Updated: May 7, 2019
I've said it once, and I'll say it again (and again and again and again):
IT'S OK TO PLAN FOR LESS IN AN EFFORT TO ALLOW THE CREATIVE GENIUS OF THE AUTHOR TO DO WHAT IT WAS INTENDED TO DO: CAPTURE AND HOLD YOUR STUDENTS' MINDS AND IMAGINATIONS.
Big, bold, and/or text-dependent novel study activities that require heavy printing, crafting, and/or planning can be both wonderful and necessary. There's a time and place for them, no doubt. Additionally, students of all ages need consistent opportunities to flex their analytical muscles with literature circles, book clubs, and/or independent reads. I am NOT going to argue against any of this! I'm also NOT going to argue that discussion-based novel studies shouldn't also include text-dependent written responses and activities. My favorite novel studies included student response choice boards and journal prompts that were designed to COMPLEMENT, not drive, our discussions. What I am going to do, however, is give my 5 favorite reasons why simple, discussion-driven, whole-group novel analyses are also wonderful, necessary, and 100% worth your time.
Before I dive in, I'd like to clarify some things to avoid confusion. For the sake of this post:
1. "Novel" refers to any lower or upper middle grade novel suitable for ages 7-12.
2. "Students" refers to those in grades 1-5.
3. "Analysis" refers to study, unit, or read aloud.
4. "Whole Group" refers to an entire class, no one excluded.
Additionally, I don't claim to know your specific instructional, student, or content needs. The reasons below that I see as being strengths in support of simplified, discussion-based novel studies may not be realistic in all situations. With that said, I also know that much of what I'm about to say is common knowledge and embraced by many already. If you fall into either of these categories, I hope you're still able to glean some encouragement or insight from this post!
WHOLE-GROUP, DISCUSSION-BASED NOVEL STUDIES ALLOW YOU TO MODEL HIGHER ORDER THINKING, ANNOTATION, AND ACCOUNTABLE TALK.
...In addition to any other skill or strategy needed to effectively comprehend, analyze, and evaluate literary text. I LOVE setting aside at least the first novel read of the year as a whole-group study for this exact reason. By shifting the focus away from the sole use of text-dependent questions, packets, and activities, we have substantial time to dissect the text in a way that emphasizes the techniques used by the author AND allows us to follow students' growing and entangling analytical thoughts right when they have them. From there, we can use think alouds to help model how to effectively think about and respond to text. This sets the stage for our expectations while increasing student engagement and confidence with analysis.
2. DEPTH OF RIGOR
WHEN YOU GIVE YOURSELF THE FLEXIBILITY AND FREEDOM TO EXPLORE A TEXT WHOLE-GROUP WITHOUT THE SOLE USE OF TEXT-DEPENDENT PACKETS, YOU ARE ABLE TO REACH NEW DEPTHS OF RIGOR USING THE AUTHOR'S TECHNIQUES AS YOUR GUIDE.
This is, quite possibly, my favorite thing about simple, discussion-based, whole-group novel analyses. You see, there's this beautiful freedom that comes when you allow your novel study to be driven by student discussion as opposed to chapter-by-chapter questions on characters, settings, and summaries. As I said before, these questions are essential; however, they can just as easily be included your discussions (and even assessed in other ways, if needed). All good literary texts are filled with intricate, masterfully woven threads of language, characterizations, themes, and symbols that can be easily missed by our students if we don't take the time and effort to pull them out and follow their paths. Students need to be guided if expected to reach these depths on their own.
3. ACADEMIC DISCUSSIONS AND ACCOUNTABLE TALK
WHOLE-GROUP, DISCUSSION-BASED NOVEL STUDIES GIVE STUDENTS THE OPPORTUNITY TO ENGAGE IN COLLABORATIVE ANALYSIS WHEREIN THEY CAN PRACTICE CONCISE, COURTEOUS SPEAKING AND ACTIVE LISTENING.
Simply put, the novels we choose for classroom reads require student discussions to occur in order to be adequately understood, and our students require them for the multitude of reasons that you likely don't need me to list here. Novel studies, when implemented whole-group with a focus on collaborative discussions over written responses, give our students prime opportunities to engage in debate, accountable talk, and oral dialogue. Not only can these skills help lead our students to deeper textual understandings, they also heighten our students' social skills through communication, self-management, self and social-awareness, and responsibility. Of course students in literature circles are engaging in discussions and reciprocal teaching within their small groups; however, they need to see it modeled heavily whole-group prior to their gradual release into small group practice. Plus, it's no secret that many kids LOVE to talk. Why not give them a chance to do so in a structured manner (that just so happens to dramatically boost engagement)?!
4. ACCOUNTABILITY AND ASSESSMENT
HOLDING STUDENTS ACCOUNTABLE TO ASKING QUESTIONS, IDENTIFYING AND ANALYZING TECHNIQUES, ORALLY RESPONDING TO TEXT-DEPENDENT QUESTIONS, AND ENGAGING IN ACADEMIC DISCUSSIONS THROUGH ACCOUNTABLE TALK MAINTAINS HIGH EXPECTATIONS WHILE ALLOWING YOU TO FORMATIVELY ASSESS THEIR GROWTH IN THESE AREAS.
Let's be real, novel study packets (or any type of supplemental written activity) involve something we're all just wishing we had a little more of - TIME! It's really not realistic to assume that we can review and assess all student responses for the day's reading in time for the next day's reading, while also having time to adapt our instruction, if needed, based on assessment/response results. Straight read throughs (with little to no stopping for deeper discussion), followed by independent work time for students to answer text-dependent questions can be an unpopular choice for two reasons: First, it decreases the opportunities students have to grasp the depth and complexity presented in the novel. Second, it devalues the opportunities we have to hold students accountable to and assess such learning. Apply this to literature circles wherein students are working independent from you and that just takes all of this to a whole other level!
SIMPLE, DISCUSSION-BASED, WHOLE-GROUP NOVEL STUDIES THAT ARE DRIVEN BY STUDENT ENGAGEMENT AND UNDERSTANDINGS GIVE YOU THE FLEXIBILITY NEEDED TO ALIGN YOUR PACING TO YOUR STUDENTS' NEEDS.
Our instruction should always be driven by assessment results - be it formal or informal, summative or formative. Novel studies, however we design and implement them, are heavy and time-consuming. When we structure and pace them in line with student needs rather than chapter-by-chapter text-dependent questions, we give ourselves additional flexibility to rewind, pause, or shift organically without veering off of a predetermined course, thereby allowing us to meet those needs more effectively and efficiently. Again, there are always going to be exceptions to this as rewinding, pausing, and shifting can occur in any novel study format (whole or small-group, discussion or written text-dependent focused, etc.); however, it is usually easier to address our students' needs when our content is driven by them in the first place.
I love discussion-based, whole-group novel studies for all of these reasons and more, but mostly I love them for the opportunities they afford me to hone in on the author's words with the attentiveness required to grasp their depth and complexity. Furthermore, I love having the ability to cater that level of attentiveness to the needs of my students as they arise. Once I see that they have the skills needed to comprehend, analyze, synthesize, and discuss effectively, I release them into their independent and small group reads to practice, practice, practice!