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How sticky notes help my students read novels independently

Last month, my eighth graders read “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie — the whole book, start to finish.

Their experience was unusual. Most of the time, when an entire class focuses on the same work of literature, students are asked to read only excerpts or answer a series of questions at the end of each chapter. I ask my students to read every word — and to wait until everyone has finished before discussing the book in a formal way.

I’ve enthusiastically adopted the “whole novels approach” into my middle school classroom because of its oddly radical notion that in order to fall in love with reading and engage in high-level analytical work with texts, students need to first experience a work in its entirety. I first learned about the practice of teaching whole novels from Madeleine Ray, my mentor at Bank Street College over 10 years ago, and I’ve been developing practical methods to make it a reality for my students ever since.

In my book, “Whole Novels for the Whole Class: A Student Centered Approach,” I share many practices I use to help my diverse group of students fully access the texts and to hold them accountable for the reading. Here, I’ll discuss just one of them: the way that I ask students to record their thinking as they read on sticky notes.

This practice helps me set clear expectations for students and allows me to assess and support their progress along the way. By engaging in freeform annotation of the text as they go, my students learn to distinguish among their own literal, inferential, and critical thinking and strive for a balance of these three kinds of responses. (The sticky notes also provide one answer to a question that other teachers often raise when I discuss the whole novels strategy: How do you make sure students read the book?)

I’m always skating the line between offering structure and allowing students freedom as they read. I navigate this tension in part by talking openly with students about it: During the reading stage of the novel study, I hold regular whole-class meetings. Some of them focus on the content and experience of reading the story itself. Others focus more on process, and I ask students to openly share their various reading processes. This sends a message that these differences are interesting and worthy of our attention. I emphasize to the class that we each have our own process for reading and responding, and I help them guide each other towards effective approaches.

Here’s an example of one of our informal discussions, as I describe it in my book, that dealt with students’ varying approaches to annotating with sticky notes. It took place last winter, when my eighth-grade students at Brooklyn Prospect Charter School were in the throes of reading an unusual novel, “Nobody’s Family Is Going To Change,” by Louise Fitzhugh. I recreated the conversation from my memory that evening at my computer.

Some students like to write lots of stickies. “I’ve been writing, like, a sticky on every page,” says Yvonne in meeting.

“Wow,” I say, encouraging the conversation. “What makes you do that?”

“They help me understand and remember,” she says.

Three hands go up and wave passionately. I call on Jake, who tells us, “I don’t like to write them at all. I just wanna read and read. When I have to stop and write a note, I lose that feeling of reading. Then I don’t want to read.”

“Oh, no!” I respond. “Does anyone have any advice for Jake? How could he work this out?”

“Well, what I do,” a student offers, “is I read as much as I want that night, and when I read, I put a note where I find something interesting. But I don’t write anything. I go back another time to write the notes.”

“That’s pretty cool! Do you think that might help Jake keep the feeling of enjoyment?” I ask.

“Yeah, because you can read as much as you want and not worry about notes, but also you don’t forget the interesting parts. I usually do the actual notes in class,” the student offers.

Another student adds, “I read a chapter. At the end of the chapter, I stop and go back and find a few things to write about.”

Another hand goes up. “I read really fast. I read this whole book in two days. I couldn’t stop. So now I’m just going back and rereading it and doing the notes.”

I ask, “Do you get anything new from this second reading? Or is it just a drag?”

“At first I thought it was a drag, but now I’m finding more and more to write,” the student answers.

“When I’m home reading,” Choron says, “I feel like there’s this dude sitting on my shoulder whispering in my ear telling me not to write the sticky notes, like, ‘Don’t do it!’ And I sometimes listen to the little dude.” We have a laugh.

Another student chimes in, “I feel like it’s the opposite! I feel like the little dude is telling me to stop and write a note! At first I didn’t listen. Then about halfway through the book, I started listening to the little dude. I wrote one note, and then I just couldn’t stop writing them! I had so much to say!”

“What I do,” Logan shares, “is I read in school and at home. Then during class, I work on the notes. I have to write notes for another class I’m in, too, so I have time to write there. That’s how I get it all done and keep on schedule.” Logan is talking about the intensive reading class he takes in addition to English class. He’s been assigned to the class because his reading skills have been significantly below grade level. The fact that he was comfortable sharing this part of his process with his classmates showed me that he saw diversity as a normal and valuable part of our learning community.

My goal is for each student to become aware of his or her own process and discovers what works for him or her, finding the balance between the pleasure of experiencing the story and the satisfaction of critical reading. (Check out this video to hear my students talk about where sticky notes fit into this balance.)

Sometimes in the springtime, based on students’ requests, I switch up the format, allowing them to write journal entries on the book instead. Or for students who have demonstrated mastery of the text annotation process, I lessen or even drop the required responses and make them voluntary.

I have to say, although I’ve come up with many answers for how to support students in studying whole novels, I’m still searching for the right balance between offering structure and freedom when it comes to students’ responses while reading. Every student has slightly different needs, and though this variation fascinates and compels me as a teacher, I may always struggle a bit internally with how much to require.

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