Thank you to high school English teacher Jacqueline Stallworth for sharing how a shift in her thinking on the whole class novel helped engage her students as readers! 

I started teaching a VERY LONG TIME ago, and I was teaching books that I thought were “good literature,” because they were novels in the traditional, literary canon. I remember dragging students through titles such as The Crucible and getting quite upset when they would fall asleep or appear uninterested. To add a little diversity to the mix, I would veer off the beaten path just a little and teach titles like Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and/or Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid. However, “classic” novels like To Kill a Mockingbird by Nelle Harper Lee, Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, The Odyssey by Homer and The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer were the staples in my classroom.

Consider Our Students 

I remember one year excitedly getting to the end of Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid, after about six or seven weeks of teaching the book. I was feeling good because we had read every, single, page together, answered ALL the questions and taken TONS of quizzes. I just knew that even if they did not love that book, they sure did appreciate it. Well, I proudly stated, “Wasn’t that book wonderful?” and the looks on my students’ faces told a different story.

Looking back, I wonder if reading a chapter at a time and giving questions and quizzes robbed students of the opportunity to enjoy literature or even to fall in love with reading.

I wonder about the student who needed more time to process. Did I rush him along and maybe even lose him? I also wonder about the students who could have read the assigned book overnight and moved on to something else.

Teacher Vulnerability 

Teaching can be one of the most vulnerable jobs. Every single day, I wonder if I am reaching students. Are they getting the concepts? Are they becoming lifelong readers and thinkers? If you really want to feel vulnerable, consider giving up the whole class novel and giving your students complete choice.

A few years back, after seeing the looks on my students’ faces when they read one chapter at a time, giving questions and quizzes and realizing that I was not bringing my passion for reading into the classroom, I decided that I had to do something differently. I spent one entire summer attending conferences, reading The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller, Book Love by Penny Kittle and Readicide by Kelly Gallaher, plus a whole lot of articles and research.

I read a blog post by Dr. Kimberly Parker, a person whom I had never met, and I sent her a frantic email asking her to call me—and she did! She encouraged me and told me that I had to change my approach to teaching if I wanted to reach all students. I decided that I couldn’t continue to rob myself and my students of the pleasure of books, and so I had to do what I ask my students to do and that is:

Be vulnerable in order to grow.

Be Afraid and Do It Anyway! 

You know how some folks get in a pool by testing the water with one foot? Well, I am the type of person who submerges her entire body, and that is what I did in my classroom. With my tenth graders, I started my year off by talking about books every, single day. The more I talked about books, the more I fell in love, and the love started to spill onto my students.

whole class novel alternatives

There is nothing like stating that it is reading time and every, single student reads. Now, it is not magic, but after the hard work of matching each student with the right book, magic starts to happen. For a student who has not read a book in years, I make sure that I ask that student tons of questions so I can get to know him, and I try and lead him in the right direction. I haven’t met a student yet who does not love Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, or a student who will not at least give the graphic novel, The Walking Dead, a try.

Every, single class, I question if I am doing the right thing. I wonder if they are reading on their level, or if they are being challenged. I have to remind myself that I have read many books that are not on my level—like Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes, When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds, The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, Children of Blood and Bones by Toni Adeyemi, Little and Lion by Brandy Colbert, Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur, and After the Shot Drops by Randy Ribay—and I learned plenty and had lots to think about and write about. I have to remind myself daily that it is the self-directed thinking and learning that matters.

With my senior Advanced Placement Literature students, I was extremely afraid to give them choice. I was thinking that the only way to prepare them for the test was to pull out Hamlet by William Shakespeare. However, I realized that I was also depriving them of the joy of reading and being lifelong thinkers, and so I stood in my vulnerability and gave them choice as well, and I am also able to prepare them for the AP exam.

I’m Never Going Back 

 A student started reading The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali by Sabina Khan, and excitedly stated from the very first page, “Ms. Stallworth, I love this book.” When she finished, she looked for me all morning to tell me that she finished it, and she loved it. She went to her wish list of books that she wants to read this year and exclaimed “I am reading Crank next,” and literally skipped out of the classroom with the book.

A student whose parents told me that he does not read has read Miles Morales by Jason Reynolds, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, The Black Panther by Ronald L. Smith, Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds and The Final Four by Paul Volponi, all since school started about seven weeks ago. Every single class, he excitedly tells me about the books that he is reading. After reading Lord of the Flies, he sadly stated, “Ms. Stallworth, they killed that boy at the end.” When he finished Long Way Down he shouted, “No, No, No!”

choice reading instead of whole class novel

One of my twelfth grade students who self-selected The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton stated, “This is the best book I have read.” Another student who read the same book stated, “I have never really thought about the death penalty before, but I now know that I am against it.” She also asked if she may borrow the book so that her sister could read it.

Another student was stuck and could not find a book to get him started. I put Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes in his hand, and the rest is history. His discussion with the class about Ghost Boys evoked a lively discussion about Emmett Till, one of the characters in the book.

Another student selected to read Betty Before X by Ilyasah Shabazz, the story of Malcolm X’s wife before she married Malcolm. The student was not so sure who Malcolm X was, so she also chose to read X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz, which is about the life of Malcolm X.

It’s Worth It

Now, is every last one of my students enjoying reading? Absolutely not, but I can say that almost every student is reading and talking about books. Is this work hard? Yes. It requires that we read more, tap into our students’ interest and find books that we think will speak to their hearts. It may take many tries before they find that book.

If you are wondering how I get books, I teach in a school with a principal who values books and puts money towards books. I also attend conferences like The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and The International Literacy Association (ILA) conferences where there are tons of books given away, and I bring them back to my students. Also, don’t forget about the public library. I take my students there every year, and they all get library cards. Most public libraries are on the app Overdrive and students can access books from the public library right from their devices. AND, don’t forget to ask for books, or money for books, in your building and outside your building. Last but not least, if you have a school library with librarians, lean heavily on them; I sure do.

We have to do what we ask students to do: BE VULNERABLE AND JUMP IN!

About the Author:

Jacqueline Stallworth is the founder of Stallworth Educational Consulting Team, a company that is doing the work to ensure that schools’ curriculum reflect our diverse world. She’s also an Advanced Placement literature consultant for College Board, and a high school English teacher in Northern Virginia. She writes about her love for books and life on her blog The Big Sea. You can also find her on twitter (@thebigseablog) and Instagram (the_big_sea_blog).