Sometimes listening to my students talk in their book club meetings makes me want to cry big fat sentimental tears of joy.

When my ENG4C class begins its book club meetings, they discussions are shallow and clunky and stilted. I have to intervene to keep the discussion flowing.

We’re in our second last meeting and my group of boys reading Crank are so invested in the story they talk about it at lunch and text each other about it after school. Boys who used to groan about reading are raiding the library for more books by Ellen Hopkins.

My other guys who are reading Looking for Alaska are discussing how angry and sad they were at a certain point (except for one who’s claiming it didn’t affect him) the others are all begrudgingly admitting that they cried.

I don’t need to do anything now during these meetings. I’m just watching them and listening to them.

It’s kind of beautiful.

Here are the books my kids love:

Looking for Alaska


It’s Kind of a Funny Story

The Perks of Being a Wallflower


The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

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

Canon Fodder


I considered giving this post the title “So like…why do we have to read this anyway?” but I’ve been waiting to use the title “canon fodder” for a while because I heart puns. I get it from my dad. I also heart my dad.

At this time of year, we start discussing changes we want to make to next year’s courses, which I love. I had a great conversation with a colleague about the role of literature in the secondary English classroom. How do we decide which texts we use to teach with? (Texts with which we teach…. ack! This is informal writing)

When I first started teaching I would have said “Well I teach Hamlet and Life of Pi in grade 12.” I would never say that now.

Well I might, but I wouldn’t mean it.

Look at the curriculum documents that form the foundation of what we teach in Ontario. There is nothing in the document that says “Thou shalt study the English Canon.” It also never says “Thou shalt study Shakespeare.” It does mention Shakespeare as an example, but that doesn’t mean a teacher is obligated to teach Shakespeare. Still I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an English teacher who says that (at least at the academic level) students should never study Shakespeare.

Over the years I’ve learned to rethink the way I approach my teaching and I’ve come to realize that there are multiple entry points for getting at the curriculum expectations. This is especially important when it comes to thinking about how we can provide more opportunities to include differentiated instruction and assessment. I think sometimes as English teachers, we get it in our heads that we MUST teach________, without stopping to ask ourselves why. What is it that text A allows us to get at that text B doesn’t?

In my ENG4U class, one of the core texts is Life of Pi. In the past, The Stone Angel has also been an option but both my colleague and I agreed that we prefer Life of Pi (our department head wants us to use the same texts, and we weren’t ready for literature circles yet). That being said, I’m not a big fan of Pi. To me it feels like a great concept for a short story. I’ll leave it at that. But I don’t need to love the book to use it to teach with. Now we’re talking about bringing in Three Day Road, The Stone Carvers, and Yann Martel’s new novel Beatrice and Virgil so that we can have literature circles and provide more choice. I think this is fabulous in so many ways (don’t get me started on my Joseph Boyden crush). josephboyden

My teaching partner is totally on board but initially we talked about the possibility of getting rid of Pi in the 4U course and she was very concerned because she felt that Pi allowed us to teach tolerance for world religions and appreciation of other cultures. Now I would argue, and I did, that Three Day Road certainly allows us to do the same thing. On the other hand, is that the right criteria to use when selecting texts?

I refuse to be some sort of authority on “literahtchah…” (say it out loud… again… there you go, see what I did there?), even though some may argue that that’s part of my job as an English teacher. And I don’t think I should force my students to adopt my taste in books. I think we should expose them to as many different texts (and TYPES OF TEXTS…. we’re getting there) as possible. So I think this is a step in the right direction. Expose the students to new ideas, give them some guidance,  and let them decide.

Literature Circles and technology

Just a quick post before I forget.

I wonder if we could increase student engagement–and the depth and quality of responses to the texts, if we had students respond in literature circle blogs.

I’m not suggesting that instead of discussing in class, that they do written responses online. I’m saything that this could be done in addition to class discussion. We all know how ideas tend to percolate after discussions and this would allow students to get credit for it, and they might be more likely to buy in because it’s non-traditional, it’s interactive, and they can access it outside of school hours.

Plus, students could post their lit circle notes as pages within their blog. It would be cool because you could allow other students to access the other groups’ blogs and comment (or not if you don’t want them too) and check out what other people are saying about their novels.

I’m so psyched about this. I really want to get back into the classroom to try it.


Literature Circles and Classroom Management: Getting kids to buy in

If you’re looking for answers from an expert, stop reading now and pick up Harvey Daniel’s book. I’m just throwing out some thoughts.

One book or multiple books?

While I’ve certainly had success using literature circles with a whole class novel, Daniels says that the whole point is that “[w]hen, with artful teacher guidance, kids get to pick their own books for reading and friends to read with, they can experience success, not frustration.” He goes on to say that “doesn’t mean we don’t also study some well-chosen whole-class books, but we alternate them with titles of choice.” (Daniels, “What’s The Next Big Thing in Literature Circles”)

So maybe trying to use literature circles as a way to cope with the language in expected practice defeats the purpose of literature circles.

How do we group them?

The idea is that students buy in because they have choice. Teachers can direct, guide, limit that choice using their professional judgement. Same with groups. It’s probably not a good idea group kids according to ability if they’re not likely to be comfortable with those kids.  I like the idea that came from the Tribes program for selecting Tribes which had each student write down at least two names of people they would like to work with and then teachers formed the tribes, trying to make sure the student was with at least one person they liked.

I know this sounds like a lot of work, and yes students need to learn to work with people they don’t like, but literature circles are supposed to be FUN. They’re supposed to promote accountable talk too.

That’s all for now, but I’ll post stuff later on instruction and assessment.