By: Alison Hess
P’16 & ’19
Brooklyn Prospect’s 8th grade students read, discuss, and write about novels using a powerful student-centered method of instruction developed by their English teacher, Ariel Sacks. With a degree in English from Brown University and a Masters degree from Bank Street College of Education, Ms. Sacks has been teaching for 10 years, joining the Brooklyn Prospect faculty in 2010. Her new book, Whole Novels for the Whole Classroom (release date October 2013), is a practical, detailed guide for teachers to bring the approach into their own classrooms.
Ms. Sacks’ Whole Novels method is an example of Brooklyn Prospect’s commitment to excellence in teaching, to a rigorous and engaging college-prep curriculum, and to the International Baccalaureate (IB) Learner Profile. Putting the approach into practice at Brooklyn Prospect Charter School, Ms. Sacks and her students challenge themselves and each other in pursuit of a deeper, richer understanding of literary works.
I sat down with Ms. Sacks to learn more.
Alison Hess – What is the Whole Novels approach, and how does it differ from the way novels typically are taught?
Ariel Sacks – A traditional way of teaching novels is for the teacher to assign one or two chapters for the class to read, and for the students to analyze that portion of the work, usually by answering the teacher’s prescribed questions and finding evidence and quotes in that text that demonstrate specific themes or literary devices identified by the teacher. This is repeated for chunks or parcels of the book until the entire novel has been read. The teacher leads the discussion using prepared guiding questions and is generally the source of information to be learned.
In the Whole Novels approach, the teaching is student-driven. Students receive the book, which I have selected as developmentally and thematically meaningful, in a special Ziploc bag. The bag contains a copy of the book and a letter from me introducing the novel and expectations for their work. It also has a reading schedule to ensure the novel is read over a set period of time, but within that time students are allowed to read the entire novel at their own pace. Sticky notes are provided for students to record their responses as they read the story—questions, observations, connections, and opinions. I design group mini-projects during the reading weeks that allow the students to investigate the literary world of the book through the lens of literary elements, such as setting or theme. For example, students might select quotes that describe setting and create drawings based on them, or map relationships between characters. Naturally, there is a “no spoiler” rule to respect readers who haven’t finished the novel.
AH – No more penalty for reading ahead! What happens once everyone has read the novel?
AS – At the end of the scheduled reading time, the class is split into two groups of about 12 students each. Half the class works on creative writing related to the novel. In the other half, the students collectively lead a discussion about the novel. The teacher’s role is to monitor and guide the discussion as needed. First, the students sit in a circle and every student in the group is asked to share something about the book – gut reactions, something liked or hated, something that seemed confusing, or character or scene that stood out. Open discussion follows, and students delve into the work, perhaps debating a character’s motivation in a particular scene or the merits of the novel’s ending. I moderate and encourage students to back up their points with evidence from the text. By the third and final day of discussion, the shared learning is uncovering deep levels of literary analysis — students are stepping back from the specifics of the text to talk about what the author was trying to accomplish in the novel, what was successful, what criticisms they might have.
AH –The Whole Novels approach sounds like a private school seminar held around an oval Harkness table, but Brooklyn style – with multiple perspectives from a diverse student population. What are some of the educational benefits?
AS – Reading the novel as a coherent whole allows students to experience the work as an art form, which is how most authors intend their work to be read. On a very basic level, this more natural flow increases reading enjoyment and comprehension.
Middle school students are motivated by their peers, so a student-driven approach engages them. They want to have something to say to their group and are interested in what other students have to say. In the student-led inquiry, every student has a voice and contributes to the discussion. The students help each other and challenge each other, which promotes critical thinking, collaboration, and improved speaking skills. Developing their own perspectives also means that the students experience the excitement of original thought and generate ideas to write about. The self-paced reading allows students to practice time management with respect to their assignments, a lifelong skill for high school, college, and the workplace.
From a pedagogical perspective, the Whole Novels approach by design facilitates differentiated instruction. Having the class divided into smaller groups and having a second teacher in the classroom means I can provide targeted help to students. For students who want to extend their knowledge or who finish reading the original text ahead of schedule, I identify “seeker opportunities” by suggesting other works, whether by the same author or with a similar theme or style, so they can continue down the path in the way that interests them.
Lastly, the Whole Novel method provides a common experience for the entire 8th grade that adds to Brooklyn Prospect school culture. Our school diversity is valued as a strength, providing opportunities for students to see the world from perspectives other than their own. Novels, and fiction in general, can be safe vehicles to think about and express differences, and I select works that are age-appropriate to this time of questioning their cultural and societal norms. Sometimes I can hear discussion continuing over lunch in the Commons.
AH – Discussion might extend to the dinner table as well! How can 8th grade parents support their children in your English class?
AS – In October, we’re reading The House on Mango Street, an acclaimed novel by Sandra Cisneros. It’s a coming-of-age story about Esperanza, a young girl growing up in a Latino neighborhood of Chicago, which is told in a collection of vignettes. Parents can ask their students about the book and when it comes time for discussions (scheduled for the week of October 21) parents might ask, “W hat did everyone think? What did other students see the same and what did they see differently?” Even if a student has read the book before, it will be a different experience to read the whole novel and discuss it with peers.
Brooklyn Prospect is fortunate to have Ariel Sacks teaching our 8th grade students. You can find her at teachingquality.org/blogs/ArielSacks.