Against Class Novels Again and Again and Again

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17 thoughts on “Against Class Novels Again and Again and Again”

  1. Yes Ben. Workshop style reading with free choice of texts is the way I embed equity into my classroom. Look, Lucy Calkins developed her work in schools with real kids ranging from the poorest recent immigrants to the most élite privileged wealthy private schools and from right in her own backyard of Harlem to Oman and Quatar.
    Inherent differentiation and one-on-one attention. It’s like a one room schoolhouse, not a one-book pathway to success or failure.
    I am so glad to be working with you on this. It’s very very important, this issue of equity and access. Abd self esteem and mental health. And joy smiles and fun.
    Why must we make it all so complicated and dreary when we could worry less and be happier?

  2. Sean M Lawler

    I mentioned last week my mini-horror story unit I’m doing with my Spanish heritage students. As we begin to write our own horror stories I thought I’d have them follow the directions of James Wan (director of Saw, Insidious, The Conjouring, Lights Out) and retell a classic horror story, but with a twist and then think of a memorable scene, like in The Shining when the little boy is riding his tricycle in the hallways of that grand, empty, hotel in the mountains, riding his tricycle, turning a corner and confronting the ghosts of two little girl twins. But after reading this post, and after your push for me to work with images or invisibles even with the heritage classes, I might just have my students develop a fantastic or horrific character before they develop a memorable scene. Thanks!

  3. Robert Harrell

    As the writer of chapter books in German, I might be expected to disagree with Ben on this, and I do – but only to an extent.
    Books written to address word lists will usually be pretty boring. Very few of us have the talent of Theodore Geisel (Dr Seuss) to do constrained writing of that magnitude and still produce something like “Green Eggs and Ham”. (For those who may not know, Geisel made a bet with Bennet Cerf – publisher at Random House – that he could write a children’s book using only 50 unique words. “Green Eggs and Ham” was the result, and Geisel won the bet. But Cerf didn’t hand him a list of 50 words he had to use.)
    In addition, books with highly constrained vocabulary in the native language are, like “Green Eggs and Ham”, generally children’s books. (Other kinds of constrained writing run the gamut of ages.) If they are good children’s books, adults can enjoy them, too. (Lewis writes in other places about the poor quality of most children’s books and maintains that no children’s book should be inflicted on children if it isn’t interesting to adults as well.) But in high school, we have the tension of students with teenage cognitive ability but toddler language ability. What do we do?
    We don’t start out by saying, “I need to write a book that presents the past tense” or “My book will feature vocabulary from the family unit in the book” or “My book will use only the 180 most frequent words in the language”. At least the last one has moved us from a grammar focus.
    We also don’t plan our unit by deciding to do close reading and other “academic stuff”. (Technical term)
    Like Lewis, I usually begin with images – I think that’s why the quote appeals to me as it does. Then I consider whether the story that comes from the images is one that “needs” to be told. I also look for characters that will carry the story.
    In the new book I’ve just begun, I began with images of certain people in certain places. How those images will fit into the book has not been fully determined. Here are some of them:
    – a forged painting
    – Max alone and tied up in a large building that turns out to be one of the Flak Towers in Vienna
    (Max is the main character)
    – a Krampus parade – that’s the first chapter
    – different places in Vienna
    In my first book, I wanted to tell a story about the Middle Ages and the time of Friedrich Barbarossa. In my second book, I wanted to tell the legend of Klaus Stoertebeker. In my third book, I wanted to tell about the exploits of Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, who led the British on a merry chase throughout all of World War I in German East Africa. Now I’m writing a crime novel.
    So, what is my purpose in writing? To tell stories that I think people will enjoy and that have applications in real life. (See JRR Tolkien’s writings on application vs allegory.)
    As a writer, I simply want the story to be good and to tell it in an engaging way. As a teacher, I want the writing to support student engagement. As a person, I want there to be a moral application (“lesson”, if you will) but without moralizing or preaching.
    There are principles for writing engaging stories in various genres*, and it helps to know them. Good writing doesn’t “just happen”. Nor does a good story come about from a single draft – especially when one is writing in a second language. These things take time.
    *One of those principles is to start “in medias res”, in the middle of the action, rather than having a long introductory set-up: “Joe is a normal boy with a normal family. Joe’s father is a bus driver, and his mother is a secretary. Joe has a a brother and a sister. They are normal. The family is normal but has problems. Joe goes to Blezzerschlep High School and has problems with his friends, who are also normal. …” At least newer readers are getting away from that.
    So, what about using these books in the classroom?
    Obviously, one use of the books is as part of a classroom library.
    Another use, especially for the shorter works, is as a Kindergarten Day activity.
    Currently, I am reading “Nordseepirat” with my German 2 students. Contrary to all of the talk about variety of reading, etc., I choose simply to read the story out loud to my students while checking for understanding, using gestures and actions to enhance comprehensibility, and going off on tangential discussions of items that arise.
    As I explain to my students, a key factor in my reading aloud to them is that I want their brains to map the connection between the marks on the page and the sounds they have been hearing for nearly two years. They won’t get that if they are the ones reading aloud or are reading silently. Yes, we do FVR nearly every day, but silent reading does not correct false conceptions of pronunciation – for example, a student can read with understanding and still pronounce the German word “die” as in English rather than “dee”. By following along with understanding while I read aloud, they unconsciously get the input they need to map the connection.
    But most of all, I want us to share a fun experience in the language.
    Could I get all of the above from class-generated stories? Sure – and I do – but getting there is a lot of work, and at this point in the school year, I and the students want a change of pace. And I want a bit of a break. So, reading something already published also does that. Yes, reading a published book is one of my “bail-out moves”.
    You should know by now that I can give you a detailed explanation / justification for nearly everything I do. 🙂
    But I still agree with Ben on how most novels (both writing and reading) are approached in school.

    1. Robert Harrell

      After writing all of the above, I read Ben’s post on “Books” and the new work by Abbey Thole. In that light, I think Ben are even closer than I originally perceived. He’s talking primarily about the “academic” use of books written to “teach language” rather than the writing of books that engage students.

    2. Sean M Lawler

      I’d like to learn German just to read your novels, Robert! I’m also looking forward to purchasing your Kick It! publication. I remember you working on that and was intrigued at the time but didn’t have the state of mind to think it all through and apply it in my teaching. Soccer is exciting. I want to try it next year.

  4. The problem is that teachers see novels as a “safe” alternative to TPRS or the Invisibles. You can hide behind a teacher’s guide…you can say that you need to “get through” X amount of chapters.
    For TPRS and The Invisibles you actually have to confront yourself as a teacher- how you interact with the kids, are you able to keep in bounds, are you teaching to the eyes etc.
    Plus, I’ve found that many teachers are just not willing to go “all in” and try something new. I went to a teacher event on Saturday where this non-profit collects office supplies that companies throw away and gives them to teachers.
    I was up early on a Saturday morning loading my car with binders (so I can start building my class-created FCR Library). I told a ton of teachers about this event. The only one that showed up was my librarian friend (who is a co-organizer of Edcamp with me). He got tile that he is going to use to tile a garage that is used by the broadcast club (he is moderator).
    Most teachers don’t approach things this way though…that’s why you tend to run into the same people at Edcamps, TPRS groups, Ben’s blogs, Twitter, and Ben’s blogs.
    It’s hard to find self-motivated teachers like Sean & Alisa and the others on this blog.

  5. Why are class novels “boring-ass”? I use class interviews, stories, Movietalk, and novels, along with other sources of CI. Why do they have to be bad? I really don’t understand the divisiveness here.
    I have found a couple of novels I teach to be a great way to open a discussion about culture – “Noches Misteriosas en Granada” is one of my favorites.
    Why are we drawing such a big line?

  6. Carrie your comment is welcome but I will not change my position. You can call it drawing a line but that is exactly why eleven years ago I made this blog private. So I and the few in our group here could say what is in our hearts w no public response of offense.
    Why do I say this about the novels? Because my 20 years in TPRS has made me feel it as a deep truth (it took that long). No apologies. The one thing that we have agreed to do over all the years here is to say what we want. The other sites that are public cannot do that with the same fervor, in my opinion.
    There is no propriety or PC correctness here. The actual reason for my position is complex and cannot be easily reproduced here in a comment field but it has to do with my deep commitment to inclusion/equity and to the concept of building community in a WL classroom as far more important than language gains.

  7. Alisa Shapiro-Rosenberg

    People are in different places along the T/CI delivery spectrum. Successfully teaching using CI and then reading a beginners’ leveled novel like Brandon Brown Wants a Dog (BBWAD) in the latter part of 3rd grade, as I do – is a delightful experience. My Ss are thrilled that I have fake poop and a squirt bottle for dog pee. (These are affluent families where most kids are getting their needs met.)
    They love to lay in our improvised fort and pretend to play w/action figures (like Brandon)! As a set-up to the book, they love to bring in photos of their real or imagined pets and answer PQA style about their pets…
    Sometimes I process the entire chapter as though I’m telling a story, before they ever lay eyes on it. Sometimes, I have comprehension activities on the screen for fast finishers. Sometimes we do the Readers’ Theatre from the guide. My Ss love BBWAD!
    It’s been hard to find other books easy enough as well as compelling. ‘Brandon Brown tells the Truth’ was a big hit; and for younger learners there are precious few titles…
    All this to say that the equity issues in other settings don’t seem to be an issue down here in elementary, and there must be tons of pre-novel work before we even get to reading it. Much of the reading is processed out loud – thy like to follow as I read, or be read to… Not all have the sound system in their heads, so I convert the written input to auditory…
    That said, the adminz and powers LOVE that we are ‘reading novels’ down here!

  8. Yes and my own background is urban blight mixed w white privilege – in the same classroom. So I don’t use the novels and Alisa does. My bad. Should have qualified that. I just honestly don’t know where, aside from elementary, community and positive self regard between students – genuine community – have been served by the novels. If even one kid can’t read at the level of the “smart” ones, – define please, in WL education since everyone can master as many languages as they are sufficiently exposed to – then I’m out. Yes, I’m an extreme case. Big deal. If somebody could (a) write a novel that is far simpler than most that are currently out there and (b) make it about somebody who is not white and straight and “normal”, I might even consider doing class novels. But for me they always divided classes. This is a good example of why this site is private.

  9. And just to add how weird I am – I could never get interviews, MovieTalk and lots of other TPRS things to work for me. There was always a level of falseness to those activities for me. But I am happy that they and novels work for others. We all are different and must pursue our own CI paths.

  10. Andrew Rosene

    I have been built my Spanish 3 and 4 courses around whole-class novel/cultural units for the past several years. After Comprehensible Cascadia last year, I built up my free-choice library and dedicated more class time to SSR. I cut the number of whole-class novels from four down to two. An informal survey of my Spanish 3 students last semester and a more formal survey of the Spanish 4s ( ) showed that almost all of them more than compensated for the skipped class novels during SSR.
    Looking back on the whole-class novel units, I realize that the biggest impact came from class discussions rather than from the reading itself. I’m really looking forward to learning more about CALP this summer in Atlanta.

  11. Thank you Andrew for this information, gleaned in the trenches. I think it is true that, as you said above, “… the biggest impact came from class discussions rather than from the reading itself.” I just can’t see making reading competitive and that is what class novels do. The kids never enjoy it when they can be seen, perceived, there is a feeling in the room, that as usual they are not as good as the frontrunners. And it is about equity and inclusion. Sorry I could start ranting again on this.
    Even in an all white school it’s about equity because in my view equity is about guaranteeing to a child that they are not going to be judged, marginalized, not as good as another no matter what their skin color is. I remember one girl who was really big and was covered in black clothes and chains w tattoos who on the first day of school for the first few weeks in fact went into the only role she knew – that of outsider. What a pain in the butt she was until in about week 3 she realized that she could express herself AS HERSELF and NOT AS AN OUTSIDER who didn’t belong.
    One day she came into class and I was delaying the start of class by talking to someone. I am sure other teachers never do that but I used to do it all the time – delay the start of class from some deep weariness in me that I still could use some counseling about. So this girl stood up in front of 35 East High School urban kids – a mix of the richest snots and the poorest kids and the invisible kids – and yes there was a racial pattern to that so SORRY (said snakily) – and she said, “Yo! Everybody! Shut up! I got to get my French on!”
    So if that girl felt disenfranchised because, although HIGHLY INTELLIGENT, she had far less access to book in middle school and never would have even read them because she had already gone/been put into ROLE by the pecking order that her previous teachers HAD ALLOWED AND EVEN BEEN COMPLICIT IN CREATING BY THE WAY THEY TAuGHT her and treated her for years before she came into my classroom and started owning her education. That day I could see that this girl had become intrinsically motivated to learn because of the way I had designed my class. Why would I not do that if I actually care about ALL OF MY STUDENTS AND NOT JUST THE FEW, which is what this topic of novels and CI instruction in general really is – about equity and inclusion first and only secondly about language gains.

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