Whole-Class Novels vs. Choice-Only Reading: Part One

Teachers know that most adolescents lack motivation to read, both academically and recreationally, yet we can see how crucial it is for students to develop reading interest and stamina in order to become competent readers and flourishing adults.

As a kid, like most of you, whole-class novels built up the entirety of my ELA curriculum; however, there was (and still is) a huge push across the last decade or so for more independent choice reading. Yet as with most things in education, with that push, it’s obvious that there has been an even more recent reactionary, theoretical pendulum swing back towards more rigorous, shared texts, inspired by the CCSS or otherwise.

Unfortunately, when districts try to operate from these competing and drastically swinging philosophies, this further inhibits adolescents from becoming life-long readers.

It’s frustrating—I’m saying this in the most mild-mannered sense, because trust me when I say that some days I’m beyond frustrated—because there is some much literature out there that presents competing and often misunderstood theoretical perspectives.

If you’re reading this blog, than you’re probably just like me, a self-proclaimed, literacy professional literature junkie. You love studying the craft and working to foster adolescent literacy.  You’ve read everything from Rosenblatt, Krashen, Allington, Beers & Probst, Lesesne, Schmoker, Fisher & Frey, Gallagher, Allen, Burke, Harvey & Goudvis, Keene, Marzano, Kittle, Newkirk, Routman, Smith, Tovani, Miller, and on and on and on. You’ve read it all.

The thing is these texts should work to inform our knowledge of adolescent literacy and thus impact our classrooms. Instead stakeholders (other teachers, coaches, administrators, parents, publishers, politicians, etc.) take these sometimes competing philosophies and—rather than take what these researchers have to say and find a balanced approach—use them to make drastic, one-sided decisions that have long-term impact on students.

Sadly, this dispute of philosophy begins to ignore the canon of research and slip slides its way into the classroom, appearing as very heated English department debates, Twitter battles, and blog rants (maybe a bit feisty like this one!) that call for either more rigor that whole-class novels provide or bemoan the disparity of voluminous reading that only choice novels can offer.  Teachers question whether novels should be shared as a whole-class texts or if students should freely chose novels according to their own interests and plans for growth, when instead these stakeholders should be discussing ways to find balance between them.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I want to expand the conversation about whole-class novels and choice-only reading. I’m going to do my best in this blog series to share and translate the vast body of research on both “sides” of this debate.

In a dispute that has very loud voices on either end,  it may be unpopular to ask stakeholders to “chill out” and just seek some balance, but I encourage you to share the research you’ve read and experiences you’ve collected in your own classroom.

There’s no need for the literacy pendulum to keep swinging when there is still so much work for us to do.

I look forward to engaging with you in this important goal. Either respond here in the comments section or tag me on Twitter (@B10LovesBooks) using the hashtag #seekbalance. Thank you.

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Tips for Getting Kids to Do More Choice Reading

“When face time is limited and testing demands are heavy, many teachers struggle to make meaningful connections with students. In this Michigan Reading Association break-out session, two high school teachers share ways of using YA lit as the voice that connects us to our students who run the gamut from at-risk to honors. They will also explore how to establish classroom libraries with current titles and relevant technologies.”

This Prezi was co-created with Lindsey Tilley, teacher at Northview High School, for the Michigan Reading Association Annual Conference in March 2012 and the Inter-Institutional Teacher Education Council of West Michigan Fire Up! Student Teacher Conference in October 2012.

Q: How do I hold my students accountable to choice reading?

A: Because many kids haven’t been given choice in the past, I am always amazed how simply challenging my students to read at least 20 choice  books during the school year actually makes them strive for this specific goal.  My students don’t always realize that there isn’t a grade attached to this goal, but because we talk about what we’re reading all the time in class, they want to maintain this community standard of success.

Some ways, I do this are the following:

  • “Require” they read a variety of genres, like Donalyn Miller’s mixed genre requirement chart. This pushes them out of their comfort genre, so even if the book their reading isn’t a higher Lexile level, it will probably be more complex for that student because he/she is tackling a new format.
  • Show them how to keep track of their reading rate, like Penny Kittle’s pass-around clip board method.This is a way for students to begin to take ownership of their own data. Schools are so data-driven that we might as well put some of that responsibility into the students’ hands; besides, once they start to monitor their own progress, they find it fascinating.
  • Ask them to analyze text complexity, like Teri Lesesne does with reading ladders. This reflection invites students to respond to their success and set goals for the future.  In fact, students are incredibly honest in their reflections. Take Aaron, who read 8 books in 12 weeks, for example: “I would say that this trimester I haven’t shown any growth as a reader, because I am still staying inside of my comfort zone as far as genres go.  I have however noticed an increased reading rate in myself and increased pleasure level from reading books, but I know that I need to pick books that are more challenging.” <<Here is the link to my Reading Ladder assignment description>>

Q: How do I find time to confer with all of my students, especially with large classes?

A: Honestly, this is a big challenge for me. For years, I admitted to my curriculum coach that I was actually afraid of conferring. I created all kinds of excuses questions to “get out of it,” maintaining that I should be reading when my students were reading.

  • What if I say the wrong thing or don’t know how to respond?
  • What if I haven’t read their books and they know?
  • They’re finally all reading! Aren’t they just going to stop reading if I’m not modeling what a good reader does during SSR?
  • Won’t everyone stop and talk to one another  if they either hear me whispering with a student?

Eventually, I realized that my excuses were getting in the way of best practice. I began with Regie Routman’s Informal Reading Conference form found in Reading Essentials; however, I found after a year that I spent too much time with each kid. This is a great “script,” but I wasn’t able to frequent everyone as often as necessary. This year, I physically shifted from using my binder notes to a small “detective” notebook. I’m basically doing a blend of what Donalyn, Penny, and Patrick Allen suggest. This has really changed the story of conferring for me, especially since it’s no longer one of horror.

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Q: How do I support my students’ choices?

A: On the first day of class, my students participate in a what we call Book Speed-Dating. I’ve also heard it called a Book Pass or  Book Frenzy. This activity is a fast way to expose students to a wide variety of books in our classroom library. Soon afterwards, I give my students a reading survey/inventory, mostly a blend of things I found from other expert teachers. Also during the start of the term, my students sign up for Goodreads accounts <<Slide # 6 of this VoiceThread video lesson plan shares a screencast tutorial of how students can sign up for Goodreads>> to learn what their classmates are reading and how to find suggestions for well-liked titles.

As the school year progresses, we regularly discuss as a class what we’re reading with one another through Book Waterfalls and daily Book Talks. This is really the key. Before I begin, students always have their To-Read Lists open and ready. In addition to regular book chats, I post what “Mrs. Beaton is currently reading…” just outside my classroom door. This year, I also took Donalyn’s suggestion and added the same information to my email signature.

Q: How do I promote “Book Love“in my classroom?

A: We do this a number of ways: tweeting authors, creating book waiting lists, showing YouTube book trailers, etc. But to get students into what Kelly Gallagher calls “reading flow,” or giving students the chance to engage themselves with books the way that everyone else does, we try to promote the notion that sometimes finishing a really great chapter or book is just more important than carrying on to our agenda’s next activity. So, in whispered tones, I’ll occasionally announce something like “Hey everyone, we’re nearing the end of Silent Reading; however, we’re going to keep going until Tristan finishes MazeRunner.” While my students think they’re “getting away” with something, this is really more about showing them what life-long readers do.

Q: How do I build my classroom library?

A: I have found the most success with Donors Choose and used book sales (like from public libraries and Amazon), yet I’ve also acquired books through Scholastic books sales, Ebay, and personal book donations from student/family/friends. Finally, I am very lucky to work in a school district that helps me build my library as well.  

The videos of my students featured below are embedded within the Prezi.