Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Independent Reads vs. Whole Class Reads

As #slowchatela looks at teaching whole novels this week, the first question Jay Nickerson posed was "What's your current approach to teaching novels? How's that goin' for ya?" This made me pause...How is it going for me? More importantly, what do I hope to get out of teaching whole novels? Then, Christina Luce asked me to consider my goals for whole class and independent reading. After pondering, here are my thoughts!
Books stacked on either side of table, three open in middle of stacks
CC Photo: Abhi Sharma via Flickr

Independent Reads vs. Whole Class Reads

Sometimes, I want students to be able to choose what they want to read because
  • the autonomy leads to ownership
    • No Brainer:  We are all more invested in a task if we have chosen it for ourselves! Students are more likely to actually read the novel if they are given a voice in which novel they are reading. 
  • exploring different genres is important to help them find something they enjoy reading
    • Reading shouldn't feel like a burden; it should be an adventure! Students need the freedom to try different types of texts until they find one that fits them. Some students may even prefer non-fiction! 
  • they will likely choose something outside the "canon"
    • Contemporary works and Yong Adult fiction have much to offer, but they are too often neglected in classrooms. My students generally read the same whole class literature their parents read as freshmen and sophomores! 
But other times, I want them all to read the same, whole class read because
  • the shared experience can help build community
    • Common experiences, shared goals, teamwork, and collaboration build relationships and increase trust among students and between students and the teacher. While this can be accomplished without reading a novel, tackling a big project like reading a novel together can lay a foundation of community.
  • they give us common samples and examples to practice reading and analysis strategies together
    • Working on particular close reading strategies and examining specific literary devices and features is easier if we all use the same text. After some whole class practice with these skills, students can hopefully transfer their application to anything else they choose to read!
  • some classic literature and allusions are important to make them well-rounded and well-educated 
    • Star-crossed lovers, George and Lennie references, Big Brother, chasing a white whale, ...I could go on forever! These allusions are part of our culture, and I want my students to be familiar with some of them!
At this time, I mostly teach whole class novels. Partly, this is because it's what we have--sets of whole class novels rather than well-stocked classroom libraries. We do have a school media center, and I probably need to take better advantage of using it with my class. Another factor is time. It seems to take so long to read a novel in a regular English class that I don't often feel like I have time to offer more choices (and my students don't have time to read something else).

When students do "individual reads," I would prefer if they could work in literature circles or at least have a partner. Having another person's support makes us all more accountable. Think about how much easier it is for us to stick to a diet or workout plan if we have a support system; that's why weight-loss groups have weigh-ins and meetings and why personal trainers are so popular. Sure, I can provide some of this support as the teacher, but I fear the "carrot" of the grade at the end is completely unmotivating to some students. I also don't want to encourage the idea that we only read because we are "forced" into it.
CC Photo: Erin Kelly via Flickr

Ideally, I want my students to develop a love of reading and a multitude of strategies that help them examine and analyze their reading, make connections to their prior knowledge and experiences, and discuss their understanding intelligently. I don't think it can happen without some whole class reads, but I also don't think limiting their choices will make this a reality. I need to find some balance here, and make individual reads an easier reality in my classroom.

How do you approach teaching novels? Do you do more whole class reads or more individual reads? What have been your best teaching strategies for both? I'd love to hear your ideas!