Category Archives: teachers

“Whole Novels” – Inside Brooklyn Prospect’s 8th Grade English

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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.

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SPOTLIGHT on Ms. Britton

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On a clear day last December, Ms. Britton’s advisory was engaged in an unplanned but heated discussion over whether a fake Christmas tree is better than a real one. The students where boisterous, talking over each other, and even standing on their chairs flailing their arms.  When it got to the point where the energy needed to be redirected, Ms Britton handled it in the cool, collected manner you would expect from such a seasoned teacher. She threw down a funky dance move across the room without uttering a word. Immediately her students fell over with laughter. Ms Britton has fun expressing herself  and encourages her students to do the same. We wanted to know more about what makes this 7th grade Science teacher such a positive force in so many student’s lives. She agreed to answer a few of our questions.

We are curious to know what kind of a student you were in middle school? Did you love math and science? Did you enter science fairs? Or was there some practical realities of your life that made science useful and necessary?

Wow! I was an “all rounder,” I think. The common thread in all I do to this day is the desire for excellence. I believe I try to know what excellence looks like at all times, and even when sometimes the steps along the path to excellence seem possible, I think nothing of availing myself to all to the resources around. AND THERE ARE RESOURCES! It meant then, that I excelled in all areas of learning in middle school and did not begin to make more specific choices until later. While I was born in England, my Middle School years were spent in Jamaica. A feature of Middle School was academic ranking every quarter. I was always in the top three students, not because anyone forced me. My drive was innate. While other parents begged their children to study, my parents begged me to put my books down!

In the Upper School things were a little different. Teachers found it difficult to guide me towards one area of study or the other so they kept me in both. I excelled on the General Certificate of examination at the Ordinary Level and later at the Advanced Level. When I realized I was not prepared for Upper Level Organic Chemistry, for instance, I took the book home for Easter break, and studied it’s over 400 pages from cover to cover – and succeeded on that test. In other words, I did not accept failure as an option. It’s not to say I always succeeded, but when I didn’t, I was fine with that….because I always, “put my best foot forward.” I use that phrase with my students to this day!

What did you love to do? Sports? music?

I loved sports ….and still do (Good  football is my favorite!). I was Sports Captain in Middle and High schools. I did 100 ‘yds’ (these days, ‘meters’) in middle school and distance running in upper school – although I was not particularly strong at either. I played basketball through college – goal defense – believe it or not! They called me the warrior. I feared no one. I followed the rules and worked hard as I always have. I still believe that the qualities that one brings to sports teams transcend the field and influence a classroom. Consistency, determination, ability to rebound, good sportsmanship, etc. are all features of excellent collaboration in the classroom.  I believe, however, that I was not sports captain because of my amazing skills. I was sports captain because I have always been committed to the task and a cheerleader. The latter qualities seem to come naturally. I love music and dance to this day! I recognize excellent song and dance. I never got the opportunity to work on this, however – Perhaps because in order to do this in school I would have to miss alternating academic periods. To me this was a travesty! “Jack of all trades and master of none,” was always an unwelcome trade-off for me. To this day, I am still able to say, “no,” when it’s not possible to bring good effort to a task.  My daughter is a brilliant dancer. I live vicariously!

Who were your influences? Heroes? And why?

I do not believe that as a child I was too impressed by any one person – I admired qualities in people like modesty, wisdom, loyalty, drive, fairness, strength, organization, work, spirituality, etc.  I LOVE A UNIQUE SPIRIT. I beg my students to be themselves. It is hard to watch middle-schoolers try to camouflage who they are when the real “them” is so awesome! I wonder if sometimes as middle school teachers we spend time enabling that camouflage in the name of ‘appropriate behavior’ as opposed to allowing students to be themselves.

I see the above qualities in people like

  • Tina Turner
  • President Barack Obama
  • Ms. Omowanile
  • Oprah Winfrey
  • Meryl Streep
  • Olivia (from The Help)
  • Martin Luther King
  • My Pastor – Paul Smith

And on and on…….I worry about those who believe success comes through privilege……In my mind, that success is only temporary! Lasting success and joy involves working from the ground up to produce it and then maintaining its excellence

What was the hardest obstacle for you to overcome?

Wow! Some might expect me to say being a single mom or my divorce…but I’d say neither. I saw being a single mom as a wonderful opportunity to invest my time and energy into raising a beautiful child …..and I did! To this day I hate the negative tone around, ‘single-parent’ homes as if to suggest that two parent homes are most ideal! We should look at what is best for the family and do that….even if it’s hard. We should then figure out how we take care of ourselves and our families given the hands we’ve been dealt. Once we have a successful system, we should stick with that…….”come hell or high water!”

 What do you look forward most in your day? And least?

I love my daughter’s laugh and smile. I love my mom’s home and the smell of her cooking. I love my students! I bask in a successful class where students seem happy and engaged. I love the day when students get that “I really have their backs!”

I LOVE an, “I love you,” and a “thank you,”  telephone call from my daughter – and she pretty much sends me those several times per day. Least favorite – Being misrepresented on any level!

Does positive thinking come easily to you or is it something you’ve taught yourself over the years? Any defining moments for this positive outlook.

I believe positive thinking comes naturally to me – It certainly annoys my family. Yet, they are the ones who caused me to grow up this way. I remember being flabbergasted by the attention they paid to ‘silly’ disagreements or arguments. I remember promising never to have that kind of tension in my home. To this day, my daughter and I share pretty much everything! People are blown away by our relationship…To us, “it’s the way we role – everyday!” Negativity shows itself as terrible unhappiness.

What do you think is the most pressing issue facing the environment?

Inconsistency in addressing the task…(Our City Government exemplifies that every day)…..Or when taking care of the environment is fashionable as opposed to being a way to preserve Mother Earth!

What is the single most important thing you’d like your students to take away from your class?

“I came in thinking it couldn’t be done. Look at me now!”

 If you couldn’t be a teacher what would you be or do?

I have always been encouraged by those who know me well to become a medical doctor. Science comes naturally to me…..it makes sense..AND caring for people is even more natural. I believe I blend the latter well – I do it every day. Therein lies most of my joy.