English teachers struggle to fit it all in. We want to teach the novels we love while also allowing the freedom and choice that reading workshop provides. Can we do both? Yes! Keep reading to find out how…
First a bit of background about my interpretation of what reading workshop and whole class novel teaching looks like:
A Reading Workshop System Looks Like…
If you are implementing reading workshop, students choose the books they want to read the majority of the time. You or your students might do book talks to entice the class to read certain genres. You might also display themed books in your class library at different times throughout the year. In a reading workshop program students write about and discuss their choice books and the teacher teaches mini lessons like the ones listed at the end of this page.
A Whole Class Novel System Looks Like…
If you are implementing whole class novels, the teacher chooses the novel and students participate in teacher directed activities before, during and after reading the novel. Students also write, discuss and take notes about the class novel. In the book, Whole Novels for the Whole Class: A Student-Centered Approach by Ariel Sacks (Amazon Affiliate Link) students are given a calendar and a deadline for when their book needs to be finished. Then students choose how much they will read each day. Some voracious readers may consume the book in a matter of days, while other readers may break it down into reasonable chunks day by day. Ariel Sacks also has students do mini projects throughout the unit so students have a chance to analyze aspects of the novel more deeply.
Now, here’s the step by step break down of how you could be teaching a whole novel AND implementing the workshop model…
Consider your schedule.
If you read, How I Teach Reading and Writing Workshop in 54 Minutes, I discuss this schedule break down when teaching a writing workshop unit:
Silent Reading- allow students to read choice books, you could read your own book, take attendance or even conference with a few students during this time
Book Talk- share an excerpt from a book with your class to entice them to read a certain genre or have a student share about a book they currently finished
Transition- have students come to the meeting area (I have students gather around, sitting on tables and a rug, students who are already sitting in desks close to the meeting area stay where they are)
Writing Mini Lesson- teach a short mini lesson related to whatever writing unit you are teaching
Writing Work-students write within the genre you are teaching while you confer with as many students as you can
Closure- share student writing either in pairs, groups or with the whole class
In order to implement reading workshop and a whole class novel, your schedule could look more like this:
Silent Reading- of choice books (choice is so, so important when implementing reading workshop)
Write- about choice books/free write/write next to a mentor text, article or poem (some of these ideas were inspired by 180 Days by Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle)
Transition- to the meeting area (same as above)
Reading Mini Lesson About Whole Class Novel- you could teach about theme, character development, setting, plot, note-taking strategies, mood, tone, literary devices etc. you could also analyze excerpts from the novel together as a class
Reading Work- read whole class novel independently, with partners or listen to audio version, during this time you should definitely be checking in with your readers (conferring) and how they are doing with the novel
Closure- discuss progress on whole class novel in groups or as a class; save juicy discussions until after everyone has finished the book
So now that you know you can allow students choice in what they read AND teach a whole novel let’s get into planning the whole novel unit!
Choose an engaging book.
I love historical fiction and believe this genre is often left undiscovered by students without the nudging of a teacher. I’m a huge Laurie Halse Anderson fan and luckily my teaching team reads Chains each year. There are many other books that I’ve read with students over the course of my career, some of them include: Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, The Witches by Roald Dahl (I love reading excerpts from this aloud to students in October), Blood on the River by Lynn Carbone and Holes by Louis Sachar. Just make sure that whatever you pick, it is accessible to the average reader at your grade level and that you believe students will be engaged in reading independently during “work time” and sometimes at home if they get behind.
Decide on mini lesson topics.
When teaching a novel there are many goals to choose from and those goals should also connect to the culminating event discussed at the end of this article. Here are a few of the goals that you might consider having while teaching a novel…
- Track a character’s development over the course of the novel.
- Track figurative language and literary devices over the course of the novel.
- Write thoughtfully and with evidence from the text about specific literary devices/author’s craft moves used in the novel.
- Write a review about the novel and publish it online.
- Discuss the plot and pose higher level thinking questions to peers.
- Discuss the plot and answer higher level thinking questions.
- Write thoughtfully and with evidence from the text about the mood or tone of the novel. Here’s a video that can help with that…
Conference with individuals and groups.
You might be wondering what the teacher does during all this reading time? Conferring! You should be asking students questions like:
- How’s the book going for you?
- What are you noticing so far?
- What questions do you have?
- How are you tracking your thinking?
- What literary devices have you noticed?
Conferring can be the toughest part of running a successful workshop program. It is essential that strong management is in place or students will struggle to work independently while you confer. Read this article for advice about conferring with your students.
Carve out time for discussions.
After reading Whole Novels for the Whole Class: A Student-Centered Approach by Ariel Sacks (Amazon Affiliate Link) I realized that discussions should be kept to a minimum until everyone has finished the book. Why? So students can enjoy the book without getting hung up on who might be spoiling what for who!
I love Sacks’ idea about providing students with a three week calendar and allowing them to fill it in as they see fit to get the reading done by a designated date! So, what do students discuss during the three weeks they are reading the novel? Whole Novels for the Whole Class is jam packed with brilliant “mini projects” to get kids analyzing aspects of the book such as the setting, characters, theme, symbols etc. So there is some discussion going on, but only to accomplish mini projects along the way rather than to discuss the book so far, without even knowing how it ends, how awkward, right?!?
Carve out time for writing.
Students need time to reflect about what they are reading, especially if you are planning to have them write literary essays as a culminating event. They can do this reflection in a notebook during “free write time” or during “work time” listed in the reading workshop schedule above. You can provide guiding questions for students as they write about the novel:
- Describe the main character, how are they similar and different from you? What motivates them? What do they want? How do they change throughout the book?
- Describe the setting of the novel. How does the setting lead to conflict or propel the story forward? Why do you think the author chose this setting?
- What is the bigger picture? Why do you think the author wrote this book? What is the author trying to get across to readers? How do you know?
Decide on a culminating event.
Your culminating event is what students do at the end of your unit. There are many things students should be able to accomplish after reading a novel. Here are some ideas:
- Write a literary essay.
- Participate in a Socratic Seminar.
- Participate in an online discussion using Google Classroom and shared Docs.
- Act out scenes from the novel.
- Write a book review on Goodreads.
- Write a letter to the author.
As you can see reading workshop and teaching whole class novels do not have to be mutually exclusive. Each method of teaching reading has its benefits. I don’t believe that English teachers should throw either method out, rather we should attempt to diversify the way we go about teaching reading, we should be risk takers! Rather than teaching one whole class novel after another, English teachers should give reading workshop a try. Additionally, reading workshop teacher advocates should remember the value of the shared reading experience that occurs in a whole class novel unit.