My co-teachers weigh in on whole novels

I’m writing a chapter of my book on Whole Novels—in which students read an entire novel more or less on their own before having substantive discussions about it—about support and differentiation for diverse learners. The classes at my school could not be more diverse with reading levels spanning from second or third grade through first year college. It’s rewarding and mind-blowing! Anyway, my writing was just getting stale. I was tiring of the sound of my own voice… I have co-taught two or three out of four classes for three years now. My co-teachers know more than anyone else about how the program works for our students. Their voices were virtually missing from my book! So I called on them to weigh in about the planning process, how we support our students with learning disabilities, and their thoughts about the strengths of the program and new directions to explore.

And… I learned so much! I got tons of good content to quote from in my book, but I also gained new perspectives on the method.

Marcia Stiman-Lavian, for example, pointed this out:

“I think the whole novel study is a great opportunity for diverse learners. It allows kids, especially with learning disabilities, to go at their own pace and access the book in a way that works for them, without the pressure of feeling like their peers are ahead or understanding the book better or differently than they do… By not discussing fully until the end, students can access the book their way, and then feel really ready when the book is over.  Especially since they know the discussion is coming and they know the date, they can get prepared to be involved. Since all kids must participate, students know they have to be ready with something. This often motivates kids who are normally not comfortable sharing their responses, to get ready. Then they can participate fully in the group discussion, often for the first time in a while.”

I had never noticed this benefit of the whole novels process for special education students. This made me realize that the aspects of time and independence also helps academically gifted students, who may read very quickly. In a whole novel study they aren’t held back by the fact that the rest of the group doesn’t read as fast as they do. They can read quickly, and then often reread for deeper meaning. Then I have them use the extra time to explore more of the author’s writing or thematically related texts—both fiction and non-fiction—by other authors.

Everyone meets up at the appointed due date for discussions, and all students are able to bring their experience to these sessions.

Daniel Brink-Washington, chair of the special education department at Brooklyn Prospect, whom I worked with for the past two years, pointed this out:

“One thing I really enjoyed working with you on, was thinking about what opportunities and challenges kids might meet in terms of content, not just reading skills. I think about the themes in the novels we chose. Some will be an opportunity to build on what I know a kid is already interested in, and in other cases, a novel exposes kids to things that might be new to them. Those things can present challenges as well. Often times those challenges—and the process of overcoming them—is where a lot of the learning happens in studying literature. I think about the thematic challenges in the novels we taught in ELA8—challenges of diversity, power, and conflict in all of its forms. When you read about these ideas, it causes students to have to confront a lot of the conflicts in their lives. It becomes a learning opportunity for them.”

Danny also shared how important it was that special education students be a part of these studies and the discussions and not be excluded from reading grade appropriate content, even when their reading skills make this a great challenge. We have worked together to devise ways to bring all students into the whole novel studies. Being a part of the novel community has been a powerful motivator for struggling readers to put in the time it takes to develop the reading skills and strategies they need—so in a way, it’s a circular process, one hand (whole novel studies) feeding the other (reading remediation), and both becoming stronger for it.

Looking forward to sharing this work when the book is published!


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