Reading Wholly

Reading and analyzing fiction is a process. This process has been subverted in many (including my own) middle and high schools across the country. I remember that feeling of frustration as I would read a novel for class, and not having finished said novel, the teacher would ask us how different aspects of the novel worked together, why the author was making a certain character act a certain way, or what the “message” was. As an avid reader outside of the classroom, I wanted to protest that those questions were not so simple to answer if you had not finished the book. Each chapter was not written as a separate story. The novel was written as a whole, to be read as a whole.

These feelings are reflected in an article by Ariel Sacks, a seventh grade English teacher who seeks to allow students to fully understand a novel by reading it as a whole. Her approach is to create a reading schedule for the students to follow and provide them with post-it notes to write down what they find interesting or can’t quite figure out as they read. In the article, she relates that allowing students to discuss what they personally found intriguing, rather than having them complete a set of questions after each chapter, led to energetic, lively class discussions driven by interest rather than necessity.

Of course, she has encountered some problems with such an unstructured approach. Not all students are at the same level of analytical skill, so support and guidance must be provided as students make their way through the novel. Informal check-ins about how the reading is going help to keep students on track and get them thinking about the novel on a regular basis. The post-it notes are also monitored to hold students accountable for each section of the reading, as well as alert the teacher to any problems the student might be having with connecting to the text.

To help the students get even more out of their reading experience, group projects can also be assigned in which a small group of students focuses on a specific aspect of the novel – theme, setting, or character development, for example. As Sacks says, this avoids the problem of the teacher falling into the role of “chief thinker” over the novel’s interpretation.

When the “due date” for reading the novel comes, the class discusses it together for three days. The first day usually encompasses initial reactions to the book, while the second day often leads to discussion of themes and patterns in the text. The teacher can use this day to teach about specific literary terms such as foreshadowing that the students may have noticed in the reading without knowing what it was called. The third and final day is used to discuss (as you may have guessed) “the novel as a whole”. Students seek insight into why the author has made certain choices with plot or characterization and try to figure out what the “message” might be.

I’m not saying that this model does not have some pitfalls, but it represents a movement towards innovation and a willingness to try new methods of teaching that has been woefully lacking in the American education system. Student enthusiasm is a key variable in the equation of learning that is often discounted, so any program that attempts to harness that power is a step in the right direction, in my opinion.