Friday, November 9, 2007

Cindy is Seeping into my Classroom Beyond Book Club

This evening I received the following e-mail from one of my students:

"We should discuss this in class. I feel like we don't get enough oportunity in school to talk about political stuff. Thinking can really get kids thinking and off their butt. It did for me. Also, here's the usury thing.
[Rebecca's Student]
( I can't wait to go to class on monday! ;)"

The "this" he refers to is a pre-reading assignment I ask the students to complete before we read The Merchant of Venice. Students are asked to use an on-line debt calculator that allows them to plug in varying amounts of debt, interest rates, and type of payment to determine how long it takes to pay off credit card debt. This helps the idea of usury (charging interest on a loan) make a bit more sense to the students who for the most part are ignorant about most financial matters.

His comment, "I feel like we don't get enough opportunity in school to talk about political stuff. Thinking can really get kids thinking and off their butt" comes directly from a conversation he (and his book club) had with Cindy. He has repeatedly told me that my class is his favorite class because it makes him think.

I think it is interesting that he has interpreted credit card debt as "political stuff," but I also thought that it was validation for Cindy's research. Students want to be invited into conversations about topics that matter in the "real world."

Cheers to Cindy!

Friday, November 2, 2007

Thinking Inside a Pumpkin

As you can see, the Mapping the Territory of Your Text Project was a success!

OK, maybe the picture of a funky looking pumpkin with random objects attached isn't obvious proof at first glance, but trust me it was a success. (I still have a few presentations to go on Monday, but the early results are exciting--as my bold claim indicates.) While this picture doesn't do their work justice, it does give you an indication of the complexity of their thinking. These students explored the issues raised by their text, Feed, in discussing how to create this "map" and also discussed what symbols to use in heated brainstorming/debate sessions. Several of the members of this group tend to be quite and reserved in class, but were animated and forceful during their planning discussions. The creativity they displayed, as well as the investment in this project, was impressive and almost unparalleled in my history of conducting book clubs.

It may appear that the pumpkin was convenient simply because it is Halloween season (other students raised this challenge during the presentation), yet these students used the pumpkin for a specific reason. It was meant to represent the world of and the heads of the characters in the book. The world of the novel is polluted to the point of having orange oceans, so the flesh of the pumpkin and the nuclear waste symbol carved in the pumpkin are both significant. Inside the pumpkin is a remote control to signify that both individuals and the world of the novel are controlled by the outside influence of the "feed." I could go on and on explaining the symbols they used on their map (most symbols are layered in their meaning and they went well beyond the suggested 8-10 icons on the assignment sheet), but I won't...

I will say that I am excited by this project for several reasons:

1. The pumpkin group clearly was able to think "outside the box," but other groups were also able to expand/stretch their thinking through this process. Previous assignments did not seem to allow this to happen quite so easily or so consistently.

2. Students for the first time have been able to articulate more about how and why they made a connection or didn't make a connection with a text. (Interesting note: at times groups claim they didn't connect, but their statements indicate that they did have a link. Yet another idea to explore!)

3. The presentations on this project seemed to be more of an invitation to the audience to consider exploring the other texts because the groups gave a much more thorough overview of not only the events of the novel, but also the issues raised by the novel than they have with previous assignments.

I am looking forward to digesting more about this process and seeing what other insights spring from the pumpkin.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Quick Update

I have been busy with all sorts of meetings and commitments, so the blog has been on the back burner.

I promised a quick update, so this will be quick.

The book clubs are going well. One of the observations that is striking me much more this go-around than it has in previous cycles is the importance of the social dynamics of a group in the quality of their discussions.

For instance, I overheard one young man relay to his friends outside my classroom, "I'm stuck in this group with all of these ditzy girls." Another young man who is usually a challenge to reign in during class discussions has sat silently during the majority of his book club talks and will entertain himself by using hand sanitizer or stroking the spider plant on my desk. These young men (the only male in their respective groups) clearly don't feel comfortable with their peers. Conversely, I am watching groups that gel well become engaged in lively conversations and tackle the tough topics raised in their novel simply because conversation seems to flow more easily in their groups.

All of this leads me to wonder if the formation of the groups (at least at this developmental level) needs to be more carefully crafted. I wonder if personality surveys or learning style surveys could help. Maybe even my simple idea to ask the students to select options of both books and classmates could lead to more successful book clubs. I'll have to keep mulling this issue over.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

What a difference a day can make!

No-Book Book Clubs were a surprise to me today! Just when I was feeling discouraged and ready to throw in the towel, the students surprise me with some insightful comments or reports about their discussions from yesterday. They still have me curious about a few things though...

In response to the poem "The White Rose" we asked the students to complete an assignment Cindy has used with her students. The students were to select 3-5 symbols to represent the section of the poem their book club focused on while reading. When the students went to work today they were all (almost without exception) focused intently on the task of creating their visual interpretation. Why is it that when students are given a blank sheet of paper and markers they become so engaged? Even the students who appeared unwilling to participate in class discussions were in the thick of coloring. Why is this? Any thoughts from the art teacher?

I am also wondering about how much group dynamics play a role in the success or failure of these groups and therefore their discussions. I am wondering about allowing the students to give me not only their preference for which book to read, but also for which students to work with in their book clubs. This adds another layer of complexity to forming groups, but I wonder if it could create more successful book clubs. Yet I'm also worried about this idea. Dragon Boy was working in a group with his friends--he would have selected at least two of the three boys he worked with--and that was not much of a success story. I'm just not sure. Is this pandering to them? Isn't the idea of civil discourse supposed to apply to any discussion, not just conversations with friends. Any thoughts on this idea?

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

I'm running away to join the circus...

wait, I'm already part of a circus. It is called my classroom.

At least that is how I am feeling right now. As Cindy so artfully described on her blog, our first few days with the No-Book Book Clubs have been a little rough. It hasn't helped that I wasn't in school yesterday due to a meeting and it seems that I'm bringing my C or D game to the classroom. Maybe it is time to bring someone up from the minors to pinch hit for me...can you tell that baseball was on in the background while I was grading this evening?

OK, I am going through a phase when I am particularly tough on least that is what my mentor said this morning. And Cindy, a teacher with more experience than me, seems to believe that the class is not a complete disaster, so I will try not to pack my bags just yet.

What I am struggling with is the fact that it appears that the majority of students are fairly disengaged with the class. Comments such as "I thought the story was boring" or listening to a student retell the entire story because another student clearly did not read are disheartening to me. Similarly, it appears that my careful creation of groups and foundation for quality discussions were in vain. One entire group sat and stared at each other today! It may be that my perception is off here, so I will keep watching and try to keep an open mind.

This all leads me to some bigger questions...

Why do the students not feel a stronger sense of personal accountability? What is it that has allowed the students to feel that they are not responsible for maintaining at least the appearance of a conversation? Does the fact that they are discussing with "just" their classmates play a part here? Would it be different if they felt they were going to be held personally accountable to me? Am I simply reacting in frustration because this group of students won't "play school" the way I think they should? If book clubs are an "authentic" experience with literature, do I try to put too many "school" parameters (sheets to fill out, cumulative assignments, etc.) on them? Without the school parameters would the book clubs function at all? Is it possible to create an "authentic" experience inside a classroom?

As I think about my own book club experiences I begin to wonder about this social aspect. I'll save my thoughts there for another post, but the preview is that if my book club didn't like a book we simply sat and ate snacks and visited...and we payed for and read the books! Is that what some of my students are doing? Is that OK? If it isn't (and every fiber of my being says it isn't), how do I motivate them to at least attempt a discussion?

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Art of Group Building

We begin our work with establishing the foundation for book clubs next week. I'm both excited and overwhelmed. Overwhelmed because I have too much to do and not enough hours in the day! Thankfully my students are all taking exams tomorrow, so this should allow me some time to sit down and think through some of the specifics for the process I'd like students to follow next week. (Downside of this is that by 3 o'clock I will have roughly 120 essay exams to grade and 30 exams on Islam to grade.)

Now the exciting part is that we are going to attempt to use 2 short stories and a narrative poem to have the students "warm-up" to the process of book club discussions. Dragon Boy inspired this choice! :) I like all three of the pieces and believe they should generate fantastic discussions from the students...key word there is "should." As Dragon Boy so clearly demonstrated, group dynamics are key to the success of a book club.

One of my plans for tomorrow as students are typing up their exams is to create their groups for our first round of book clubs without books. I'll use my notes on participation from our discussions of Gathering to guide my choices. Of course, I suspect this will be more of a challenge than it sounds like. My observations so far have led me to the conclusion that in these classes I either have conversation dominators or silent wall flowers. Obviously, this is a sweeping generalization, but I don't have a lot of students that fall into the middle category. Therefore the question becomes what is the appropriate mix of talkative to shy students in a group. Too many shy students and they sit and stare...too many talkative students and the group talks over each other and becomes contentious... The trick for me will be to put the right talkative students with the right shy students and then there is the issue of where to put the social pariah...Wish me luck!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Discussion on Discussions

My students have been reading and discussing A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest Gaines this past week. As we have been going through this process I have tried to be mindful that one of my goals is to help prepare the students for book clubs, which also helps move us toward my ultimate goal which to to prepare the students to discuss literature in any context without the direction/guidance of a teacher.

With this end in mind, I have been asking the students to participate in a variety of discussion styles--Socratic Seminars, teacher led discussions, student led discussions, small group discussions, etc. I have also come right out and asked the students to think about our discussions and to evaluate them. We talked about what needs to be improved in each class; they have been amazingly insightful.

The other twist I have put on all of this is that I am keeping track (on some days) of how often students participate. This has allowed me to make sure I get those quieter, or all together silent, voices in the room and it has also given me a concrete record of which students are dominating the conversation. My hope is the use this information when I place students in their book clubs. I'd like to not only remain mindful of friendships in the class, but discussion styles in the hope of forming balanced book clubs. We'll have to see how this goes.