Teaching Readers, Not Books

Earlier this week, I met with a teacher and good friend to talk about her classroom and teaching practice. Through our conversations, some of the tension around teaching novels bubbled to the surface and created some meaningful dialogue for both of us. As I drove back to my office (the car is second only to the shower as a productive place to reflect), I thought about this quandary: What is the role of the whole class novel? How does the whole class novel allow us to initiate students into communities of literacy?

Whenever I think about what to teach and why, I think about how that genre or skill translates to what adults–grown-up readers and writers–do. In my own classroom, I wanted to recreate those authentic reading and writing situations so that students could get practice (and support) engaging in them before they actually became adults. Now, when I work with teachers in their classrooms, we also explore this together. As my friend and I were talking, we started unpacking the moments in adult life when people read novels. This is what we came up with:

1. When they want to

2. When they’re in a book club

3. When they’re literary critics

Then we started talking about what people do once they read a novel.

1. When people pick up novels to read them independently and then share that experience when they’re finished, they do a few things. First, they might talk to a friend who has similar (or even different) interests. They might talk about the book they just read and perhaps even recommend it. They might also write an Amazon or Goodreads review (or, at the very least, rate the book).

2. When people are in book clubs, they democratically choose a common text, and then talk about it a few weeks later over a glass of wine (or three). They decide on the topic of conversation, they decide on the questions to ask each other. They make a commitment to read the book and then hold each other accountable to that commitment.

3. When people are literary critics (these are few and far between), they read all kinds of books–new and old–and write for literary magazines, journals, or the New York Times. I’m guessing that this is a job for English majors who don’t want to go into teaching. Either way, it’s not necessarily a huge field.

This is what people do not do once they read a novel:

1. Take a quiz

2. Write a book report

3. Make a poster

Our big question was this: why is it that, traditionally, the way we use novels in school is in direct opposition to how students interact with novels in the outside world? And, more importantly, how can we help our students build reading identities in order to make them life-long readers? Because I assure you that I am not a life-long reader because my junior English teacher assigned Grapes of Wrath. I am a life-long reader because I have taught myself what I enjoy, which incidentally, is dystopian literature and novels that include strong female characters–neither of which were present in my required high school reading lists.

As a sidenote, though, I now do really love Steinbeck, but that’s because of East of Eden, a book I read when I was 24 and out of school.

“So, Nicole,” you might be saying, “what exactly do you believe? It kind of sounds like you’re saying that the whole class novel is sort of bullshit.”

That’s not exactly what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that before we choose any instructional practice or materials for our classrooms, we probably should be really clear about what our goals are. Among lit majors, I feel like my skeptical opinion of the whole class novel is taboo. In fact, I hear so many reasons from a variety of people about why we should continue to teach the whole class novel. Here are some of them:

1. As teachers, we have a passion for this book, so that passion will inspire our students.

2. Students need to be exposed to rich and challenging literature.

3. Students need to understand basic texts that provide a foundation for our culture. In other words, kids need to read the canon.

4. Sometimes we just need to teach kids that, in life, they’ll have to do things they don’t want to do.

5. I can’t read all the books. How will I know if students have read them? How do I hold students accountable?

And here are my responses:

1. A teacher’s passion is very important in the classroom. Instead of thinking about how important it is to be passionate about a particular book, what if we reframed that to, “I am a passionate reader.”

2. Agreed. We’ve all heard about Common Core and text complexity, and beyond that, it just makes sense to give students practice in reading challenging texts. However, we can still provide an element of choice in our classrooms. What if, for example, we teach a unit about the ways in which a historical and political context shapes the literature of its time. Students could read a wide range of challenging and rich texts in a unit like that: 1984, Brave New World, anything by Dickens…the list goes on. If students were able to choose the text they read based on their interests and reading identities, then that builds engagement and ownership.

3. This is where I have trouble. Here’s why. The “canon” really is representative of a world of dead white men. Yes there are a couple of token women and/or more diverse authors thrown into the canon, but by and large, it is a very Anglo- and male-centric body of literature, and the fact of the matter is that a significant portion of our students see themselves nowhere in those texts. For the implications of this, you should see this TED Talk. It’s pretty amazing:

4. Persistence is a skill we all need to learn. When we’re faced with an unpleasant task and work through it, that definitely gives us practice in persistence. I’m just not sure if we need to teach persistence at the expense of children’s love of reading. If I have to choose what’s more important, I’m going with a love of reading. There are many opportunities in school to provide children tasks they don’t want to do. Why does reading a work of fiction–something that adults do almost exclusively for fun–have to be one of those opportunities?

5. Let’s talk accountability for a second, because that’s really the elephant in the room. I have to say that, when I taught the whole class novel, there were students who wouldn’t have read it if I had paid them $1000. I am not kidding. They hated some of the books that much (I, of course, loved them). No amount of accountability coerced my students into reading the books I assigned  taught my students persistence.

So here’s what happened. They failed the quizzes, got less-than-stellar grades in my class, and still didn’t read. Of course, because they didn’t read, they also didn’t learn anything.

So there’s one of the problems with accountability. Even when you do a whole class novel, accountability systems don’t guarantee you anything.

Now let’s talk about the real world. A few years ago, I read The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller, and it changed my life. She opened the book about her story about how novels played a central role in her marriage to her husband. She then discussed how, when she finished a book, she absolutely did not go running to her husband and say, “Honey! I finished this amazing book! Come look at the diorama I created to represent it!” Instead, she talked about those books with her husband. And that’s what we do as adults, isn’t it? We have authentic conversations about books we read. Why couldn’t students also do this work? That is the work of a community of literacy.

Finally, here’s something else to think about. When we make all of the choices for students, when do they learn to make choices for themselves? How are we using our experience as readers to have conversations about pushing students beyond the boundaries of what’s comfortable? How are we using their interests to encourage them to read something new?

Teaching is a monumentally complex job, and when we focus on what we really hope students learn in our class–what our end goals are–maybe it makes things a little bit easier.

Postscript

Possible Teaching Ideas:

  • Use a site like TeenReads to help students choose books based on their interests.
  • Students could write book reviews and share them with other students in the classroom or through technological avenues.
  • Create book clubs around themes so that students have choice but also have a built-in literacy community.
  • Focus on teaching skills of a reader rather than the content of a book. Students can then apply any of those skills to the books they are reading.

Other ideas? Share in the comments!

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3 thoughts on “Teaching Readers, Not Books

  1. I think there are some good reasons for the whole class novel:given the right novel, it allows students to share their experiences, compare their thinking and reactions to others’, and to see/hear the thinking/reactions of others. The choice of literature is critical: the “masters” are important for other reasons, but everyone likes to read things that interest them. Certain themes for high school students ring very true (love, forbidden love, rebellion, to name a few) and give them a “foothold: to the reading.

    Nicole, I never saw anyone better at leading student conversation after readings, and that is the key to the question of “why.”

    I believe that students need to be taught how to think and react to reading, and that their reactions are true and correct. If the learning objective of the reading is well chosen, their own thinking will lead them to the intended learning.

    • Hi Tony,
      First of all, thanks for reading! I agree very much with shared reading experiences with kids–for the reasons you suggested (so that students can share experiences, compare their thinking, and learn from their peers). Part of me wonders if those shared reading experiences can take place within shorter texts that are connected to the reading work we’re asking kids to do with their novels (either independently or in groups). I also think that using a novel to do a read-aloud in high school is very appropriate. Kids can talk about their shared reactions and understanding as they listen to a fluent reading of a text they may not have chosen themselves. You’re never too old for a read-aloud! The bigger picture for me is this: How am I creating readers–readers who can choose text, who can persevere, who can make meaning, and who can and will engage with other readers?

      And I also agree that conversation about reading is one of the most important thing that a teacher can do. The words mean nothing if we don’t talk about them with others, and I appreciate the compliment too. As someone who saw me in the classroom many, many times, I know you know that was my passion, though I also feel like I’ve learned so much more about how to do this, even though I’m out of my own classroom these days.

      To your final point, yes. Agree there too. And that’s all about facilitation too. Knowing what kinds of questions to ask, where to probe deeper when a student says something he/she doesn’t know is profound, and how to strategically encourage others to build on the thinking of the group. It’s funny…a former SJ colleague once said to me, “I just thought you guys sat around in a circle all day and just Kumbayahed with each other.” I assured him that it wasn’t that simple.

  2. Pingback: Teens Can Change the World | Twelve Days of Summer (School)

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