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When a Whole Class Novel is EXACTLY the Right Choice

A little over a year ago, I sat at a small table with co-directors at the school where I work as a part time literacy coach. We were planning for the coming year, for 8th grade specifically, and trying to imagine the shape of the curriculum for our students- students we had taught and supported and loved since they were in kindergarten. This was going to be our inaugural 8th grade class, having added a new grade each year to our school. We wanted to be sure we gave our students the very best experience possible.

As the literacy coach, I joined the conversation to help design curriculum for our humanities block. At this point the co-directors were clear- the bulk of literacy instruction would be fully merged with content studies and my support would be less than in other grades. We spoke lots about the role of independent reading, the leap students would make to high school and how we could best prepare them for the wide world that lay ahead.

More than one person at the table felt convinced that the best way we could set students up well for high school would be by exposing them to a whole class novel. Or novels. I left the meeting with that charge- to plan two whole class novel units across the year. This was no simple assignment. I’ve spent nearly my whole teaching career, and all of my staff development work, advocating for reading workshop, independent reading and choice. Whole class novel? As if.

I did what I always do when I’m unsure about creating curriculum. I called on others. Middle school teachers, middle school staff developers, my father. I came to the conclusion that if our biggest goal really was high school preparation then we must read a ‘classic.’ And yet how do you begin there? I couldn’t. I wouldn’t.

Around the same time I, like most, had been buzzing about fresh, new YA novels. Angie Thomas’ stunning debut, The Hate U Give, was on my bedside table and as I read through page after page I knew instantly that this novel, this brave, fresh and relevant text, would be the first selection for our eighth graders.

I designed a unit where students still had a fair amount of support in school- teachers read aloud excerpts and led class discussions twice a week. Students read at home and in school independently and met in small groups to present passages that held important meaning in the text. As a reading teacher I focused on supporting students to read critically, closely and interpretively. We synthesized passages across the novel and we assessed- crafting short and extended response questions for students to answer once a week.

There were many magical moments during the unit. Walking past Ronald and Jhan- two readers I’ve struggled to engage in books since elementary school- as they were sitting at tables in the hallway reading and discussing the text was transformative. This was not an assignment. They were using study hall time to read and think and make sense together. Seeing teachers grapple with conversations about what it means to be free, to be safe, in America was distressing and empowering. Above all, seeing every reader- all 51 eighth graders- deeply, passionately reading a novel cover to cover was… beautiful.

A few months after this experience my mother, a teacher at Adult Education in New Haven, asked for a book recommendation for her students. I immediately shared my experience with The Hate U Give. My mother petitioned the school to buy her a class set and began reading the novel with her students. She called me after only two days sharing that students were begging to take the book home, that everyone was reading silently for an hour straight each day and that she’d never experienced this level of connection with her students around books. (She was so proud she shared the picture below).

It would be easy to say that the reason for this enthusiasm was the structure of a whole class novel. I’m not convinced. I think that’s a part of it, for sure. Readers were definitely engaged by reading the same text, in sync. There is something deeply affirming about spending your whole career at a school as a striving reader who is finally seen, publicly, as being capable and accountable for the same reading each night.

But I tend to think the novel selection itself- a book that speaks to the lives of its readers, a book that tackles painful (and far too frequent) experiences in our country, a book where students say, “I see myself here,” is the very definition of a just right book. And why, for these students- from the Bronx to New Haven- this whole class novel was the exact right choice.

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