Tomorrow I'll be at the NCTE convention in Philadelphia doing a poster presentation with my mentor from Bank Street, Madeleine Ray, on the Whole Novels Program, a student centered literature program we've been developing for some years. In honor of that, I'm posting a piece I wrote last year about my favorite part of the Whole Novels Program--discussions. Here it is.
It is my
favorite time again--discussions of the novel the class has just finished
reading. I pull two tables together on one side of the room to form a “discussion
table,” and call half of the class to the table. The other students have
independent work to do quietly; halfway through the period the two half-groups
will switch. Students know that
there will be three days of successive discussions, and that only students who
have completed the reading are eligible to join. A few students catch up on unfinished reading in a corner so
that they may enter discussions the following day, or even by the end of the
This is a
tradition I became a part of six years ago as a student teacher at Bank Street
College, working with faculty advisor, Madeleine Ray, who teaches this methods
each year in her Children’s Literature course. When I was student teaching in an English class, she
instructed me to try allowing the students to read and experience an entire
novel on their own. The point was
to hold off on discussions and public interpretations until they had read the
entire work. Then, she urged, let
the students discuss the work openly, as adults do in book groups or as art
critics would do at an opening. “Don’t
script a list of questions for students to answer,” she said. “Just ask them what they notice, what
they think and go from there.”
teachers wince at this suggestion, predicting that their students will fail at
the task, or that they, as teachers, will fail to teach the content they feel
obliged to cover. I also
questioned if it would be possible.
years, I’ve developed structures that help me hold students accountable for
completing the reading and others that help struggling readers succeed in the
process. I’ve found that this core
framework for the study of literature is one of the most sucessful and
rewarding pieces of my teaching practice.
our first novel discussions,” I say to my group of nine students sitting around
the table holding their novels, packed with post-it notes where they’ve
recorded their thoughts over the last 2 ½ weeks of reading. I explain, “First,
we will go around the circle and hear once from each student. After that, the
discussion is open. The student to my left goes first. You can say anything you
want about the book…tell us your general impressions of it, something you loved
or hated, a character or scene you want to comment on, something you noticed or
discussions begin. Everyone gets a
turn. Students fight to hold back
their responses until we’ve gone around the circle once. Then the discussion
accelerates as students unleash their insights into characters, challenge one
another over what really happened and why, whether the book was compelling or a
bore, and frantically searching for the pages that hold proof of their points…
All the while I take notes on everything that is said, only occasionally asking
a question, or reminding students to take turns and make sure to hear from
discussions, year after year, I have the wonderful sensation that time around
us has stopped—we are consumed by the experience—until then the bell rings (or
the timer goes off, indicating that it’s time for the groups to switch).
is over?” a student usually asks, confused.
I say. “But we’ll continue tomorrow.
Before we go we need to decide on a homework assignment based on today’s
discussion.” A student usually comes up with a question or challenge for the
group to write a paragraph about.
If there are competing ideas, I ask students to write on something they
would like to discuss tomorrow, in round two. This may include locating a specific passage in the book
that supports their position for the group to reread and analyze. By the end of
the year, students create these types of assignments for themselves without my
I spend the extra time it takes to type up the notes from today’s discussions,
and bring a copy for each student to read at the beginning of the round
two. I give them a few minutes to
read over the notes. They are
thrilled to see their words in print!
“As you read, highlight anything they want to return to in today’s
discussion.” We begin by again allowing everyone to speak once. Then it’s open and the discussion picks
up both speed and depth. On day
one, students mostly offer strong visceral opinions about characters or the
book as a whole. By day two or
three, the students progress from analyzing characters, their relationships and
conflicts, to analyzing more subtle themes and subtexts in the work. They become aware of the author’s craft
and purpose, and are able to critique them.
popular demand from students, this time every class continues discussing for
four days straight. We could have
gone on even longer, but it was time to work on portfolio projects—students
wrote essays on the novel, based on the ideas from our discussions.
To close, I
gave students a quick anonymous survey that asked, What was it like to be
part of the discussion groups this week? Describe the experience. The responses were all favorable, and some were especially
telling of why:
· It was good. I got to say what I think.
· It was a good experience because
we all got to express what we feel about the book.
· It was great and controversial.
· It was interesting because we got
to see what each was thinking.
· It was good because I got to hear
others’ thoughts about the book and know they are thinking the same thing I’m
· It was fun and cool that people
actually got to hear what I had to say.
· It was like being in a meeting,
cooperating with others, talking about a girl our age.
· It was good because it was just an
· It feels like I am making progress
comments remind me that it’s not every day that we allow kids to really say
what they think in school and be heard.
Adolescents will tell you if they don’t like your outfit, and some will
tell you if they’re bored. But
when it comes to academic material, even the most outspoken students have been
trained for years to look for the answer that pleases the teacher.
of this process for discussion of literature makes it clear that if we really
want our students to think for themselves, we have to be open to what they will
say. I may want to discuss the
symbolism of the cowry shell in chapter 10, but this does nothing anything for
the students We cannot be the one
thinker in a room full of followers!
Instead, we must be charged with devising ways to create space and
opportunities for our students to share and pursue their own thoughts.
It can be
hard to resist the traditional role of teacher as chief thinker, which is as
ingrained in teachers and schools as it is in our students. Letting go of it, however, is
liberating, and the rewards for students are even greater. Finally, no one spends class waiting
for the bell to ring.
[image credit: fhscrystalg.googlepages.com/]