It may not seem significant in the grand scheme of like… the entire world at large, but as far as the ELA classroom goes the “To teach a whole class novel or to not teach a whole class novel” debate is one that rages on endlessly.
Even during my Milestones in English Education course, I saw evidence of early stirrings of this debate long before schools had things like literacy libraries and group sets of novels.
Everyone that teaches English/Language Arts has an opinion on this topic, and it’s a topic that tends to stir up intense emotions. Within my own district, I have experienced the effects of mandates to have leveled reading groups, diatribes about how whole class novels are ineffective, and impassioned arguments made about why whole class novels are a teaching method that individuals will never abandon.
And while I can’t disagree that giving students choice is a strategy that increases engagement and student ownership over learning, my experience has taught me one thing about teaching novels in the classroom, and it is this:
If the teacher isn’t passionate about the book or books, the kids aren’t going to be engaged.
For the last three years, I have taught the novel Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson in my classroom in one way or another. My first year, I gave it to a small group of kids that were advanced readers because of the historical aspects that would be challenging to them. It was during the creation of the lessons to go along with this that I fell in love with the book. My second year, I had an advanced class of sorts, and the students were divided into two groups, with one group reading Fever 1793, and another group reading a different novel due to a number of the students already having read the book in their 5th grade classrooms. In my other two classes, we read the novel whole class. This year, I read the novel whole class in all three of my classes.
I love the book. I love teaching it. I love talking with my students about Nathaniel Benson and Matilda when we first discover they like each other. I love learning with them about Yellow Fever. I love discussing with them the difference in scientific knowledge in regards to hygiene and medical treatments. I love working through the figurative language with them. I love taking them through the wild ride of a city plagued with such a devastating disease.
And guess what? They love it too.
Boys that read nothing but Rick Riordan, or nothing but football books all year love it. Kids that will only read dystopian novels love it. Girls that are in remedial reading classes and require small group lessons and a more advanced reader to help them work through it love it.
It’s a book they would never pick up on their own, and a book they will never read again. But it’s a book they get caught up in and fascinated by.
I would never argue that the only way novels should ever be taught is whole class. There is a time for ability grouping, and a time for book clubs based on interest.
But I do know that working through a novel whole class allows students to hear a proficient reader on a regular basis. It builds community through a shared experience. It allows for more specified individual instruction that does not exhaust the teacher while they try to keep up with the plot of 5 different novels. It opens students’ worlds to books they would never have chosen.
And there is absolutely nothing better than saying “we’re going to stop there for the day” and getting a chorus of “nooooo”s in response.