I thought I’d take a moment and discuss a challenge that has plagued English teachers who have bought-in to the idea of ‘voice and choice‘, giving students options for a novel study rather than forcing the entire class to read the same book, but who also feel challenged to track student engagement, promote different types of writing opportunities, and to give meaningful and timely feedback. I’ve also seen the varying degrees of success of a traditional literature circle, where students are assigned roles (connector, reporter, themes, plot, etc), and then those roles are rotated on a weekly basis.
Using google classroom, we built our literature circle unit around the genre of historical fiction in the grade 11 class. Students chose from three options: The Cellist of Sarajevo, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Things They Carried. I liked the idea of a wide cross section of historical time periods that the books offered, but in hindsight I wonder if I should have given even more options to the students rather than lumping them in one of three groups (in some sections, only one student chose the O’Brien text, which posed some interesting but manageable challenges).
As a team we wanted students to write for a variety of purposes, so the plan was that they would complete four different writing tasks that would be taught as mini-lessons (point of view, a close reading, a personal response, and a creative option). Each class would have dedicated time to read (thanks Kelly Gallagher) and time to reflect on what they were reading. In addition to the mini lessons and the reading reflections, students would participate in discussions based on Essential Questions (three created by me, and one created by the students as a whole); about one discussion per week. Students prepared quotes and applied questions BEFORE discussions and then reflected on how the discussion went. Reflection became the central activity during our unit of study. As a result (thankfully), I had students writing more on a daily basis than ever before! It was fantastic, just to see students opening their laptops and writing quietly on a topic of their choosing for 15 minutes a day. Pure joy.
But the question that challenged me was this: how do I manage and give feedback to students who are reflecting on their reading, posting pre-discussion prep work, post discussion reflections, and working on their activity writing options?
Reading some great twitter posts on Google Classroom (including this one by Alice Keeler) helped me realize that I could create a template for the students where they would post all of their reflections and activity work and that it could be assigned to them. Google Classroom allows a teacher to make a copy for each student. I could periodically check on their progress, provide feedback, assessments of learning for the pre-discussion work, and focus my attention during class on the students who were struggling. Every morning I would spend 15-20 minutes and go through the workbooks and insert feedback, tracking students who were doing well in my notes with a + sign and students who were behind or struggling with an upside down arrow. This allowed me to tailor my instruction on a day to day basis, often times grouping students by where they were in their reading or activity process. I also was able to identify students as peer tutors, and paired students together so that they could help eachother based on their knowledge or level of success in our lit circle process.
Here are some observations on why I think this was effective:
- the daily feedback in the workbooks was meaningful for students. It motivated them to work diligently. Inserting comments into the student workbooks was easy to do and easy to track over a period of time on the document.
- the workbook provided an excellent way to document both group and individual learning. I was able to use it effectively during my recent parent-teacher interviews.
- students never lost their workbooks. It’s online. They were also able to work from home if there was a snow day (two so far).
- students could post reflections using their phones, using the Google Classroom app.
- removing the need to give students ‘roles’ was critical. By focussing mini-lessons on skills (four different writing activities) and then letting THEM choose two activities for assessments of learning that they felt best reflected their learning offered differentiation and more choice than before.
- final thought: teaching through essential questions allows students who read different books to engage in an authentic manner. It promotes critical thinking. Students created the final essential question for our discussions, and these four questions will be the essay topics for the final summative evaluation. You guessed it: students will choose which question they want to answer AND they will help create the rubric for that evaluation. I plan on putting students who choose the same EQ into groups and have them create brainstorms together on how to respond for the in-class essay.
I let go of the imperative that I keep up-to-date on all three books that were being read in the class (in fact, across all of my english classes, there is a total of seven books being discussed). Instead, I focussed on trying to help students make connections through the EQ’s — between books, to themselves, and the outside world. I don’t have the feedback from students on how they liked the approach yet, but I’ll be sure to post a google-form survey on our Google Classroom page very soon!
Thanks for reading. If you have your own experiences with teaching literature circles, voice and choice, and using EdTech to facilitate feedback and learning, please let me know!