Saturday, January 12, 2019

Simplifying Class Novel Study

This past fall, my 7th graders "participated" in the 2018 Global Read-Aloud. I use the word "participated" very loosely, because due to many factors out of my control, we did not keep up with the schedule and did not take part in any meaningful discussions with other classes. What we did do, however, was read Refugee by Alan Gratz, using the absolutely lovely Audible audiobook to guide our reading.

There were some amazing things that happened during this novel study, and there were some things that didn't go as expected. One of the downsides of our study of Refugee was that it took FOR.EV.ER. It is a long book for middle school, but it took so much longer than the allotted six weeks on the Global Read-Aloud schedule. Another downside was the fact that my students didn't have access to the book at all times. I bought a single class set of twenty-eight novels. If I could have gotten ninety copies so each kid could have one, I would have, but I decided very last minute to do this novel study, so those twenty-eight books came out of my own pocket. That meant that students only had access to the novel during class time (with the exception of one or two who snagged a copy from the library). A third downside was one that has always happened with novel studies in class: when I, the teacher, know things about the book that my students do not know, it often means I too quickly try to get them to dig in and analyze the piece of literature. I started attempting deep and meaningful discussion far too soon, long before they were ready and knew the characters and truly understood the story. Newsflash: we don't do this when we read "in the wild." Rarely do we aim for deep, philosophical thinking every few chapters or so. Instead, real readers take in a novel, doing some processing along the way, but ultimately the critical thinking and analysis happens late in the book, if not after the book is entirely finished. We process the events of the story as they happen; we process the theme and the purpose as the book comes to its conclusion. Sometimes we do this whole-class novel business in a funny way. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Let me tell you about the AMAZING things that happened when we read Refugee. For starters, I hooked the kids early, before they ever had the book in their hands. I teach in a rural middle school. We are not ethnically diverse. My biggest concern before starting Refugee was getting my white students, many of whom come from Christian families, to be invested in these characters (a Jewish boy from Germany, a Cuban girl with no religious upbringing, and a Muslim boy from Syria). I knew that a lot of the things my students grow up hearing about immigrants, refugees, "Mexicans" (because all people of Hispanic descent are often labeled as such in this little corner of the world), and Muslims could be detrimental to their ability to connect with the kids in the story. I started the unit by giving them a list of statements, and they had to place a check mark beside the statements that applied to themselves. Some of the statements were light-hearted, and some were very serious. It is important to note these checklists were completed anonymously due to the nature of some of the statements. Here are some example statements:

  • I have a little sister.
  • I have a little brother.
  • I play a musical instrument.
  • I live with both of my parents.
  • I have an Xbox.
  • I like cats.
  • I practice a religion.
  • I have gone to bed hungry.
  • One of my parents has an iPhone.
  • Someone I love has been/is currently in jail.
  • I have had to move away from home.
  • I like playing pranks.
  • I have used Google Maps.
  • I have been on a cruise ship.
  • I have been to a different country.
  • I have been made fun of or bullied because of my religion.
After my students completed their checklists, I asked them why they thought I had them do this reflection before reading the novel. Many students said something about how I wanted them to see how different their lives are from the lives of the characters in the story. Others said I wanted them to recognize how fortunate they were compared to the kids in the story. These answers couldn't have been further from the truth. When I told them that every item on the list was something that they had in common with at least one of the three refugees in the story, their jaws dropped. They couldn't believe that a Muslim kid in Syria would play an Xbox or that a Jewish kid living in 1939 could have been on a cruise ship. This moment was huge, and all of a sudden the characters became real people they could connect to. After this discussion, and once they were introduced to Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud, most of them became very attached to at least one character and his/her story.

Another amazing thing that happened with this novel study was something I listed earlier as a downside: the conversation. The conversations during the first half of the novel were uncomfortable, stilted, and filled with silence, because the kids didn't know what I wanted from them. They had not yet been able to get their heads around deep topics like why Alan Gratz wrote this novel. Once we got about three quarters of the way through, though, as themes truly started to emerge, my students deeply impressed me with their insight and the wonderful conversations they had using the Shared Inquiry method.

Over the last eight years, but especially after doing a novel study with middle school kids for the first time, I've come to figure out some things that work and some things that don't with whole class novels

What Does Not Work:

  • Written response reading comprehension questions/quizzes after every chapter - It kills momentum and makes reading a chore.
  • All students must read the novel silently, independently, and on their own time outside of class - It is not going to happen for unmotivated readers. Period. And we are doing a terrible disservice to our students when we say, "Well, they should have just read the book. I guess they can't participate today." We are setting them up for failure.
  • Talking over every. single. thing that we, the teachers, deem important in the novel - Fellow English teachers, it is likely that you are an English teacher in part because you love to read and you love to share that reading. We cannot, however, force feed our students our understanding and interpretation of a novel. We must present them the literature and then let them tell us what is important and what they want to talk about. That's how we get buy-in.

What Does Work:

  • Getting them hooked on the story before the story begins - We must make every effort to get as many kids as possible hooked on the story before we ever crack the spine of the book. We cannot always count on the book doing the job itself. Often our reluctant readers need help being motivated to get past the cover. As far as your kids who want to read, you will have them literally trembling with anticipation if you build up the novel before you begin in.
  • Once we start a book, we need to let the readers devour the book - Why, oh why, are we punishing our readers by subjecting them to deadlines and saying "STOP. You may not go beyond this point"? Can you imagine how it would feel if you picked up your current favorite read and there was a big stop sign after every cliff-hanging chapter ending and it said you could not go on until someone else said so? We must let the readers read! (And perhaps have them take an oath during which they solemnly swear they will not spoil the story for others.)
  • Access to the book in more than one way - I have a controversial opinion. I do not think that every person is a reader and that they maybe just haven't found "the book." I think there are people in this world who just are never going to be book readers. And I think that's okay because I think it takes all kinds to make this world turn. And besides, if I'm doing a whole-class novel study, there is a chance that this novel will not be a page-turner even for a kid who likes to read. It just might not be to their taste. But I still want every kid to experience this novel, right? I've selected it for a reason! In some way, this novel must be important, or I would not have chosen it. We must make this book as accessible as possible, and we should be giving students choice in how they access the book. I know, I know, THE STUDENTS WON'T HAVE ACCESS TO THE AUDIOBOOK ON THE STANDARDIZED TEST SO THEY MUST BE ABLE TO SIT STILL AND READ SOMETHING EVEN IF THEY DON'T LIKE IT AND WHY ARE WE CODDLING THESE CHILDREN WE ARE MAKING A NATION FULL OF ILLITERATE SISSIES! Okay, yeah, I get it. The Test. But I also understand that in order for a student to even bother to read the selections on The Test, I've got to do everything I can to help them at the very least tolerate any form of reading. Getting a non-reader to read independently is like feeding my 8-month-old son green vegetables. The kid hates green vegetables, but he needs to learn to at least tolerate them. So I keep offering him green vegetables at pretty much every meal, but I offer them with something he likes. Green beans go down much better when you disguise their flavor with just a wee bit of peach puree. The flavor of banana is so strong and delightful that my child doesn't even realize he is eating peas with some banana added in. And as time goes on, I remove the fruit, little by little, until my child is perfectly tolerant of green veggies. Does he love eating them? No, but he'll do it. I have to train my kid to eat things he doesn't want to eat by offering it time and time again, and by doing it in a way that I can convince him to like them. Sometimes we have to add bananas and peaches to the green veggies in our English classes, and then slowly remove the bananas and peaches until we have a kid who can tolerate the veggies, even if he doesn't love them. *steps off soapbox*
  • Student-driven conversation - I had training on Shared Inquiry earlier in the school year, and I cannot more highly recommend this form of student-driven conversation. Not only do the kids get really into it, it actually saves me a load of time! I do not have to generate discussion questions! The kids do all the hard work and brain power. All I do is facilitate. Let the students decide what is worth talking about. Every time I have done this, the students have always surprised me by leading into the topics I would have wanted to discuss anyway, and they've always impressed me by their ability to have civilized, intelligent discourse about literature at the age of 12.
So... here's the path I'm heading down today (it's been a long one, so kudos if you're still here).

I am starting my next novel unit. All of my 7th graders (high ability, general, and co-taught) will be reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Using the learning I have detailed above, I am breaking this unit into three phases.

Phase 1: Get Them So Wildly Invested in This Novel Study That They Can't Sleep
This right here is where I am pulling out all the stops, ya'll. I am doing this through a combination of context study and hype. I am providing them necessary context so they go into The Hunger Games with all of these new ideas about equality, fairness, oppression, wealth, poverty, utopias, dystopias, and the relationship between the government and its citizens just swirling around in their brains. I'm planting all of this contextual information through scenarios and activities rather than traditional lecture info dumping. This week, we did an amazing lesson full of scenarios on equality and fairness that had their brains kicked into overdrive. To freshen up their note-taking skills, students did note-taking stations (an idea I took from this episode of the Cult of Pedagogy podcast), and each of the five stations had content related to The Hunger Games (an article on Panem from the The Hunger Games Wiki, a Newsela article about historical utopias, a CommonLit article on the features of dystopian literature, a filmed interview with Suzanne Collins on her inspiration for The Hunger Games, and the first chapter of the novel itself). The students also did a jigsaw, where each student on a team was responsible for going to a research station in the room to learn about a historical utopia, a modern utopia, or the characteristics of a utopia, and then rejoined the group to share their knowledge. They used their newfound knowledge to develop a plan for a utopian school.

While all of this great context study is happening, I'm hyping them up. I built a website (I love building sites) and casually put it in Google Classroom over winter break. The homepage features an ominous cloudy background, the seal of the Capitol, and a countdown clock with the title "Countdown to [School Name] Hunger Games." There is a page with information about districts, a page with information about the roles in the Games, and a terrifyingly empty page labeled "Tributes" that simply says, "The Reaping has not taken place yet." As soon as kids discovered the page, they came running to me with huge eyes and a million excited questions. The bulletin board in my classroom is currently empty except for thirteen laminated pieces of paper, each one with a district seal or the seal of the Capitol at the top. The kids who already know the story are asking about joining districts and how the Games will work, and the kids who haven't read the book or seen the movie are like "What the French toast is happening?" and all of a sudden I have kids talking to each other about this book before we've even cracked the spine.

Source for Capitol seal image
Phase 2: Read the Whole Book.
Once they are so ready to read this book they absolutely cannot stand it, I will give the students their materials and the book. I am relying heavily on Ariel Sacks's Whole Novel approach for this novel study. I am even doing a variation of her ritual for launching the novel study. Each student will receive a letter from me introducing the novel and my expectations for this novel study. They will also receive a reading schedule and the book. In keeping up the hype, I will likely theme my letter to them as a formal letter from the Capitol or something along those lines. They will be given access to the book in three formats. One will be the hard copies of the novel that will stay in the classroom (again, I only have enough for a single class set, so the books will stay in the room). The second will be an eBook format that they can access on their Chromebooks anytime. The third will be the audiobook, which they will be able to access anytime they have internet connection.

And then... they will read. I will read the first chapter aloud in class to draw them in. After that, students are responsible for reading. They may read at their own pace, but no slower than the schedule allows. They will be provided reading time in class as often as possible, during which they may choose to read silently and independently, read along with the audiobook, read with a partner, or do small-group read-aloud (Pernille Ripp advocates for these different pathways of accessing the text). I will be holding them accountable primarily through informal whole-group chats, one-on-one reading conferences, and their reading notes. The Hunger Games is broken into three parts, so after each part, we will do a combination of abbreviated shared inquiry and a mini research project. One half of the students will discuss the novel while the other half does the project, and then they will switch. We will continue doing mini-lessons (we are focusing on the new skills of inference, context clues, literary symbolism, and author's purpose as we continue to support all of the skills students have already learned so far this year), and we will apply our mini-lessons work to the novel.

And it is super important to mention that as we read, I will continue to fuel the hype fire. Before we read, students will be "born" into districts (or even the Capitol) by random selection (you don't get to pick the life you're born into, right?). After we read about the Reaping in Chapters 1 and 2, we will have our own reaping, where a boy and a girl will be selected from each district (besides the Capitol, of course) to participate in our Hunger Games. These sorts of activities will continue throughout the duration of our study.

Phase 3: Analyze, Discuss, and Enjoy.
Only after we have finished reading the whole novel will begin to tackle in-depth analysis and book discussion. I like Ariel's three-day approach to this, and may follow a similar plan. I'm particularly looking forward to connecting Phase 3 back to Phase 1 and all the context work we did to prepare for the novel. I'm certain I will have some sort of major assessment piece after we're done reading, but I don't think it will take the form of a DOK Level 1/Level 2 content test. Ultimately, I'm not actually too worried about the students remembering the specific details of a novel. I want them to practice literary analysis and speaking and listening skills. I also want to see them drawing connections between the novel and nonfiction pieces that we will read throughout the unit as well. I want to see evidence of higher level thinking!

How is this approach "simplified"?

Do you notice what is missing from the Whole Novel approach? There are no reading comprehension questions broken down by chapter. No "gotcha quizzes" to see if the student read last night. No chapter vocab lists that require students to write out the definition of a new word. We aren't killing the novel, the momentum, or the love of reading. We'll be reading like real people read in the real world. The practices that are part of this approach are all high-quality, effective, and efficient. I won't have to spend an absurd amount of my precious time standing at a copy machine or marking low-level assignments. My time can be spent curating high-quality resources, practicing essential skills with students, helping students build reading stamina, and having real conversation about the text. To me, this is much simpler than dealing with loads of paperwork and a packet full of tedium.

I feel it's worth reiterating that I'm just now getting started on this unit. We will begin Phase 2 this week. I plan to write a reflection after the unit is over, so I'll let you know how this goes!

Happy Teaching!