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Book Review: “Whole Novels for the Whole Class”

Meghan Mathis

Being a teacher who wants to utilize best practices in their classroom can be exhausting. A quick Google search for “Whole-group novels vs. choice reading,” for example, will yield hundreds of selections telling you that whole-group reading in your classroom will destroy your students’ love of literature. Make a student suffer through a book they don’t choose themselves, some of the most extreme of these opinions state, and you are leading to your students’ “Alienation” and “Isolation” from their peers! Other sources, however, provide just as much evidence and discussion to the contrary. Allowing students to experience a text together, they argue, provides invaluable opportunities for them to grow as readers.

What’s a dedicated, caring teacher to do? We certainly don’t want to alienate our students, nor keep them from worthwhile collaboration and discussion over a shared text!

Sometimes, the choice is made for us. Your district provides you with a curriculum that says, “You WILL teach these novels to your class.” Sometimes you are able to plan a unit around managed choice where your students will get to choose their own novel. Other times, we come across a resource that makes us feel excited and confident to move forward in a certain direction. This is how I felt when I read “Whole Novels for the Whole Class: A Student-Centered Approach” by Ariel Sacks.

This Isn’t Your Mama’s Whole Class Novel

One of the first things I noticed about this book was the care Sacks takes to separate what she is suggesting from what might come to mind when we think about teaching one novel to an entire class of students. Early in the book, Sacks compares the way whole-novel instruction has often occurred in the classroom with a trip to the movies:

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“Imagine going to see a movie in the theater. You’ve heard good things about this movie, and you feel that special movie theater excitement when the lights go down and the movie begins. After the second scene, the movie stops … someone at the front of the theater with a microphone starts asking people what they think about the movie … What is motivating the characters?”

Her hypothetical situation continues, both humorous and compelling, thoroughly establishing that Sacks plans on putting forth a thoroughly new way of teaching one novel to an entire class of students. In short, Sacks suggests that a class should read one novel in its entirety before beginning to talk about it. She suggests an approach much more like an adult book group than anything usually seen in a typical English classroom.

Talking the Talk AND Walking the Walk

It’s incredibly frustrating to read books that promise to teach amazing and effective new ways to reach students, only to discover that the book was full of statistics and theory on why this new method was so effective without any real, practical information on how to implement it in the classroom. “Whole Novels for the Whole Class” is pretty much the opposite of these “Resources.”

Not only does Sacks provide detailed descriptions of how a student-centered whole novel approach works in her classroom, but she also provides pacing guides for a novel study, sample lesson plans for how to prepare your students for the study, and detailed examples of miniprojects students can complete and bring to their peers during discussions. The book contains in-depth discussion on tying in the writing component, differentiation, and addressing problems that may arise. Sacks is an 8th grade English teacher in Brooklyn, N.Y., and her classroom experience definitely shows in these sections. This book is made to help teachers in real-time, not just give us lofty suggestions with no practical guide for implementation.

The Proof is in the Pudding

Or in this case, the proof is in the book. Sacks closes her book with data. She addressed the concerns that I (and am sure others) have about how to make time for more whole group study of fiction texts at a time when the Common Core State Standards are pushing for huge increases in nonfiction reading. In addition to discussing her own students’ successes with this approach, she also provides insight from educational researchers on the “Benefits of fiction in the real world.” It is compelling, and left me confident that I could competently make the case for whole-novel study to my department head or principal with relative ease.

None of this is to say that student choice isn’t important, or that studying nonfiction texts isn’t a valid use of our time in the classroom. It’s clear that Ariel Sacks certainly doesn’t want anyone to get that impression from reading “Whole Novels for the Whole Class: A Student-Centered Approach.” What is also clear, however, is that there is a compelling reason to consider allowing your entire class to read a novel together before breaking it apart and discussing it, and Sacks has provided teachers with an excellent resource to do just that.