Monday, February 8, 2010

Whole Class Novel: A Worthwhile Trade?

I am still thinking about the fourth grade class that I recently visited that was struggling with book choice. You might remember that I told you that “I dusted off an old, whole class set of Shiloh tucked on a shelf.” For this lesson, it was convenient that these books were lying around. When the children shared why the book interested them and why it didn’t, each student was able to relate and contribute to the conversation. Looking at the same book unified our discussion. Like I said, very convenient.

But, after this lesson ended, I couldn’t stop thinking about this class set of books. Once upon a time, these books were used as “the whole class novel.” The teacher passed them out, the students took turns reading aloud or read assigned chapters silently to themselves. On occasion, the teacher would read aloud. The class talked about the book and sometimes, they completed packets with comprehension questions and activities—Shiloh word finds and Shiloh vocabulary crossword puzzles.

Most of the teachers I know have wisely abandoned this practice, but some fiercely defend it. “We have great conversations,” I am told. “How else will students know what to notice in their books,” I am asked.

I don’t mean to be disparaging because I have experienced great conversations spawned from a shared text. However, I have a question to the whole class novel die-hards: What becomes of the eight students in my fourth grade class who felt for a number of reasons that Shiloh was not right for them? Several of these readers think it is too hard…and they are right. They are struggling readers. What message do I send when I say, “sorry, you have to read it anyway?”

I’ll tell you what these kids are thinking: I’m stupid. I hate reading. Reading is boring.

In What Really Matters for Struggling Readers Richard Allington writes, “ I know of no evidence that suggests that any curriculum plan that had all children working in the same books…ever produced high achievement in children.” With no research to support the whole class novel, it is difficult to condone a practice that might have a detrimental impact on a student’s passion for reading. In my mind, encouraging reluctance and perpetuating failure isn’t worth the few periods of teacher dominated conversation.

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