Rocking the Literature Circles

I was kind of dreading today.

I’ve done literature circles with grade 12 university level classes before with mixed results. When we did the literature circles in the past, students were all reading the same book and the literature circles supplemented our study of the novel.

This time it’s a little different. Students are reading two different novels and the moment and so I’m not “teaching” the novels in the traditional sense. I am not assigning questions, taking them up, and delivering lectures. Instead, students are reading on their own time and writing in double entry journals. Then they develop their own discussion questions. Then they meet and discuss the novel. While there are more specific guidelines and procedures, it’s actually pretty student directed. They discuss what they’re interested in. Much more authentic, but of course I had my own fears. Despite all my talking smack about sage on the stage style teaching, I was nervous about giving up so much control. What if the students miss the important ideas? What if they miss all those wonderful subtle things that great writer weave into their writing?

Okay, well so what if they do? Just because students may not notice the same things that I do about a text doesn’t mean that literature circles don’t work. Besides, as I was walking around and sitting in on the meetings, I heard them come up with a lot of clever ideas–and they probably got a lot more out if it because they came up with the ideas as a group. They weren’t just parroting back things that I told them.

In other words, the meetings were very successful. Some of the discussions were more passionate than others, but everyone was engaged. Some students were actually bouncing up and down at the end of class proclaiming “That was so awesome! I totally get it now!” And I didn’t even pay them to say that!

The true test I suppose will be Monday when students will have to blog about the first third of their novels by selecting one of four prompts I will prepare over the weekend based on a combination of ideas studied in class and their own discussion questions. Can they synthesize this information?

Then of course there are the students who were absent. Two of them already told me they were going to be absent. They submitted their notes in advance and were very responsible. Then there were three others however who were AWOL without warning, and that’s a problem because you can’t really “make up” the literature circle meeting. If they were skipping, I think I’m more than justified in giving them a zero for the communication section of the literature circle mark. If they were “sick” (or rather, as I suspect, had a parent call in for them because they didn’t have their journals finished) then I have a bigger problem. While I realize that these students and parents are in the minority, I have experienced incidents where a parent will call in for a student claiming that she’s sick so she can actually stay at home and work on an assignment rather than face the consequences for coming to class without an assignment completed. I’m sure that in those situations the parent believes he or she is helping the student but they’re doing just the opposite. And in the case of literature circles, it’s even worse because they let down the rest of their group.

A natural consequence of missing the meeting is likely that they will not fare as well on Monday’s blogging task, but I need a little more than that. If anyone out there has any suggestions for dealing with students who miss literature circle meetings (for “valid” reasons) I’d love to hear them.

So overall, things went really really well today. I couldn’t be happier with the level of discussion from my students; I just wish they had ALL been there to benefit from it.

By the way, as per the new footwear policy I have submitted for your approval this photo of my entirely board compliant Converse high tops. Until I can wear my heels again I will wear these out of protest. Keep fighting the good fight, my friends.

Photo on 2010-09-24 at 16.08

Homework is so 2009

Today’s post has nothing to do with technology. Strange, I know. I just want to reflect on a small change I’ve made to the way I teach my grade 12 university level English class.

We’ve made a number of changes to the 4U course: no more “core novel,” which is great because I could never really figure out how to do a lot with The Life of Pi. Even though I did my best to incorporate more group discussion and focus on questioning skills, it still felt like I was spending too much time telling students what I thought the book was about and the last thing I want is to hear students parrot back what I said.

Now (thanks to a very supportive department head) we have four novels in the grade 12 course: The Life of Pi, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Three Day Road, and The Stone Carvers. Students choose two of the four books and participate in literature circles over the course of the semester. Except for the literature circle meetings and subsequent blogging tasks, the majority of the work will be done outside of class time. That got me thinking that it would be a little much to ask students to read their novels and complete double entry journals for them while also expecting them to complete discussion questions for the short fiction and nonfiction unit. I’m not a big believer in homework anyway. So I decided that I would find a way to structure the short fiction and nonfiction unit so that there isn’t any homework (I know! Crazy!).

So today I took the questions for a particular short story that I usually assigned for homework and divided them up so half were discussion questions (that they discussed with a partner) and half were individual questions that … well you get the idea. It was awesome! They used the time pretty well and were engaged in meaningful discussion and then gradually they broke off and did the individual questions quietly and with focus. I think they really appreciated the opportunity to talk. One boy came up to me at the end of class–and you have to picture him: gruff, stitches on his nose and the fading bruises under his eyes–and said “I really didn’t get the point of this story when read it the first time but these guys” gestures over his shoulder, “had some good ideas and helped me understand it.”
“Cool,” I replied. “That was sort of the idea.”

“Yeah. Like I totally didn’t see the sexual tension between Elisa and that tinker guy, but that makes sense now.” Then we had a brief discussion about Elisa and the tinker in Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums.” And he walked away nodding and he may have actually muttered thanks.

Awesome. Job done. Let the kids teach each other.

Instructional Intelligence

Just attended a great PD session today by Barrie Bennett. Dr. Bennett has been working with our board for a number of years now, and I’m always amazed by how much I learn every time I hear him speak. He’s an inspiring speaker and a very likeable individual who never makes teachers feel guilty for not knowing or doing enough. I’m picking him up tomorrow to take him to a session where he will be working with a group of teachers from our board, helping them with their action research projects.

My brain is very full, but there were a couple of big ideas that I can’t wait to try when I’m back in the classroom. One is team analysis, the other is synectics (see my notes that I posted for more on these).

Barrie also really got me thinking about planning with the end in mind when he talked about the difference between an outcome and an objective and how you turn an outcome into an objective. Great stuff!

Also got a chance to talk to my husband as a colleague which was strange and fun at the same time.