Hacking the Common Core: Embrace the Novel

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

     The #d100bloggerPD crew is doing a blog study on Michael Fisher's Hacking the Common Core, in the #HackLearning series.

     The last 2 posts in the #d100bloggerpd series were written by fellow Hiawatha Husky +Kayla Kaczmarek last week (check it out  here) and by Freedom Patriot +Lauren Slanker (linked here).

     This hack started off with a quote (which I love) by Maya Angelou.  There are so many things that we do because we have always done them, not because they are in the best interest of the kids in front of us.  But, sometimes we change things just for the sake of change, and there really wasn't a need for something different in the first place.   The novel study seems to be in the middle.  When I first read the title of the hack, I was thinking this chapter would be more about the power of a novel as a read aloud, in addition to guided reading and strategy groups.  What it turned out to be was more of a chapter reminding us of the importance of literature in general.  In the elementary schools, I don't think we have forgotten fiction.  We have just added more informational texts, perhaps not even enough when it comes to read to self choices.  Kids in the upper grades still choose to read fiction, if given a choice (and maybe that is ok).

Hack 5: Embrace the Novel

     No, this is not a post where I tell you that it is ok to read a novel that does not fit the needs of your kids, has the teacher do all the actual reading work, and is picked because of a Teachers Pay Teachers packet.  I just want to be clear about that.  The one size fits all novel where that is the ONLY reading is not my intended message in "embrace the novel."  That brings me back to my own school experience, where the teacher spent MONTHS on a book that she loved, and did all the work.  The only reading that I did was the Cliff Notes version of the novel before the test.  There.  I said it.  This lit coach used to cheat on novels.  I was a busy teenager, with teenage things to do.  The Cliff Notes told me everything that I needed to know, anyway.

     As Maya Angelou said above, "now that I know better, I do better."  ELA instruction is not about getting the kids to says the things that YOU think are important in novels anymore.  It is about having the students realize they they as readers have their own ideas about text, and that they can share those ideas with others and GROW them into even bigger ideas through conversations and written response. Gone are the days where we want the students to say that the rose is a symbol of love, and here are the days where students name the symbols they themselves see as readers and explain their reasoning, with text and their life experiences in mind.  I don't think the Cliff Notes would have helped me with that...

     I have been a proponent of using a good novel to tie instruction together across the day for years.  As a literacy coach, I have seen how a great read aloud has tied together all the pieces of Balanced Literacy and created an environment where learning just multiplies in the room.  Here is a post I wrote a few years ago explaining how our 5th grade used The Apprentice to tie their day together.

     Michael Fisher discusses how in the Common Core they shifted the balance of literature and informational reading in the classrooms.  In primary grades, it's now 50/50, with the end of high schools shifting to 70/30.  By the time they get to high school, reading across the day should have an informational focus, but that doesn't mean that ELA teachers are the only ones who have kids read.  The 70% was intended for 12th grade students.  There is no reason to remove literature from the curriculum as we go up in grades.  In the middle and high school grades, Fisher suggests that we "spread responsibility for balanced reading among all teachers in the school."

  • All teachers should support literacy, in reading, writing, speaking, or listening.
  • Informational reading across the grade should be integrated across content areas.
  • Do not eliminate literature from the curriculum.
  • Enhance the understanding of literary texts (like novels) with supporting informational texts.
     Michael Fisher also knows that professional development is critical when making these changes across our instructional day.  He says:
Schools often benefit from having a literacy coach on site.  This is a person who can provide ongoing feedback about balanced literacy, content literacy, the connections between reading and writing, and curriculum help to integrate literacy seamlessly into any content area.
      I like this guy!

      In all seriousness, my work as a literacy coach has diversified quite a bit since I started in my role.  While it started just unpacking reading standards, it quickly turned into unit planning with backwards design and content integration, horizontal alignment of reading and writing, and vertical alignment across the grades.  This is NOT the type of work that can be done quickly, and I have come to really enjoy the collaboration with teachers every week as we build relevant units for out kids.  I love my job.

     Fisher talks about assessing the the texts that you use, and how you use them.  Text complexity is NOT just a lexile, or an F&P letter.  Background knowledge is so important to many texts above a P/Q, and that has to be considered.  How teachers use a text, and the supports they provide while reading it, also drastically change the way a book is understood.  Using a novel as a read aloud, with front loading of setting if it is a different time or place, and use of accountable talk or sketchnoting, can make a text more rigorous and released to the students.  That just happens to be my 2 cents.  :)

     Fisher also talks about letting "Dorothy return to Oz" and bringing literature back to the ELA class, but not necessarily just teaching the same novels you have always taught out of comfort.  When I was in 7th grade, we did a unit on The Outsiders.  The middle schoolers in my district still read The Outsiders today.  I have a feeling, however, that the way they teach it is very different from my days in 7th back in the early 1990's.  Good books transcend time.  Good teachers modify the instructional delivery, and use resources that support them and their students.

     As soon as I close this post, my computer will be turned to writing a novel unit on Ghosts, by Raina Telgemeier, in collaboration with +Tyler Haar.  He noticed that his students LOVE graphic novels, but weren't quite reading them as rigorously as traditional novels.  He also discovered that Ghosts celebrates Hispanic culture, which is something we want to promote more at our school.  So, we are adding a new novel into the read aloud mix.  It will hit Common Core Standards, and it will add content and culture, and it will MATTER to his students.  Literature has the great possibility of showing students where they fit into the world, and that others struggle and overcome in the world as well.  Embrace the novel.  Create people who see other people, too.

     Just  remember, as we integrate the Common Core and content areas into literacy, do it carefully.  If we are intentional and purposeful, we will see the benefits of the novel in our students.  I see novels as windows to the world.  Let's open the windows up in our ELA classes!

The next post in the #d100bloggerpd series is up tomorrow!
Diona Iacobazzi will share her ideas about 
Hack #6: Prioritize on http://thebazzblog1.blogspot.com!



  1. Guilty! I also Cliff-Noted my way through high school! We turned out alright, though. Right? I think you nailed the "core" of this chapter: balance is everything. I was blown away by some of the egregious things I was seeing in schools in the wake of this "70/30" non-rule. I'm so glad that most schools are now more clear-headed about the balance, that systems are seeing the benefit of having a school-wide literacy culture, and that our students are allowed to experience multiple forms of text types! Thanks for your work on this chapter...you did a great job! -Mike Fisher

    1. Thanks so much for leaving a comment! Your book sure has given me a lot to think about. Thanks for sharing your ideas about the Common Core with the world!

      Sometimes I think I might go back and read some of the books that I "read" in high school, this time without the Cliff Notes. Perhaps someday I will make that happen, and see what I missed the first time around. :)

  2. My 22 year-old daughter and I used the occasion of my granddaughter's birthday to visit the American Girl Doll Store. As we revisited all those historical dolls that she had, we talked about how fundamental the accompanying historical fiction book was to establishing a foundation of history for her and her friends. Reading historical fiction can bring history alive through story and spark an interest in learning more. Most recently, the book, The Nightingale inspired me to read about the involvement of the French people in aiding the Jews during the Holocaust. Love a good novel!

    1. ECHO recently did that for me, too! Three historical time periods in one text, tied together by music. I loved it. It actually had me seek out more titles from the time periods as well. If I only had time to read them all!