I, Joy Kirr, am a middle school teacher, author, and speaker. My 7th grade ELA (English Language Arts) classes are working to improve their lives through student-directed learning - without marks throughout the year. This is a log of my learning experiences... Want to have me speak with your staff or facilitate a workshop? Here is my PORTFOLIO.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Whole Novels - with The Outsiders

This past November, our #ELAchat group read Whole Novels for the Whole Class: A Student-Centered Approach, by Ariel Sacks.

The Outsiders was the perfect fit for our first try using this approach. I had to wait until May to proceed! The year went by quickly, however... as it always does! Here is my "how we did it this year" post on how I used Whole Novels for the Whole Class ideas with the classic 7th grade novel The Outsiders....

Prep - Here's what I used:
A coworker made the bookmarks (THANK YOU, AMY!), another coworker copied and cut the bookmarks (THANK YOU, APRIL!), another coworker made the annotation tips to glue into the books (THANK YOU, ASHLEY!), yet another coworker copied our activities (THANK YOU, LISA!) and, alas, I sharpened pencils and filled the bags. The bags were on sale, and I spent a total of $11.92 on the bags and glue stick. Not bad. I'd reuse the bags if we had more than one novel study in this fashion. Each student was going to receive a zipped bag (name written on the outside) with the novel (annotation tips glued on the inside), a launch letter, a calendar and slang dictionary, a bookmark, and a sharpened Ticonderoga pencil! Amy pointed out to me that we haven't had a "novel study" yet. EVERY book we've read together in class this year has been nonfiction, except for our read alouds! How did this happen? 

Day One With Students:
Spent one day getting ready with discussing different types of questions and comments. I read aloud a section of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass that we did not get to in class the week prior. (Students actually chose from four sections I'd wanted to read - it's always nice when I can start a lesson with student choice of some sort!) I asked students to write down any questions or comments they had about this particular section. After reading aloud, I asked students to share their questions. We had sticky notes on the board. I then described the three different question or comment types Ariel Sacks describes in Whole Novels for the Whole Class:

We discussed how we think like this while reading - sometimes we need to reread to find answers to our literal questions, wonder about our inferential questions, and think differently about critical questions. I wanted students to give this a try - with picture books.

I had quickly snatched seven picture books from our LMC downstairs. (Sometimes the best plans are the ones you think of the day before!) Luckily for me, I was able to grab these:

Students chose their groups, then chose a book. As they read, they jotted down questions or comments about the book (on sticky notes), and then discussed and put them in columns based on which type of question or comment (literal, inferential, or critical) each one was.

We only had time to show that some books had students thinking about more literal questions, and some were heavy on the inference and critical questions. We guessed as to why that was - was it the student that did this? Or was it the book that led the student to do this? Was it a mixture of student and text? Did it matter?? Hopefully just looking at annotations in a different light will help students write sticky notes once we get started with The Outsiders.

Day Two With Students:
[Note: one half of our block each day was used for grammar (the sentence the first day was "Today we are getting a new book and a new, sharpened pencil!"), a read aloud, and other items that needed to be taken care of. The second half of the block was for working with The Outsiders.]

The launch! Students were excited about the bags of bags of books (yes - bags IN bags)! I promised that the last one out of each bag would get the bow. Before I handed them out (while I still had their attention), I explained that this was, indeed, a gift. A gift from their parents for the book itself, a gift from me of bookmarks to help with sticky-note taking, schedules, and a pencil and the time to sharpen each one. ;)

After receiving their bags, we read the launch letter aloud, looked at the calendar, dictionary, and help on the class Weebly, and then we listened to chapter one, up to page ten or so. The narrator read very slowly, and I know it was painful for some of my readers, but just right for others. Since this was an introduction to the book and I wanted time to discuss, ten pages was perfect. Afterwards, we shared some of our sticky notes or annotations as a class. They seemed ready to keep reading...! Before students resumed reading, I explained that there will be no spoilers - that this book is full of action, and we trust them to not spoil the book for the rest of us.

Day Three With Students:
[One half of our block was used for grammar (the sentence today was "Some people think Ponyboy is an odd name."), a read aloud, and a video a student wanted to share.]

We settled down, students got comfortable, and then I got to work. In the back of the room, I had copies of different activities for students to try. As students read silently, I checked in with them, tracking the page they stopped at yesterday, and discussing their sticky notes. I used what I've learned from Choice Words to show students I was listening. I'd say things such as, "I notice you..." connect to Ponyboy, ask a lot of questions to clarify what you're reading, have a lot of ideas about characters, etc. These helped me voice the skills students were showing, and helped me figure out an activity (if any) to give them for today or tomorrow. I would then tell the student why I chose this activity, and he/she would grab it from the table. "When is this due?" was heard often. My reply? "When it is finished to the best of your ability." I hope students will put them on the bulletin board under each character's name when they are finished. It was rough getting through 22 students in 40 minutes, but it happened (by the skin of my teeth for block 8/9)!

Day Four With Students:
Students were ready to read today - I only had two students who really didn't care to keep reading. One (who has tried to escape reading at every opportunity) had told me that so-and-so "already told me that... (insert spoiler)." I tried to explain to him how gratifying it is to read it on your own to find out if that person is telling the truth or not, and to also see what led up to this event, if it indeed happened. I also gave him the name of an 8th grader who hadn't read ANY books in middle school except The Outsiders - and he liked it so much he proceeded to read the sequel! Alas, this student went on to pretend to read for another 20 minutes. My next step with him - let him listen to the recording!
Bean bags help encourage reading, too!
Day Five With Students:
I was absent, so no new activities were given to students, but page numbers were recorded, so I could check in with students again next time we met.

Here's what students look like when they're involved with a good book:

Day Six With Students:
I loaned my iPod out to my nonreader today - he sat, sprawled out on the floor, listening intently while he read along. (I also snuck him some sticky notes and a pencil!!) Some people don't consider this reading. It's "enabling." I argue - if it helps get him hooked and wanting to read more, we've succeeded for the time being. This inspired three students to ask to get their phones from their lockers so they could "download the book." ?? They found some version of it out there, and read along in their books, as well. It was the quietest last period of my day I think we've ever had! (Hmm... three students were absent, though, too!) Another side note - he didn't know how to turn up the volume on my "classic" iPod.
Listening while sitting under the student station...
Day Seven With Students:
Yesterday worried me - about 1/4 of the students were on page 80-something, and our goal for that day was 150, with three chapters to go for today. I let them know I am trusting that they will finish it today, so they are allowed to join in on the conversations we'll have tomorrow. I continued to conference with students and ask them to share certain questions or ideas during discussions tomorrow. Eleven students (out of 65) had finished the book, so they were doing extension activities of their choice. They appreciated having this (albeit limited) choice.

Here are some of the activities students had completed - I love that they posted them when I asked!


Day Eight With Students:
The BIG DAY. This is what I was anxious about - how would choosing our own prompt work? Would students want to discuss their own questions, or were they just done with the book and that would be that? There was a buzz in the room for the first class, however, and I took that as a good sign.

We began by figuring out who had NOT finished the book. In our first class, there were FIVE ("But I'm almost done!"). This was unsettling, until I realized that two of them had been absent the day prior (but no excuse with the calendar, right?!), and one has a track record for not doing work on time (but she'd read up through chapter ten - another good sign). These students were going to have a prompt of MY choosing. My coworker (thanks, Todd!) created this one. I was anxious to see what the students came up with...

I asked students to look through their sticky notes with a friend and figure out which ones weren't answered in the book. I let them know we were looking for "tough" questions that we could discuss and also write about. Here are the questions my first class came up with:

Some of the sticky notes are OVER the questions, because those are the ones we then decided we really couldn't talk about for more than a few minutes. They were questions (such as "Why doesn't Johnny cry and sob when his dad beats him?") that we "sort of" knew the answers to, or had similar ideas as to what the answer was. The questions with the stickies off to the side are the ones we voted on for our fishbowl discussion. For this class, they were...
     * If the people weren't Greasers, would they have to be Socials?
     * What is the reason the two groups are fighting against each other? / Why are the Socs so aggressive towards the Greasers?
     * Who is (considered) more violent - the Socs or the Greasers? <--- This is the one they voted for.

This discussion was two-fold. Sometimes students talked about which group was CONSIDERED more violent, but the real debate was which group IS more violent?  We tried having a fish bowl discussion about this question while having scribes at the computers, as well. The scribes were to jot down what the students said, and others in class were supposed to find page numbers to help with evidence. My goal was to project these notes as students were writing. I did project them, but I don't think students used them, as we only had one page number cited during the discussion.

"Who (which gang) is more violent?" is the prompt we used for their writing. I was excited - from the discussion, I knew that students would answer that the Socs were more violent, but I also knew there were many avenues students could take to try to prove it. I was able to conduct over-the-shoulder conferences and help out with page numbers for evidence as students sat to write. I decided that I would be grading this one on the quality of evidence. Did they really read and comprehend the novel?

Here is the rubric we currently use for measuring "quality of evidence" (it is constantly in a state of flux as we try to grade prompts as a department):

From the next two classes, here are the questions students came up with...
 Questions we decided "made the cut"...
     * Why do Socs hate Greasers? <--- This is the one they voted for.
     * What does "Stay Gold, Ponyboy" mean?
     * If Ponyboy believes there "isn't any good reason for fighting," why does he feel the need to go to the "big rumble?" <--- One student wrote a response to this question.

Questions we decided "made the cut"...
     * Who is the most important (to the plot line) character? <---I was so worried they'd choose this one, and would end up just listing events from the plot!
     * Why do the Socs hate the Greasers so much? <--- There were FIVE sticky notes revolving around this question of the gangs hating each other.
     * Did Dally kill himself? <--- This was the one they chose.

My take-aways:
* One-on-one time conferencing and seeing what ideas students had on their sticky notes was invaluable. One student always asked about vocabulary words until I gave her the link (again) to the dictionary I typed up. One was always predicting, and we were able to discuss that maybe that is why she's always so interested in everything she reads. One only mentioned physical traits of characters. For each student, I was able to inform them of the patterns I noticed, and then challenge them for a different type of sticky note for that next night. I could also figure out what support they'd need, thus assigning them work that would help them, and not necessarily frustrate them. This personalization helps breed the trust I've been working all year to develop.

* For a few years now, I've been through with the practice of assigning a chapter and then discussing it the very next day. Check out this video as to one reason why. This way of setting a calendar, I believe, and not discussing the book as a class at all, put the pressure on some students. Having time in class to read also helped students realize that I thing reading the book in preparation for the discussion was important. I would tell them every day that I was excited about Thursday's discussion, as they all had great connections and questions. I believe the hard deadline (whether you're absent or not) helped.
With a good-enough book, students will stay through break to keep reading!
* My non-readers (YET) still did not read.
     What I believe will NOT help:
          1. Creating a quiz each day to keep them on-task.
          2. Creating a "study guide" of some sort to help them pace themselves.
          3. Having them do activities, even though they are not reading.
     What MIGHT help:
          1. Having extra audio copies of the novel for them to take home.
          2. Putting them in a group and having them read together, and take notes together.
          3. Having them stay after school with me so I can read it with them.
      I need your ideas! Please comment below. Even though I only had ONE that didn't read this book this year, that's one too many for me.

* Fish bowl discussions went well - they were their own questions, and I believe they really wanted them answered. They listened to each other better, and seemed open to other interpretations, as well. Since the goal of our discussions is to learn from others and add to our learning, I'd say these today hit that mark.
Note taking on the whiteboard tables during the fishbowl discussion...

After taking notes, a student in my 1:1 class takes a photo of it on his iPad to use for his prompt.

* Trusting students to create the prompt was very valuable. I have students who only write three sentences for their "typical" prompts. These students put EFFORT into their writing for their class's chosen prompt. Students were furiously writing their answers as soon as they had their notebooks. It was so refreshing. (Some samples I can use as exemplars or as revision pieces are on this document.) Another benefit - it was nice for me to grade three different prompts!

What I Might Change for Next Year:
* Have more audio versions available for my struggling or reluctant readers. Have some they can check out and take home (or find online), as well. Stipulation: They must read along in their books as they listen.
* Have one more day... I felt that choosing the "just right" question for a fish bowl discussion was rushed. The discussion itself was not, but if we had one more day we could have one more discussion. Students could then go home to gather the best evidence, and write the prompt the next day. Students who are interested in getting the prompt written could write the prompt that night and work on revisions in class that next day.
* I hope to add this next year (we can have it up throughout the eight days), courtesy of a tweet from Cindy Christiansen:

Thank you, Ariel Sacks, for writing a book that is applicable to middle and high school students - and practical enough for teachers to implement soon after they read (and digest)!

More Resources: 

Here are the activities we modified from Whole Novels for the Whole Class to fit our 7th graders.

NEWSELA has text sets... and one for The Outsiders!

Found in December of 2016 - The Outsiders hyperdocs ideas! From @theteachingjedi (8th gr ELA)
Discussing Character Traits in The Outsiders from Keith Schoch (@keithschoch) 6th gr ELA

Nonfiction Pairing - "Bored, Broke, and Armed"

A Workshop Approach to a Whole-Class Novel from Amy Estersohn (Three Teachers Talk)

Student-Led, Text-Based Discussions from Sarah Donovan, 8th gr ELA


  1. Joy - I love this. Thank you for sharing your honest experiences. It makes me excited to revamp a few things for next year.

    As for your non-readers, I would offer the opportunity to read with me during my plan or study focus time (no core classes are taught during these hours). I believe in reading aloud to model what it sounds like, and most of my students love the opportunity. They often tell me that they hear my voice when they read -- which I take as a huge compliment. The comprehension piece is still there; it simply helps to engage the brain.

    Joy, it is an honor to learn with you. :) Keep up the excellent work.

    1. Amy - great idea to have them come in! I think I might record a few chapters, too, and just keep them marked as "private" in YouTube - so they can come in and listen at any time - even if they're at different points in the book... This was just a small "revamp" this time - I've been revamping The Outsiders for five years now - I despised the way we did it when I got into the block classroom...! :D

      I'm so excited to continue learning with YOU!

  2. First off, I love the whiteboard tables and the bean bag chairs. I have students write on the desks anyways, but I love that you have long whiteboard tables. Very jealous. Secondly, your book bags were much snazzier than the plastic bags. I bet that built a lot of excitement right off the bat.

    Using picture books to model the 3 levels of thinking was an excellent idea. I used Where the Wild Things Are with my 6th graders after we talked about the 3 levels. Students of all ages love picture books and they are perfect for modeling because of their length.

    I loved that you used the iPod to differentiate for your emerging readers. Something that worked well for us was reading the chapters and posting them on YouTube. Students were able to click on the link and have the chapters read to them. It was almost a digital read aloud.

    I agree fully that the post-its allowed for a lot of one-to-one conversations with students. It definitely allowed a glimpse into the authentic thoughts of students as they were reading. Being able to discuss the thought process based on their post-its made each discussion a different teachable moment.

    I would love to hear more about what worked well with your mini-projects. It seemed like the students went a lot of different directions. I also liked how you focused your discussions with student-created questions. Was the first day of discussions more randomly driven?

    Thank you for sharing your first study, Joy. This is quite the reflection.

    1. Joel! I'm so glad you like so much - but credit is to Ariel sharing her ideas, of course! (Well, except for the tables - I got a grant for the Idea Paint, and the maintenance men painted them over Thanksgiving break!) A couple of things I need to tell you - the fancy bags held the zipped bags - Each blue bag was for a different class. :)
      Next, I thought of recording The Outsiders - but didn't. We did end up finding various recordings on YouTube, so some students just used those by the penultimate day - my last class, anyway. I'll keep the websites and use them let students know of them next year!
      Also, sadly (but it worked out well), we only had ONE discussion. Since it was such a short book and we breezed through it, we saved all our good questions for the last day. When we went over the ones that would "work well" for fish bowl or a writing prompt, we sort of answered many of the other questions students had as a whole class - that helped prove that they were not a "good fit" for the discussion or prompt, and students had them answered by other students. If this were a longer book study, I'd have to put in at least another discussion in there, but we'd planned on just the one discussion - with lots of time to read in class. With this book, the only HARD deadline was finishing the book. The only time they had to read outside of class was the weekend - I haven't given homework prior, and couldn't start at this point in the school year. They really valued this time, and I was able to see who was faking and who was really into it, too.
      Thanks for the detailed comment! I had to reflect a little every day so I could fit it all in one post! I've definitely learned from you details as well!!

  3. Joy-your willingness to share this journey with us is AMAZING...I love how you included so many student examples for the writing prompts! I also really like the idea of using picture books to model the 3 levels and will def. try this next year! Jill

    1. Thanks, Jill! The kids loved the picture books - I might try Joel's idea of Where the Wild Things Are next year, too! ;)

  4. Joy,
    Would this book and method work with literature discussion groups? I have shied away from the book WholeNovels, because I struggle giving the same book to an entire class. There are just too many factors that might work against the students...level, interest, motivation. It seems you have found some ways to differentiate and ways to make changes in the future.

  5. Rachel, I do believe this would work well with literature discussion groups. However, I think you should practice the discussion prior to letting students try the discussion(s) on their own. We've had many fish bowl discussions this year, so they know now what makes a good discussion question (critical!), how to respond to each other, and how to politely disagree with evidence from the text. Ariel Sacks has a definite routine to her discussions that I wasn't able to employ this time around, but would probably like to try again with a different, more involved text.

    I would've shied away from the Whole Novels approach as well, but we have a novels we need to cover, and I think this was one way we could do it with a lot of differentiation.

  6. Thank's for such interesting review and so much helpful tips! I really appreciate it!
    Wish you inspiration!

  7. Love this! You mention grammar instruction. How do you do it?

    1. Hello! We were doing DGP (Daily Grammar Practice). So our sentences for these two weeks were based on information in The Outsiders. :)


Thank you for adding to the conversation!