Read the Book First! (Why Every ELA Teacher Should Read THIS Book)

Spring Break: a perfect time to dive headfirst into a great professional read. If you have travel plans (or if you plan to stay in the comfort of your own home) check out Whole Novels for the Whole Class: A Student-Centered Approach by CTQ Collaboratory blogger and teacher leader Ariel Sacks. Her approach is guaranteed to invigorate your teaching practice and delight your students. 

Confession: I have ripped my students from the pages of a whole class novel in order to facilitate a discussion about what they are thinking, feeling, predicting, inferring and wondering about the text.

I’ve probed them about character motivation and author’s craft. I’ve asked them to think about universal themes beginning in chapter three or notice foreshadowing in chapter five. I’ve pushed them to interpret, often and early. My intentions were pure. Nonetheless, I know now this was a cruel trick to play on a group of engaged adolescent readers.

But after reading Whole Novels for the Whole Class: A Student-Centered Approach by Ariel Sacks, I vow never to do this again.

And so will you.

“The whole novels method builds on the reader’s interest in experiencing the story by allowing students to read the entire book before formal discussions of the work begin,” (pg. 21).

Key word – entire book. Not after the prologue. Or a series of chapters. Or at the climatic moment before the falling action. But after the entire book.

In this professional text for teachers written by a practicing teacher (an obvious strength that will resonate with readers from page 1), Sacks makes a compelling case for why we should allow students to read the entire work before delving deeply into text-based discussions.

She compares the reading of a work of fiction to the experience of watching a film. If we agree that pushing the “pause” button after every scene to engage in a brief discussion would result in (at best) minor annoyance and (at worst) extreme frustration on the part of the viewer, why do we do this to readers in our classrooms?

In straightforward and easy prose, Sacks takes readers on a journey into her eighth grade English Language Arts classroom, where the whole novels approach is used with her students to drive engagement, critical thinking, explicit and differentiated skill instruction, and pure enjoyment for each reader.

Teachers will learn how to recreate this approach and customize it for their own students. Sacks leaves no stone unturned, no practitioner question unanswered. From room set-up to text selection, writing assignments students complete along the way to discussion preparation, embedded Common Core connections to helpful appendices, discussion transcripts and video clips of the approach in action, working your way through this text is like having Sacks whisper coaching you through the process.

I can’t wait to try this approach with my students next quarter. I’ve piloted the sticky note annotations and modeled the ways of thinking (literal, inferential and critical lenses) that Sacks explores in the book with fantastic initial results. My striving readers are thinking about texts in new and advanced ways, and my struggling readers are finding the strategy supportive for monitoring their meaning making.

As a middle school teacher who seeks to balance adolescent interests with high school preparation and postsecondary expectations, I loved this book. But I hope that it reaches a much broader audience. While geared for 5th-12th grade teachers, this book is for anyone who knows the joy of reading a whole work and discussing it with a community of readers. This approach situates the book clubs we crave and join as adults or experience in compelling college seminar courses right where they belong—in the K-12 ELA classroom.

Before you think about teaching another whole class novel—stop—and read this book first.

 

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