Classroom literature is typically selected based on what we (teachers) love to read and have available. Since preferences can be so personal, it’s unlikely that what we find interesting will also be something that our students enjoy.
What would happen if we allowed students to choose their own novels? While my heart was open to an individualized approach for a reading program, my head wasn’t sure how to manage one. The plan that eventually evolved turned out to be a win-win: students were empowered as deep-thinking learners, and I was able to individualize instruction to provide for a wide range of abilities.
The steps below helped us to implement a personalized reading program in which students chose their novels, crafted their questions, and decided the focus for their analysis:
- Hash out potential pitfalls and create guidelines as a class. Our guidelines were simple. Novels needed to be sophisticated (cause the reader to think about important ideas), above grade level, and selections that they had not read before.
- Decide the learning targets.
- Prepare a timeline. Ours was two weeks with the bulk of the reading to take place at home. For younger grades, there’s much to be gained during the reading time. Check out Rick’s One-On-One Reading Workshop.
- Design 5-8 open-ended questions to guide class discussions.
- Organize reading groups consisting of 4-5 students. Groups were according to different genres; a wider range provided for more interesting conversations.
- How did the author use a particular literary device to create a more interesting story?
- Which of the different types of conflict (Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, etc.) seems to be the most apparent in your novel?
- What questions could you ask that might challenge another person’s thinking?
Students would then meet in their groups to focus on literary devices and write, discuss, and respond to “Category Questions” (see below). The goal was to design open-ended, divergent questions connected to their novel:
Category I: Exploring the Story
- Emphasizes literary devices: Who is the narrator? Why do you think the author chose to write the novel from that perspective?
- Requires reflection to specific moments in the story; What powerful statement did the author use to hook the reader, set the tone, or connect to the main character?
- Explores the introduction and/or progression of the story; What is the mood of the story? What do you think will happen next?
Category II: Meeting the Characters
- Emphasizes specific characters and relationships among characters; What details did you learn about the characters from their behavior through actions and/or conversations?
- Explores aspects such as point of view and a character’s changes over time; How do the events influence the character’s growth over time?
Category III: Understanding the Ideas
- Relates story events, themes, and characters to students’ own lives; Can you recall a time when you experienced similar feelings in your life?
- Supports identification with characters and insight into story messages; Have you ever had to make a similar decision about something that was important to you? What happened, and how and why did you make the decision you did?
Throughout the process, students were engaged and applied thinking skills that went way beyond reading. I loved the time to join the groups and watch the students in action. These observations served as formative assessments to guide relevant feedback.
The final product consisted of the students’ questions, responses, and supporting evidence. Since they were able to bounce ideas off of each other throughout the process, the quality of the work was higher.
We continued with more novel studies throughout the year, each one building on previous understanding and layering with more complex skills. The depth of the learning was impressive, and every novel seemed to match the individual’s reading preferences.