“We’re not going to be reading this book together as a class anymore this year,” I told my students after finishing up a chapter somewhere in the middle of Jordan Sonnenblick’s After Ever After. We had read a little over half of the book together in class over the past 9 weeks, but the unit and quarter were coming to an end, and there just wasn’t time left to finish the rest of the novel.
“Why aren’t we going to finish the book?” a young man in the back asked.
I hadn’t reached this decision easily. I knew my students would be confused as to why their teacher wasn’t going to finish reading a book to completion with them. Most likely, this was the first time a teacher had proposed such a move. It felt as weird to me saying it as I imagine it did to my students hearing it.
“Remember I gave you all a poll last week in Google Classroom asking you if you wanted to continue with our regular independent reading times or just read the class novel together?” I said. “And over 87% of you said that you wanted to keep reading books of your own choice several days a week.”
Heads slowly began to nod.
“Well,” I continued. “If you want to read your own books in here, then we don’t have enough class time together to dedicate to reading the class novel to its entirety as well. However, if you would like to finish After Ever After, you can continue reading it during our scheduled independent reading times.”
My students appeared fairly satisfied with this logic.
Before I go on, I need to pause and set a little context in relation to my school. I have one class set of each novel that we read together. That means I have 25 copies each of After Ever After, A Long Walk to Water, The Giver and Bronx Masquerade. I have over 80 students, which means that I cannot send home a copy of each book with each of them and assign reading homework each night. It just can’t happen; our school doesn’t have the resources, and I cannot ask my students’ parents or guardians to purchase copies these books. If my students are going to read those aforementioned texts, then the reading must occur in my classroom during school hours. To be honest, reading our class novels eats up a lot of time – nearly 40% of it to be exact.
As I mentioned earlier, I had mixed feelings about not finishing our first novel of the year together as a class. I was thrilled at how well the students had bought into the independent reading, but I also felt nervous about breaking course from such a commonplace practice in English classrooms as the class novel. I feared my fellow Language Arts teachers on the hall would judge me when they learned that I had stopped at page 166 of Sonnenblick’s book instead of page 272 (where it ends), that I had cheated my students out of the experience of completing a book.
However, something interesting happened the next day in class when students went to grab their independent reading books for the work session: half of the students in each of my Language Arts classes grabbed a copy of After Ever After. Most of these same students finished the book on their own over the course of the next few weeks. We discussed the complicated and incredibly sad ending of Sonnenblick’s book individually as each student finished. I was flattered that so many students WANTED to finish reading this book that I chose for them.
As excited as I was to see half of my students devour the final 100+ pages of this novel, I was equally pleased by the decision of the other half to abandon it. In my previous two years at this school, I had taken all my classes through After Ever After, from start to finish. But these students who chose to read something else revealed to me what a great mistake I had been making. For two years I had forced a number of my former students to persevere through a book that they were not enjoying. Seeing this group of students leave our class novel behind so that they could continue reading their own books gave justification to our independent reading program. I had provided my students with a glimpse into a novel, and then I had given them the choice to carry on with it or not, rather than dragging half of my rosters through a text that they were not engaged in.
I did the same “experiment” near the end of the second quarter with The Giver by Lois Lowry, and the results were even more astonishing: only 5 of my students in all of my classes opted to stay with the novel. I immediately felt terrible about making prior students read the whole book; but, I again enjoyed a sense of vindication for my decision to prioritize independent reading this year as I watched the majority of my students leave The Giver behind so that they could move forward with their own texts.
While my classes will no longer read entire novels together, I do want to point out that I fully embrace and still plan to utilize them in my classroom. Whole class novels are a wonderful way to introduce students to new genres. They can also be used to teach or reinforce a host of complicated literary elements such as point of view, characterization, theme, setting, plot, etc., and if students are using the same text, they can work together to uncover meaning when dealing with these complex subjects.
But as critical as whole class novels can be to a curriculum, giving students choice and time to read books on their own is equally as important. Next year my students will be exposed to four highly-engaging whole class novels, but the decision as to whether they finish them or not will be totally up to them.