22/365 Stop Reading Whole-Class Novels

“Every ninth grader here reads Romeo & Juliet,” a teacher tells me. She’s explaining the  unyielding nature of the school’s curriculum, and I stop her short.

“Well,” I say, “everyone receives a copy of Romeo & Juliet. Everyone probably sits in class with their copy of the book as long as it’s being taught. And, everyone probably, answers whatever quiz questions or essay prompts they’re asked. To say that they all read Romeo & Juliet, no, that’s a groundless claim.”

The teacher stares at me.

I’d acknowledged the secret of contemporary schools we’re not supposed to acknowledge. Though the classroom in question was an English classroom, that was for purposes of discussion. We could easily have been discussing a history class, and she could easily have claimed every student is required to learn about the Battle of the Bulge.

Again, it would have been untrue.

At some point, long ago, teachers and students entered into a pact that has been passed down from generation to generation – we could claim they were all engaging in the intended content so long as we turned a blind eye to the fact that they were not, in fact, engaging in this content.

In the English classroom the pattern is easy to predict. The whole class is assigned a section of a text to read. The next day, all students are in their seats, the teacher begins a conversation by asking some question or another regarding the content of the assignment. From here, our game begins.

Perhaps 5-7 students take over the role of answering the teacher’s questions. Some, but not likely all, of these students have completed the reading as assigned. The rest of this small group have read some of the text – enough to get by in conversation. From here, we have the handful of students who maybe started the reading, but decided to look online to see what others had posted rather than reading the actual text.

They enliven our conversation with reactions to the comments of the first group, agreeing and using previous language in their descriptions so as not to step too far astray from what might sound correct.

Finally, we have those students who did not read the book and have no intent of reading the book. In some cases, they cannot read the text. More often, they choose not to because what they hear in class disinterests them or they learned years ago that this kind of thing isn’t for them. No joy can be found here.

Luckily for this last group, the others take on the lion’s share of the work, and they need not worry about being called on to speak.

A teacher who does call on these students has broken the pact. The answers she receives will be fumbling if they’re answers at all. Each person in the classroom will look on uncomfortably, waiting for the exchange to be completed. For the student in question, the teacher has moved to prove the point that books are painful things, not worth their time.

This story plays out in some form or another across classrooms, subjects and schools on a daily basis. The pact remains intact.

Two ways exist for improving the experiences of both the students and teachers, but only one is worthwhile.

The first, which is most often found in those schools run by people taking on the mantle of “ed reformers” is to implement new structures and checkpoints designed to force all students to engage with the material and perform as expected on assessments. While this accomplishes the initial intentions of assigning a blanket text or assignment, it also, unfortunately, accepts that initial intent as correct.

What is preferable and much more likely to result in student learning is the allocation of choice. In the original English classroom, remove Romeo & Juliet and replace it with whatever the students choose to read. Require reading, yes, but require reading alone. While reading Romeo & Juliet may have inherent value in the education of students, that value is nothing when compared with the inherent value of reading, which so few students were doing before.

I understand this is not how most of us were taught. If we were given any choice at all in the content we consumed, it was likely in addition to some text we were reading with our class as a whole. More likely still is the idea that the majority of students read neither the whole-class text nor the choice text with ample fidelity.

For those still clinging to the idea of an entire class of students reading the same book, I would answer, they never were. And, to get them all to be, literally, on the same page, would take a managerial effort that could accomplish the goal at the loss of any joy that could have lurked within the assignment in the first place.

23 thoughts on “22/365 Stop Reading Whole-Class Novels

  1. I think your discussion of this “pact” is insightful and clever. I’m sure the same scene has played out in my classes many times over the years. In those classes, we read throughout the year, the kids choosing what they read the whole time – except the two times we read whole-class novels. Perhaps I need to revisit those units as well.

    My question is this: why do you assume that the kids that don’t read the whole-class novels will read books of their own choosing? In my experience, the core group of kids that has decided that reading isn’t for them isn’t recoiling from a specific text, but the experience altogether. While the freedom to choose might lure a couple kids back, I think you’ll still have this “pact” intact, just with different titles.

    • Matt, you raise a great question. I don’t think those reading-averse kids will read books right away. There’s some psychological scar tissue that needs to be repaired first. A huge piece for me was implementing the ALA “Readers Bill of Rights” as a guiding document. For students who were anti-reading, committing to a new book and staying with it for the duration was difficult. Letting them know they could put it down and walk away helped. I know the next question has to do with the possibility of them never coming back.

      In part that’s where being a teacher comes in and helping them to assuage their fears. This was made easier by the fact that I’d held up my end of the bargain earlier. If I believed there was a book out there to excite every kid, then I needed to hold to that belief and give the space for students who’d never finished a book to figure out what they wanted.

      What do you think?

      • I love what you’ve said in your reply: “This was made easier by the fact that I’d held up my end of the bargain earlier.” I completely agree with this sentiment. (And I really liked the Reader’s Bill of Rights you linked to; I hadn’t seen that.) I think building up that cache of trust and encouragement is one of the most important things we can do.

        I would perhaps only reply that in building up that cache throughout the year (through encouraging choice, allowing kids to quit on books they don’t like, etc.), I then have the opportunity to “spend a little of that capital” on whole-class texts, if only a couple times a year.

        Thanks for your reply.

  2. So, I’m reading this post and I’m nodding along. Yes, Zac, you are so insightful. Yes, damn those awkward moments. And yes, for goodness sake do not make all those kids pretend to read Shakespeare. But then I can’t help but think that had there never been assigned reading in my ELA classes, I never would have chosen to read most of the books I now hold dear. Some of them I hated reading and many of them I found very challenging. How do we encourage students to read books outside of their comfort zones? How do we get them excited about a challenge? How do we discuss things as a group? I really want to know!

    • Thanks for the comment, Hannah. I wonder if you really wouldn’t have read those books. The approach I’m outlining in this post isn’t advocating a hands-free tact. When challenging students to make choices in reading, I was constantly present in helping them to consider what they were looking for and what they might be interested in. When a student seemed stuck in a rut of the same genre or type of text, I’d ask questions and gently prod them to try something new. It didn’t take away the element of choice, but engaged my authority as the mature reader in the room. We encourage students to read books outside there comfort zones by doing just that – speaking up and asking questions. Something that surprised me in this process was the level of exchange that happened when I would give the class the chance to give quick presentations about what they were reading. Students who would otherwise probably not have expanded their horizons to one sort of text or author were moved to at least ask questions when they heard a peer explaining why they liked a certain book.

      When I started with the experiment, my guiding question was, “How do readers read and interact with texts in their personal lives, and how can I engender those practices in my class?”

      What do you think?

  3. Well, we all read Romeo and Juliet – but we read it together in class. For outside reading they each chose a book that has Shakespeare as a character, or is an adaptation of a play, or maybe just has Shakespeare or his plays as a plot device. I offered eight books (and six were popular) from historical fiction, to mystery, to romance. They will be conversing with each other using Edmodo for book groups. The shared work is not always a bad thing, but it is not the only thing. Students choose their own independent reading as well. So what we need is balance. Know WHY you want students to read a book and what you want them to take away from the study. For me, I want them to not be afraid that Shakespeare is too hard or that his plays are irrelevant. He’s fun, and funny, and sad, and – what, how old is Juliet? Ew….

    • I see what you’re saying Kate, and I wonder if there’s another way at looking at helping students not to be afraid of these texts (Shakespeare or otherwise). Would we take the same approach with other fears? If you’re using the book in 9th grade, is it fair to assume all 14 and 15 year olds are ready for the text and for facing their fears? Is there a possibility that more harm than good could be done by forcing the text on students who aren’t interested or ready?

      I think I’m almost ready to pick up Tolstoy, and I’m both an English major and much older than a high school student. Would a fair middle ground be saying, “These are the books we’d like you to have read by the time you graduate. You get to choose when you read them along the way.”

      Thanks for making me think more deeply about these things.

      • I have to say that I did not think that I was ready to read Moby Dick just two years ago. I successfully avoided it during HS and college and grad school and even teaching American Lit. But my colleague asked if I would participate in a cover to cover read-aloud of the Melville. With enormous apprehension I said yes. And I loved it. Every word. Sometimes a book has a buzz, a shadow that precedes it. I have a colleague that leads a cover to cover read aloud of Treasure Island with his sixth graders.

        Choosing your own books is important as a reader – I got the same cheer today when I announced that Monday was a reading Monday (and not a writing Monday – they read whatever they wish and they blog about what they read) as I got the day I said, “And Next Tuesday we will be back to reading R & J.”

  4. Excellent. If we want our students to become ‘life long learners,’ and lovers of literature, we have to empower them to self-select texts. Reading is not a one size fits all art form. Thanks for sharing.

  5. A lot of sensible observations but I also agree with the comment posted by Hannah. My own life has been enriched by texts I would never have chosen myself. And to be guided through Shakespeare (or Yeats or Elliot as I was in Year 12) by a skilled teacher of English is something I continue to value 20 years after high school. Nevertheless a great post.

    • I’ll let you read what I wrote to Hannah rather than rehashing it here. I will repeat the idea that I have a strong belief that we will find those texts on our own and that this approach isn’t teacher-free. When I felt like it was the right moment, I certainly suggested a student pick up a classic text like the ones you describe. The key was using my professional judgement to recognize those moments.

      Thanks for reading and the comment.

  6. Love this post because I have been struggling with choice since I moved from teaching elementary to middle school. I appreciate the observation about the category of students while also fighting my old timey sense that some pieces of the canon are just simply “good for you.”

    What I’ve settled on for my classes of reluctant readers is that choice, at least, removes the excuse that “I didn’t like the book” or it was too easy, or too hard, or “we read it 2 years ago” or whatever. You remove yourself from the defensive position. By empowering the students, you get a glimpse into their ability to choose as well as their interests.

    I’m also curious, because I want to know about new hot books students are reading. At the same time, I try to give them choice with boundaries. We’ve just launched a dystopian lit unit and students can choose titles that fall under this definition–which also sparks conversations about what technically a dystopia is.

    I don’t think it’s either / or, but both. Choice and pre-selected. We do shared readings (usually short stories) for mini-lessons on literary terms, genre, writing traits, etc. A time for everything . . . everything in its time.

    • Jackie, you bring up a couple of great points I failed to mention. The first is the diverse reading diets a system of choice can encourage. Not only did I get to see the new books the students were reading, but the students were much better at pitching classic canonical texts they’d decided to pick up than I could ever be. From Steinbeck to Stein, I was amazed each time I overheard a student recommend a classmate read a classic that I’d struggled to get similar students to read in the past.

      The other piece is the idea of limited choice. If there a genre you’d like to help students experience something like your Dystopian unit makes sense so long as the range of texts is sufficiently broad. One move I made in those situations was presenting a list of texts and offering the option of students being able to make the case for a book they found that wasn’t on the list, but that they thought fit the parameters of the unit. It was a great way for me to expand my own exposure.

      Thanks for reading and for jumping in to the conversation.

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  8. I’m not going to disagree however it does raise the larger issue of shared experiences. I know there are other ways to accomplish this but while many teachers want students to read the same novel because they’ve deemed it to be a classic, essential or just that it’s easier to manage, there is something wonderful about everyone being able to share a story together.

    In general, this is my ongoing trouble with the the emphasis on customization or personalization. Yes, I think it’s awesome and necessary and appropriate to offer more choice for students and we now have the ability to do this easier with all these tools and devices but I’m now concerned about the over emphasis of choice over shared experiences.

    Even as kid, before there was itunes, you had the radio. That meant you listened to largely the same music as everyone else which meant you liked the same music and some also hated the same music. I realize this is not a zero sum game but do wonder about how we balance the power of choice with the importance of a community and shared experience whether it’s in music, ideas or literature.

    • I was thinking along these lines as well. Choice is a powerful motivator, but there are others. The opportunity to share a reading experience–to read socially–can also hook kids previously turned off to reading.

      All of my 7th grade students are reading The Diary of Anne Frank right now, and they’re also pulling out sections and responding to them (personally, creatively, analytically…their choice) in a class blog. I give them time in class to read and comment on each other’s posts. The book is the point that gathers us together, but the gathering has many contributors and many voices.

      My 8th graders are reading lit circle books (they had a choice of 6) in small groups using an iPad app called Subtext that allows them to comment and discuss in the margins, as well as look up names and words they don’t know. They can have conversations about their books as they’re reading instead of just in the 50 minutes designated “English class.”

      I realize that these experiences are facilitated by technology that is far from universal in schools. But I think the principle stands; the technology just helps.

      All that said, I often question whether the curriculum I’ve designed is any better–or even on par with–what students would gain if they just spent all of their class time reading books of their choice. Sometimes I think it measures up, and sometimes not.

    • Dean, I wonder if the shared experience has to be reading the same text. And, if our answer is yes, how much of that is a socialized response?

      I also agree whole-heartedly in the importance and wonder of sharing a story together. I don’t know that I think it has to be a novel. Then again, what about the prospect of the class deciding to read a novel together, rather than the teacher decreeing it? What if the whole-class novel was their choice.

      If reading is our shared experience, does reading the same thing have to be part of that? I’m not so sure. And, I’d argue, with students opting out of reading and pretending to read, we’re not really sharing the same experience anyway.

      I share your weariness of over-individualization. It runs contrary to building community, to building citizens and to encouraging democracy. I don’t think this idea does that.

      What do you think?

      • I don’t know the answer to you first couple of questions. And I know your idea is not an anti-community notion. I think it’s good to have shared experiences and that certainly doesn’t have to be a novel, but as you suggest, under the right circumstances it might.

        I just think it’s essential the idea of community shares some stuff together.

        In the end, I stand by my word, you’re a master teacher.

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