I have had three students in the last two days finish their novel for Grade 9 English and tell me it’s the first one they’ve ever read. I cannot express to you the look in these students’ eyes: they feel proud, and smart, and successful.
There is one very powerful variable at play in this situation: student choice. The students are allowed to choose their own novel. This is our second time through doing a Grade 9 novel study like this: last year, my English co-teacher and I took the students to Chapters and they were allowed to select a novel. We purchased the novels with some funding we had applied for, and those novels ended up in our school library when students were done reading them. This year, we weren’t able to take students to Chapters again, but we brought them up to the library to do the same novel selection process. Our criteria was that it needed to be fiction, or if non-fiction, then an autobiography or biography. The way the unit is structured, students need to read something with a plot. So there is a restriction there, but most students select fiction or biography anyways.
Before selecting novels, I talked about time frame with students and ensured they knew they needed to select something they could read in five weeks. I also briefly explained to them the fact that they would be selecting their own end mark, and completing tasks to a mastery level to receive that mark. We then went up to the library where our librarian-extraordinaire had pulled some titles off the shelves and grouped them by theme, doing a quick book talk on some of the more popular titles. Students then selected what they wanted to read and started to read it.
The next day, I rolled out the specifics of the assignment. First, text coding.
I have done text coding many times over the past few years, and in my opinion, it kicks comprehension-question’s butt. I explain to students that they already do some of these things as they read, and what they don’t yet do as they read will improve their reading skills if they start to do it. Text coding forces students to interact deeply with a text, to create a map of their thoughts as they read, and allows them the ability to go back and remember parts of the text. If I could let them write directly into the books, I would, but the aforementioned librarian-extraordinaire would probably take issue with that, so we use sticky notes. Some students prefer to do their text coding on lined paper or in a notebook, and that works too. Yes, sometimes students end up drawing flip book drawings or making “kick me” signs with the provided sticky notes, but they get it out of their system fairly quickly. Especially when I begin to ration their sticky notes.
After a day or two of reading and practicing text coding, I lay this handout on them:
The concept is not new to them, as I had explained the idea of the contract before, but I wanted to make sure students had selected novels they were interested in and could read in the time frame, and that they got a good start on the text coding.
To review: students select their own novel, percentage they want to attain, and projects they want to do to attain that mark. Does that mean every student does great in this unit? No. Some of them don’t finish their novel. Some of them don’t finish their projects. Some of them get their mark reduced for “Incomplete” projects or projects that need revision. It’s not a perfect system. But the students who are strong readers and would have done well on a more ‘traditional’ novel study still do well, and are often challenged. And so far this year, three students who have never read a novel read one. And I count that as a success.