Students should be given the opportunity to read and analyze literary fiction books in their entirety, says Ariel Sacks, a seventh-grade English teacher and member of the Teacher Leaders Network.
In this article, she writes about an alternate approach to the typical piecemeal instruction of text. Instead, she suggests teachers select a literary fiction work, give students time to read, track students’ progress, assign group projects and discuss the literary fiction with students.
Literary fiction is an art that seeks to create an immersive experience for the reader, but we often don’t approach it that way with our students.
We parcel out books in pieces and ask students to analyze them along the way without the ability to understand a work in its entirety.
This is sort of like asking students to interpret a corner of a painting. Without the entire context, it lacks meaning and can become frustrating.
Imagine walking into a movie theater and finding that the movie is switched off every few minutes. Someone in the front of the room asks questions designed to see if you understand what you are seeing and demands that you analyze the clip in front of the other moviegoers. Only then does he move to the next clip. It takes 12 hours to get through the entire feature-length film. If this were the norm, would you ever go to the movies?
Yet, as teachers, we continue to segment literary fiction works and erect barriers between students and their experience of fictional worlds.
In my view, this is one of the big contributors to the widespread phenomenon that teacher Kelly Gallagher famously dubbed “readicide.”
When I was studying to be a teacher at Bank Street College in New York City nine years ago, my advisor and children’s literature instructor, Madeleine Ray, planted a different concept in my mind: Let students read novels in their entirety.
Then let them talk about what they find interesting in the book, facilitating the group’s exploration of the text. She convinced me to do away with prescribed comprehension and discussion questions and let the students lead the way.
I first tried this “whole novels” method as a student-teacher in Bank Street’s own private lab school. I gave students a schedule for reading Walter Dean Myers’ Scorpions at home and Post-it notes to record their thoughts on the pages as they read.
A week later, we gathered for discussions. To my surprise, every student had read the novel and posted sticky notes as requested. We had a fascinating time discussing and taking apart the elements of the novel, acting out scenes, and writing about the issues Myers raises.
Naturally, I tried the format again in my first teaching position in a Title I school in East Harlem. On the date the book was due, we gathered together for discussions. It quickly became apparent that exactly half the class had read the book and the other half hadn’t gotten past the first few pages.
I realized I had some problem-solving to do if I wanted to keep using this approach in an environment where students’ reading abilities and study habits varied widely. At the same time, I was impressed that many of the students had completed the reading on their own. This group’s discussions were full of energy, driven by their authentic responses to the novel.
They felt rewarded and were hungry for more. I wanted to help all my students rise to the challenge.
Since then, I have been developing ways to work with students of varying abilities in reading whole novels of literary fiction and driving their own discussions. Every time I’ve taken this leap of faith with my students, they have surprised me.
I’ve found that students can discover on their own just about everything I might have planned to “teach” them about literature. The keys are to create a supportive classroom community and give them the time and space to interact authentically with the literary fiction work.
Here’s how I do that… continue reading this article at Education Week.
Ariel Sacks is a 7th grade English teacher in Brooklyn, N.Y. A member of the Teacher Leaders Network, she writes the blog On the Shoulders of Giants and is working on a book on teaching whole novels.