others’ thoughts about the book and know they are thinking the same thing I’m thinking.
  • It was fun and cool that people actually got to hear what I had to say.
  • It was like being in a meeting, cooperating with others, talking about a girl our age.
  • It feels like I am making progress 100%.

These comments remind me that it’s not every day that we allow kids to really say what they think in school and be heard.  Adolescents will tell you if they don’t like your outfit, and some will tell you if they’re bored.  But when it comes to academic material, even the most outspoken students have been trained for years to look for the answer that pleases the teacher.

The success of this process for discussion of literature makes it clear that if we really want our students to think for themselves, we have to be open to what they will say.  I may want to discuss the symbolism of the cowry shell in chapter 10, but this does very little for the students.  We cannot be the one thinker in a room full of followers! Instead, we must be charged with devising ways to create opportunities for our students to share and pursue their own thoughts.

It is hard to resist the traditional role of teacher as chief thinker, which is as ingrained in teachers and schools as it is in our students. Letting go of it, however, is liberating, and the rewards for students are even greater.  Finally, no one spends class waiting for the bell to ring.

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