Workshop affords so many opportunities to explore with the students in front of me as opposed to present a set curriculum to whomever happens to be seated in my classroom. It’s teaching through interaction, and in this case, it’s teaching straight from the kids themselves.
We see it in workshop all the time. Students given the tools to explore the world as readers and writers, and encouraged through personalized learning, quite often take their learning to places our old lesson plan books didn’t always accommodate.
One of the best opportunities for this classroom growth is having students do more and more of the talking. With the right modeling and specific expectations around that student talk, the classroom becomes a place students lead through inquiry, as opposed to follow through completion of teacher set tasks.
It happened yesterday morning, in fact. My AP students were participating in small group graded discussions. Just reading the last sentence makes me cringe (yes we use a rubric, no, the conversations don’t have to be formulaic as a result), but with choice in which readings from our unit they wanted to discuss and some guiding questions throughout the discussion, our conversation about gender and the implications of historical stereotypes on a modern world (their direction for the discussion, not mine) took an interesting turn.
“Mrs. Dennis…you’re smiling weird. What did I say?”
I stop furiously typing comments and look up. “I’m sorry?”
“You had a look. Did I say something wrong?”
“Sarah, you said nothing wrong,” I smile and glance around the table. Seven intrigued faces look back at me. “In the last few minutes this group has, largely unprompted, connected several essays through the lens of analysis, used terminology we’ve not discussed since September, Trinity uttered the words, ‘I don’t believe gender pronouns are even really necessary anymore,’ and then supported her opinion with specific text evidence, and several of you actually just murmured sentiments of excitement to shift the discussion to Judy Brady’s satirical 1971 piece ‘I Want a Wife.’ I’m smiling because I was just thinking about how I used to give short answer reading comprehension quizzes on these pieces.”
“Oh,” said Sarah, “This is way better.”
Yup. This was a discussion they wanted to have. This was a discussion I wanted to hear. They took the lead, in fact one of our rubric bands demands that, and they came to the
discussion prepared to drive conversation from the perspectives of authors like Brent Staples, Deborah Tannen, John and Abigail Adams, and Judith Ortiz. Perspectives that regard gender through stereotype, race, satire, narrative, an exchange of letters almost 250 years ago, and visual texts.
Did I just sit back and let them talk, free-for-all style? No. This conversation took practice, feedback, and correction over the past few months. Today, it took redirection on some occasions and additionally it took specific intervention for those students reluctant to participate. Additionally, had it been a lower-level class, I would have been a bit more actively involved to start. But as you well know, students at any level are capable of, and actually far more likely, to get actively involved if their efforts for comprehension are supported and their exploration of the text is encouraged. We work specifically on ways to communicate both agreement and polite disagreement, so students can help clarify the text as well as analyze it.
Like any solid workshop component, it involves careful teacher planning and modeling, but equal parts careful student leading as we gradually release them to own their own education.
We assess students on their preparation for the discussion with visible notes and use of specific text to support their points and their leadership within the group. That leadership can be exhibited through meaningfully involving others to bring them into the discussion with a question, synthesizing ideas they have heard so far, and/or including insights from additional research on a particular topic to extend discussion beyond the reading.
I spend a whole class period for discussions, breaking the class into groups of 7-10 students so all voices have more opportunity to be heard. Students not in the discussion have specific work to complete, sometimes by the end of the hour. For feedback, I type comments and insights while the students are speaking, so I can quickly copy/paste them into the comment section of my feedback form (A Google form emailed directly to students with 2 Common Core based rubric bands as dropdown tabs so I can just click the score for each band, include specific typed feedback, and often get that feedback out to kids the same day).
Another opportunity for seriously impactful student talk, is handing over the daily book talk to the class.
One of the many benefits of this scenario is that I can tap into growing student enthusiasm about books and have my kids spread the book love directly with each other. Don’t get me wrong, my book talks are something to behold. Part forensics piece, part reader’s theater, and part screentest for the literary loony bin, I sell books much like I would envision the traveling vacuum salesmen of yore putting food on the table with a pitch of salvation not just for the home, but the soul. It’s not just going to clean your carpets, it’s going to change you life, Ma’am. Your life.
But, let’s be real. Though I sprinkle my classroom with good will, good cheer, and good books, I’m not the best salesperson in the room. If you’re going to sell the vacuum with radial root cyclone technology (I Googled that), or the book with 389 scary looking pages on dystopian fantasy rooted in a chromed society, you need to know your audience. You need to relate to your audience. You need to be one with your audience.
There are plenty of reasons to get kids doing your book book talks, not the least of which is I can’t read fast enough these days to keep up with the need for the type of really passionate and informed book talks that come from having read the whole text (Books do sell themselves sometimes, just by reading the back cover and a page or two at the start, but I love to hook kids with a section from the middle to show the impact of the rising action or depth of character development).
- Students trust one another’s opinions. Yes, often more than mine. I sell hard, but at the end of the day, I’m usually still the biggest book nerd in the room, and therefore I think I am occasionally regarded in much the same way as the Dancing Grannies in a holiday parade: Enthusiastically adorkable, but a bit of an anomaly to be trusted only at a distance.
- They find titles, authors, and series that aren’t yet on my radar. Despite my best efforts, I can’t read fast enough or comb enough best of lists to meet the recommendation needs of over 120 kids. But when the classroom experiences a new student perspective on reading each class, additional book talks at their tables after reading, speed dating with books, and an invitation to help grow our classroom library with tax free, gluten free, guilt free donations of gently used books, everyone wins and the depth of our classroom repertoire grows.
- Their enthusiasm is relatable and often focused on books that don’t speak to my own bibliophilic tendencies, but can ignite the reading sensibilities of their adolescent peers. For example, I took several YA Lit books home at the start of last summer. Two days in, I was already struggling with the voice. It grated on me (no offense scholars) after hearing it all day in person for 180 days. So when a student book talks The New Guy (and Other Senior Year Distractions) by Amy Spalding, and two sophomores in my class (who have struggled to meet reading goals week after week) add it to their “I Want to Read List”s, that’s another win, because we can’t push kids to deepen their reading if they aren’t reading. First hook them, then book them with more challenging pieces.
- I offer up the option to produce their book talks digitally and for some students, this is what makes the entire experience meaningful. Students sell their books through book trailers, compilations of related imagery and voice over to meet the same requirements of a live book talk. I’ve had kids include clips of author interviews, live action fight scenes with voiced over dialogue directly from the text, and this year, I have a student who wants to read over the top of a mannequin challenge he plans to shoot to represent some of the major action in the text.
What results is growing book lists, renewed enthusiasm as students go back to books they’ve read and revisit their love for the text, and involving each and every single student as a valued reader in our classroom community.
We’d love to hear from you! What tips and tricks for student talk make their way into your daily workshop practice? Please comment below!