Getting Out of the Way

Today I finished reading yet another pedagogy book, this time Whole Novels for the Whole Class by Ariel Sacks, an educator and English teacher in New York. Over the last ten years, Sacks and her colleagues have developed an approach to teaching novels with their students that prioritizes and protects the student’s personal reading experience. Instead of breaking down novels into assigned pages per night, with discussions on that reading the following day, she advocates for allowing students to read the entire novel first before formally discussing it. In her words:

whole novelsIn the whole novels program, we honor the nature of the literary art by having students look at the whole work, not breaking the experience down into little pieces. Through the work, we create an intellectual community that is socially relevant for students and gives them opportunities to build the critical-thinking skills, creativity, and habits of mind  they need in the twenty-first century. (19)

To be honest, I was skeptical. I have almost always given students reading schedules, with assigned pages per night, which we discuss the next day. Exactly the approach that Sacks argues against. Based on the reading my students do the previous night, the next day we review the material and focus on a particular element from that reading. For example, at the start of a book, our first day of discussion is usually focused on who the protagonist is. I hand out charts, diagrams, and other graphic organizers to help students. We take notes. I check for understanding. Students respond, ask questions. Then we repeat the next day, and so on. Discussion can be lively and animated. We debate, we laugh, we wonder. Students are engaged. What was wrong with this system? Why would I want to change it? It’s not broken, is it?

As if reading my mind, by the time I turned just a few pages, Sacks provided some thought-provoking reasons. Consider the experience of a movie, she argues. We would not enjoy being stopped every ten minutes and asked to turn and talk to our neighbor, then write a reflection about it. No, we would experience the movie in its entirety, as it was meant to be seen, and then discuss it as a whole piece of art. Reading, Sacks argues, should be done in the same way. Students should read the entire novel before formal discussions begin. This is how reading is done in the real world, after all, as Sacks points out,

Adult book clubs use the same structure: members usually take a month or so to read on their own time and then come together to discuss the entire book. College seminars work the same way, using a faster pace of about a week to read a book. (21)

Nancie Atwell makes a similar point in the third edition of her landmark book, In the Middle:

If class novels were a strict requirement at my school, I’d pass out copies of a book, introduce it so kids could enter with ease and purpose, and then give them two weeks or so to read the whole thing independently. If I felt I needed to, I’d give a just-the-facts quiz on the day of the deadline to make sure that students had read it. Then we’d discuss the book for a few days as the whole work of art the author intended, thus freeing up class time for independent writing and reading, and also avoiding the ubiquitous chapter-at-a-time assignments and discussions that shatter the integrity of a literary work and the vision of its author. (33)

We may be well-intentioned when we break down the reading into more manageable chunks for students, but Sacks argues that we actually may be doing more harm than good—both in the short and long term. In the short term, we interfere with students’ development as readers by forcing them to stop after X number of pages (and sometimes at arbitrary points). When I’m reading a book, I stop at a point I decide, when the time and place feels right. As an experienced reader, I’ve developed an inner reader’s voice that helps me make these types of decisions.

Furthermore, to build fluency and more importantly, to develop an appreciation of a text, students must become immersed in the story world of that text. In their book, Reading Unbound, Jeff Wilhelm and Michael Smith make a similar point. Immersive play, they argue, is one of the first components necessary for students to develop a sense of pleasure from their reading experiences. Immersion is interrupted—or prevented entirely—when we adhere to reading schedules and study guide questions. When this happens, Sacks reminds us, we are in danger of “overteaching,” something Kelly Gallagher, in his book Readicide, has identified as one way teachers can kill students’ love of reading.

In the long-term, this approach also removes students’ sense of agency from their own reading lives. When students answer study guides questions that we designed or fill out worksheets and handouts that we’ve created, we send the message that meaning is not just found in the text, but that it is constructed by the teacher.

This book was not easy for me to read. I have always prided myself on being a student-centered teacher. I try to make each text we study relevant to students’ lives. Over the last few years, I’ve integrated a more authentic writing workshop model and increased students’ choice and access to books for independent reading through regular booktalks and a classroom library. I like to think that I have positive relationships with my students and that they walk out of my classroom having learned a few things. I don’t think there’s anyone, colleagues or students, who would call me an authoritarian teacher. I don’t think of myself as the sage on the stage. But as I continued to read, I started to have my doubts.

Whenever I begin a novel, I often think about how there is so much to teach. I want so much for students to understand A, B, and C, but then there is also D, E, and F. And so in my efforts to help students learn everything I think they need to know, I end up controlling—sometimes tightly—the entire process. I decide how much students will read. I decide what we discuss each day in class. I decide how students will respond. I may be the teacher, but one of the most important parts of teaching is what Nancie Atwell calls handover. Everything I do should be in the service of making students independent.

I am guilty of doing too much for my students. And in doing too much, I may make them more dependent on me to direct their thinking. In the whole novels approach, learning experiences are borne out of the individual needs of the students rather than assigned by the teacher. What if I handed back to students the power to read at a pace that feels more natural to them? What if I allowed students to choose the topic and direction of class discussion? What if I gave students more opportunities to discover the text on their own, in the way the text was meant to be enjoyed?

What if I just got out of their way?

The complete title of Sack’s book is Whole Novels for the Whole Class: A Student-Centered ApproachThat subtitle is significant. As I learned more about how she encourages students’ personal note-taking strategies during reading and about her role as facilitator during her discussion protocols, I realized that what she was doing put students at the center—and in charge—of their own learning in a way I hadn’t done, at least not to the same extent. I was happy to see that most, if not all, of the mini-projects she uses with her students are things that I’d already been doing for years. That said, there is a subtle but important difference— initiation. Who is initiating the learning? Me or my students?

Needless to say, her book has me thinking. I have more thoughts on this approach, including how I can effectively transition to it and to what extent I should.  And I also have doubts and questions, as I think any teacher should before trying anything new.

It’s a lot to take in, especially after reading the book in a two-day sprint. So for now, I’ll let the ideas sit for a bit and then come back to it.  I have a feeling I’ll be writing more…

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  1. Pingback: Getting out of the way, continued. | Tricia Ebarvia

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