Walking Farther Together: In Defense of the Whole-Class Novel
"Ms. Torres, why are we reading this?"
I've been an English teacher for five years now, and every year the question never fails to come. It comes at the beginning of a book, or on the days where my students—with their bouncing-ball-energy—don't want to be contained, or just when the story has taken a turn they don't expect.
When I first started teaching, my responses were immature and ill-prepared. They wavered from a desperate need to have students like me ("C'mon! This book is gonna be AWESOME!" *fist pumps like a really, really cool person obviously would*), or a desire to retain my authoritarian role in the classroom ("Because I said so.").
Now, though, not only has my answer changed but the intention often has too. Before, the question was meant to exasperate me and share my students' exasperations about English class. Sure, I still have those days, but the question comes much more frequently with heartfelt and genuine curiosity. Students know, I hope, that we are reading with purpose and want to know what it is. They know, at the end of the day, our job is to tell stories and listen to the stories of others, and want to know why I wanted to share that story with them. It's a good question, and I've gotten better at answering.
I get why the question is frustrating, though, and why an inability to answer it well has led to some calling for us to abandon the whole-class novel. We regress back to our own English classes, where we perhaps felt frustrated or bored. We want to engage our students. We want to give them choice and teach them to love reading. All of these are valid concerns and desires.
Yes, my job is to support agency and help nurture and validate their passions. My work, though, also calls me to expand their minds and expose them to other thoughts and ideas they may not yet have encountered. My job is to present them with new concepts and help them navigate their beliefs and discuss their ideas.
Here's the thing: Before, when I used to choose what I wanted to read with the class, it was largely based on "The Canon." Saturated with white, male, and Western voices, I thought my job was to continue the long tradition of "I-read-this-so-you-should-too."
Now, I learned to love a lot of books that way (some that I still teach, for various reasons), and I do think there is value is acknowledging and giving students the understanding of literature that has influenced and permeated much of artistic culture they see today.
But my job as an educator is not to perpetuate an oppressive system, but rather to give students the tools to dismantle it. Ultimately, that's what the canon has often been. It's been a way to silence the stories of those not in power by claiming they lack importance or influence.
Fortunately, though, teachers have the unique opportunity to directly combat those oppressive structures with stories. We can uplift the voices of writers or ideas within books that students may not encounter in culture and may not discover on their own. We can also validate their own identities in devoting class time and importance to authors who share the backgrounds of our students. Yes, this includes short texts, essays, and nonfiction pieces. But it also means devoting a larger chunk of time (and thus, focus and importance) to those stories as well.
It is understandable and good that, when given a choice, many students will seek literature that mirrors their experiences or matches their interests. We should encourage that (which I'll get to later). We should also, though, use our role to help guide students through texts they may initially pass over or may not have considered influential.
Many of my students in Hawai'i have never encountered Latino communities or people. They have never heard of "the barrio," but The House on Mango Street not only gives them the language to access that world but also helps them see similarities in stereotyping and struggles between Mango Street and the neighborhoods they see on island. None of my students have been on a reservation, but laughed, cried, and empathized with Junior in Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Likewise, it was important to study Zoot Suit with my Latino students in South L.A. In a world that had often oppressed the importance of their stories, I wanted to model an in-depth study and academic appreciation of a voice from their community.
I cannot guarantee that every one of my students will come to love these stories as I do. I don't think that devalues the importance of the discussions or exposure to new worlds that must also be happening when we read whole-class novels.
In many ways, though, the burden falls on us as educators to choose texts that we can teach with an authentic and meaningful understanding of why that story matters. If I can't tell a kid why I think this story is important, I shouldn't expect them to value it just because I said so. It also means the burden falls on us to choose lessons, topics, activities and discussions that help meet students where they are emotionally and intellectually and engage them in the message that ultimately made us choose that book.
Of course, student engagement and voice is essential. This is why, while I still use whole-class novels, I am a firm believer in also encouraging and incorporating independent reading (and its many benefits) into my class. While whole-class novels should be an avenue to expose students and challenge their ideas, I don't expect it to be the thing that makes them love reading. Love comes from choice. That means giving students choice early on.
That's why, though, I'm an advocate for both being part of my classroom. I have had students return to me saying they now choose books of poetry (like The House on Mango Street) or dystopian sci-fi novels (like The Giver) because they were exposed to that style of writing in class.
Finally, though, my love of the whole-class novel is partially rooted in the way my school chooses to teach them.
This, for me, is an experience that makes the whole-class novel especially powerful for my students. They don't experience stories in solace. Students help each other understand what just happened, or lean over to explain the meaning of a word their deskmate may not know. They sigh together when something sad happens; they groan together when a character makes a bad choice. Is there anything better—for me or for them—than when a group of 14-year-olds gasps together at a juicy plot twist?
That's why I love the whole-class novel. No, we can't just rely on past methods of teaching for it to be meaningful, but when used properly, it can be an immensely powerful tool.
For many of us, books open a world we can escape to. I not only want to give students that experience, but I also want them to understand storytelling as a powerful tool to build community and learn with each other. With every turn of the page, they walk into a new world together. They can turn to each other and discuss what they saw and challenge each other about what they thought along the way. Ultimately, they come out the other side together.
Reading together can give us the joy of shared experience, understanding, and kinship. It allows us to come together so that we can move forward much farther than we might have done on our own.