Category Archives: Talk

On Slow Stylists and Teaching Writers

My hair and North Texas humidity are not friends. I can fix my hair in the morning, take one tiny step outside, and floop — it’s like the photo next to the word frizz in a picture dictionary.

I need help with my hair.

Not long ago, I had to find a new stylist. I’d seen my hair pro for going on 20 years — through short and kinda long and short again and kids’ friends and schools and graduations. I didn’t even know I had attachment issues until I called to make an appointment and learned Vivian had moved to another salon. They would not tell me where.

You may know how hard it is to find a new stylist. Overwhelming and risky come to mind. I just couldn’t deal with it — so I went cheap. I saw a random ad on line for “models” and took a chance on a “stylist-in-training”.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

And it was good.

Well, it got good. First, I waited 35 minutes just to get in the chair. I learned why as Emily tentatively combed and cut in tiny snips. She was S.L.O.W. but cheerful, eager, and excited to put the skills she learned through lecture and video into hands-on real-hair practice. Emily’s “expert mentor” stood to the side, giving tips and clarifying process the whole time. Then, when Emily thought she was done with my cut, the mentor picked up the comb and scissors, checked each section for wayward hairs, and reviewed the moves Emily had just made to create my style.

Of course, this all reminded me of teaching writers.

Awhile back I wrote about slowing down and planning time for students to think and talk and question before we demand they get to drafting. I think planning time applies to other aspects of teaching writers as well.

Here’s three things I’m wondering–

  1. How can we plan time for more talk? Writers write well when they have a solid base of information from which to build their ideas. Purposeful talk can help our writers grow in knowledge, recognize bias, and engage in conversation that pushes thinking. Listening and speaking often receive short shrift in ELA classes. We can change that. We can help students get their hands and heads into real-life practice as they talk about issues, news, and attitudes that fuel their writing.
  2. How can we plan time for more questions? When writing, questions often lead to answers. I teach asking questions as a revision strategy:  Students read their peers’ writing and can only respond with questions that prompt the writer to add more detail, include examples, develop thoughts more fully, etc. This takes practice, but it’s the best approach I’ve found so far in helping students question their own writing. (See Start with a Question for more on how questions aid writers.) We can give tips and clarify process — and help students work together to improve their writing — when we spend a little time helping them ask good questions.
  3. How can we plan time for more conferring? A few years ago, I asked my students how best they wanted me to help them improve as writers. These high school juniors overwhelmingly asked for more one-on-one. I was kind of surprised: Teens wanted to talk to me moreSeriously, they did. These writers understood they were all at different places with their language skills and writing abilities, and they knew the value of our conferences. Undivided attention, sometimes just noticing, even for a brief few moments, can make a world of difference to a writer. Sometimes we instruct. Sometimes review. Most often we just listen.

I left the salon that day 2.5 hours later — the longest I’ve ever spent in a salon. Time didn’t matter to Emily. She wanted to do well, truly practice her new skills, and create a cut she’d be proud of. I know we feel rushed and crushed in our English classes, but there’s a lesson here:  How can we slow down in order to maximize the time our students need to grow as writers?

In case you’re wondering, I like my cut, but I’m still battling Texas weather.

 

Amy Rasmussen loves working with student writers and their teachers. She thanks her family and friends for their time: generating ideas, reading drafts, proofing, editing, encouraging. And she thanks you for all you do for readers and writers everywhere. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass

Advertisements

Planning Time for Thinking

One thing I know for sure:  Writing is hard. Lately, I’ve been reminded how hard as I’ve tried to keep up with Sarah Donovan’s challenge #verselove2019 to write a poem a day during the month of April.

It’s only day 9, and Oh, my!

It’s not even the poetry part I’m finding difficult, which is surprising. Deciding on an idea and then sticking to it has wrecked me for eight straight days. And now I’m wondering:

How often do I expect students to dive into drafting without giving them time to talk and question and change their minds about their ideas? Do they have enough time to play and mull and sit with their thoughts before they make a commitment–or before a draft is due?

I know what so many great writers say:  Just start writing; you’ll discover what you want to say. But what if that doesn’t work for everyone? Lately, it hasn’t worked for me.

So now I’m wondering:  How can I plan for enough time to give everyone the time they need to settle in to their ideas before I plan enough time for them to write?

Now, I’m not talking about timed writing — or state-mandated test writing. Those are different (and in my humble opinion) horrible inauthentic beasts. I’m talking about the process of thought. The thinking it takes to draft with intention.

I’m pretty sure I’ve rushed it.

And I want to slow it down.

#verselove2019

Amy Rasmussen lives and writes from her home in North Texas where the bluebonnets are blooming beautifully. She thinks about writing all the time and needs to get better at getting her thoughts on the page. Writing poetry, which is far out of her comfort zone, may help. You can follow her on Twitter @amyrass

No Accountability Book Clubs

Prior to starting a round of Book Clubs with my AP Lit students, I questioned what would be a “just right” accountability fit for my very different first and fourth periods.  Third quarter always hits juniors hard.  It is a reality check that changes are ahead.  It seems to be the time students are in full swing with clubs, theater, sports, and other projects.  My students are invested in their independent reading, with many switching between texts they can use on the exam and fun YA selections, and developing reading identities.  My students are also chatty and friendly–Book Clubs seemed like a perfect fit at this point in the year.

But how to keep students accountable in a non-punitive way when they’re already overbooked.  I thought about my goals for the Book Clubs, which extended far beyond adding another text of literary merit to their tool belts for question three.  I wanted them to read, to engage, to think.  For students to have fun meeting together to discuss books like adult readers do.

For some, a bit of accountability helps spur their reading and processing.  I have many students who like to document their thinking with annotations or dialectical journals and be rewarded for their visual thinking.  I understand that. For others, a bit of accountability becomes a chore that interferes with their engagement. Students have reflected that tasks associated with reading pull their focus away from the text and onto the assignment.  I get that, too.

I have been ruminating over my grading practices this year, taking notes on what is helpful and what can change next year as we progress, seeking practices which keep students accountable in non-intrusive, authentic ways.  Letter grades in the English classroom can be tricky. Our content lends to subjectivity when grading. Add in the pressure for college-acceptable GPAs and authentic learning can be lost in the quest for an “A.” It can be difficult to accurately measure understanding, as well as the more essential habits for success beyond our classrooms–effort, improvement, depth of thought and questioning–with five letters.  I am trying to shift from grades and points to accountability, effort, revision, second-laps, and reflection as tools for building skills and taking risks. I want anything I evaluate to have meaning and to be balanced by a lot of low stakes participation, effort, and reflection.

Book Clubs are like independent reading, just a bit more social.  Why grade it with check-listy parameters?  I wanted students to read, engage, and think with one another.  To come to the table with questions, thoughts, and connections, like a college student would.  To process challenging books together, like an adult book club would.

So I decided I would assign no accountability checks.  Nothing. I only asked students to be accountable to one another, as adults would be in a “real” book club each week, with the schedule they set.

Knowing they wouldn’t be receiving a tangible grade or reward, I was concerned students would see this as an invitation not to read deeply, or that some wouldn’t feel invested in the payoff. However, my hope that our months of community building and sharing in reading experiences as readers outweighed my tinges of fear.  Why not step aside and set them free?

I gave Thursday’s class period over to the Book Clubs and student-driven conversations with the ask that students use the class period to process together.

Students owned it.  

There wasn’t a lull in conversation on Thursdays.  Student groups chatted with each other while I circulated and enjoyed their voices and insights.  I wasn’t roaming the classroom with a clipboard or checking an assignment in while half listening. I was a floating member of each club (hence why there are no pictures accompanying this post!).

I noticed there were discussions about the gray areas of the books, like what is the Combine Chief Bromden references and what the heck happened to Nurse Ratched to make her the adult she is in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  I noticed the crew reading Ceremony worked to make sense of the non-linear structure and researched the myths of the Laguna Pueblo people. Readers of Brave New World connected the text to Oryx and Crake, a summer read, as well as our world.  Readers of The Road hypothesized on the events before the book begins.  Many students annotated their books, kept a notecard of questions to ask one another, took notes during the meetings, and referenced the text throughout their discussions.

There was no need to dangle a carrot in front of their noses or keep track of data to issue a grade.  Students did the work because the elements were there:  choice, time, conversation.  They made meaning together, employing the habits developed throughout the year while practicing being adult readers–readers who read, engage, and think in a realm where there isn’t official accountability to turn in.

I’m not sure what my digital gradebook categories will look like next year, what practices and procedures I will put into place to promote authentic accountability, but I know I will challenge myself to step aside more often, to trust students will do the work if the environment is right.

 

Maggie Lopez is entering the fourth quarter in Salt Lake City upon returning from spring break.  She is currently reading Hitler’s Furies by Wendy Lower. You can find her at @meg_lopez0.

“A Sea of Talk”

“Writing floats on a sea of talk.” – James Britton.

ocean waves

Photo by Artem Saranin on Pexels.com

If you’re an avid 3TT reader, I’m sure that’s not the first time you’ve read that phrase. In fact, Amy mentioned it here just a few short days ago, and we’ve definitely discussed how to get students to talk to each other on this website before. For me, I didn’t hear of James Britton or this idea of a “sea of talk” until I joined my local Writing Project. (As always, I can not speak highly enough of how the Middle Tennessee Writing Project changed the trajectory of my career and the practices within my classroom. If you aren’t involved with your local Writing Project, I wholeheartedly encourage you to seek out those groups and immerse yourself into that community.)

Shameless plug for WP over… I found myself for two weeks straight during my Writing Project ISI starting each day with a little bit of writing, then some variation of turn and talk before returning to our writing. That process – write, share, write some more, share some more, write some more – was presented to us in multiple ways over that two weeks but all of those activities at their core were some variation of that process. And it’s one I’ve taken to heart.

Of course, our ideas are stronger after we spend some time with them in conversation, after we hear feedback from our peers. Of course, just the simple act of speaking out loud is sometimes  enough to jumpstart an idea or solve a problem. In the programming world, this process is called Rubber-ducking. Of course, it would be ridiculous to assume that our students should only ever write in isolation when they have so much to say and share. So, it’s our responsibility to just get out of the way in the classroom and allow that “sea of talk” to rise and fall, ebb and flow. A former sage on the stage teacher, I had to realize that my voice alone wasn’t enough to create a “sea.”

The latest iteration of this rising and falling in my class literally involves rising. In doing some research on how to make argumentation a more natural and low-stakes part of the classroom, I stumbled upon Dave Stuart Jr.’s blog where he discusses Pop-up Debates. I fell into a deep rabbit hole of links upon links, occasionally shouting at the dog, “This is great!” and “Oh, man! This is going to be good.” B was just as enthused as I was. He’s supportive like that.

The Pop-up Debate works like this: Explain the concept of the pop-up shop and relate it to the pop-up debate. Encourage everyone to participate. Students command the floor by ‘popping-up’ at their desks and beginning to speak. If multiple people pop-up, students politely yield the floor. There are no declared winners because everyone wins when the conversation is lively and intelligent. Encourage students to debate all sides – nothing is so boring as a circle of agreement and repetition.

And that’s it. It’s a simple practice, highly adaptable and extremely engaging.

For our first pop-up, I asked students to respond to a question about honor codes that I pulled from an old AP Language synthesis prompt. They wrote on their own for about ten minutes before test-running their ideas with a partner. Then, they popped for about 17 minutes. I found it fascinating to hear how their conversation grew and moved and evolved as they examined new facets of the conversation. Students who are reluctant to raise their hands stepped up to discuss with no prompting from me at all. Students questioned their peers’ assumptions, asked clarifying questions, raised new points, offered counterarguments, moved from specific evidence to social implications, made their points passionately. In short, as a class, we practiced several of the skills required for good writing collectively in a very low-stakes environment.

Then, we turned back to our notebooks and wrote again before debriefing as a class about how the conversation changed or added to their thinking. Simple and powerful.

Pop-ups can easily be used as a means to practice all manner of writing skills while also working on speaking skills. For example, for our second pop-up, we discussed the extent to which the study of philosophy was useful in modern society. Here, we focused on using accountable talk at the beginning of statements to show relationships between ideas – a skill we’re practicing in other ways for the synthesis portion of the AP exam. This week, when we pop-up, students will track the flow of the conversation in their WNs, and we’ll use this to jumpstart mini-lessons on counterarguments.

I hope that this method is one that you can take to your classroom and use right away. I’m always interested in how others keep that “sea” churning in their classrooms. Please share in the comments or on Twitter.

Sarah Morris teaches AP Language & Composition and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is reading Mary Oliver for the first time and considering what being a “bride married to amazement…[a] bridegroom, taking the world into my arms” will look like for herself. She tweets at @marahsorris_cms.

 

Sowing Seeds of Light: Reflections Following Time with Cornelius Minor

In October, I heard Kelly Gallagher explain that “our job is to create an ecosystem that serves to democratize opportunity.” In December, I observed Cornelius Minor facilitate this in my classroom. Yep, you read that right. THE Cornelius Minor spent an hour with my students, modeling the moves he makes to “disperse power throughout the room,” swiftly engaging students while simultaneously instructing a group of educators.

At all times, Minor modeled what democratization looks like. Prior to the hour in my classroom with students, he spent time with the staff who would be present during the lesson, in his own words, “planting seeds of ownership.” He asked us, “How are you?” and “What’s one thing to work on with you that would meet the needs of students?”. We delineated this, worked in conjunction with him to plan the lesson, and ultimately, “opted into learning” (Minor’s words again).

What followed in the classroom portion of the experience was remarkable. Because my colleagues asked for modeling of close reading, selecting evidence, and metacognition, Minor engaged the students in a digital text–a short video clip from a TV show–and chunked close reading into noticing stuff and providing structured opportunities for talk (structured in that each student had a role to fulfill). From there, he moved to a more complex text (a controversial poem) and continued to ask students to notice stuff; then he offered multiple perspectives on the text, asking students to grapple with these frames, seek evidence, and explore the inherent symbolism. My students simply, as they later reflected, had no timed to get bored or distracted. I observed true cognitive energy, energy sparked by intellectual curiosity, energy that connected my students one to another, each connection a charged particle contained into a beam of light on that December morning.

This light pushed me to confront the idea that my kindness and my work ethic will be enough. That when things aren’t quite right in the classroom, I can just work harder–at relationships, strategies, skills, feedback, whatever. I am not Orwell’s Boxer. In fact, if I continue defaulting to my strengths (of hard work and kindness) instead of working in small deliberate ways to grow, I oppress my students and myself. I’ve got work to do. I’ve got new terms to perseverate on, strategies to focus to, and questions to keep asking myself. And that beam of light will keep me focused on growth.

Terms to Absorb

Important: (for the student to know later–for that test, the next class, college): a teacher-centric term, a framing that doesn’t necessarily account for students’ perspectives or experiences at that moment.

Text Agnostic: without preference for specific texts. See “important” above. Connects to the value of choice in workshop. Means seeking out regularly what’s on students’ minds to cull texts.

Cognitive Overload: what a learner experiences when both the context and content are beyond readiness (both content and context are hard or unfamiliar). This stifles growth and ultimately creativity.

Justice: “what love looks like in public” (Minor).  

Aspirational Discomfort: What I’m experiencing as a professional right now. Have I mentioned I’ve got work to do? But I’ve already mentioned my Boxer-like tendencies, so…  

Strategies to Disperse Power

Feedback: One of the most important ways workshop presents opportunities to democratize learning is through feedback. Yes, by providing students with affirming and constructive feedback, I communicate to my students that their ideas and words matter in this classroom. But by seeking feedback from students (which is an additional strategy Minor modeled so well), I model the openness a writer needs for growth–even when not modeling this with writing. After all, I am a person in position of authority seeking opportunities to keep growing and getting better. Yes, we tout teacher vulnerability all the time as a tenet of workshop. But there are a million tiny little ways to do this beyond what we do already that will strengthen our ecosystems.

  • Position students in roles to provide feedback (and Minor emphasizes to let students know you’re doing just that); during his time in my class, Minor selected a student to help signal when something was confusing. Since his visit, I’ve been more deliberate and consistent about pulling aside a few students to check in on my pacing, and I plan to make this a routine in my classroom.
  • Seek feedback mid-stream: check in with students in various ways. Ask for permission to keep going. Ask how they’re feeling. Read Minor’s book and you’ll discover other informal ways, including the on-the-fly class meeting.

Roles: A fairly common practice of collaboration, especially within small groups, relies on taking roles.

  • As a teacher, I can share with students when I have conflicted feelings or interpretations of a text (this is a good thing–it models how our understanding is always evolving. Several students reflected on the power of this.).  Awareness of my confliction communicates that the authoritative interpretation of the text doesn’t begin and end with me. My role shifts, however infinitesimally. 
  • Use these conflicted interpretations, critics’ various interpretations, or ones students generate themselves to assign students roles to take. Minor used a complex and controversial text and, after offering two ways to frame it, assigned students (using partners A  and B) to find evidence to support their viewpoints. Roles extended to other tasks of this close reading of this text. Another student noted how “each person had something to look for” while another remarked that “he made us all feel included and excited.”

Questions to Encourage the Reflection Necessary for Doing the Work

  • How do I fuel my students to preserve that cognitive energy?
  • How do I scaffold experiences so as to avoid cognitive overload?
  • In what ways and at what times do my students “opt” into learning?
  • In what situations in the past have my students “opted” into learning?
  • In what ways can I plant seeds of ownership?
  • How do I send power throughout the room?

I’ll keep doing the work. I’ll continue the journey of democratizing my classroom in small ways, every day. I’ll work to improve how students see themselves in my classroom, helping them harness the power that’s always been theirs. I’ll keep sowing seeds of light. 

Kristin Jeschke teaches College Prep English and AP Language and Composition at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. She marvels at her students who so readily engaged in the moment, even with a classroom full of educators studying their every move. She marvels, too, at the light emanating forth from the giants in our field, inspiring us all to keep reaching. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke. 

 

Keeping It Real As a Teacher of Writers

I have taken up watercolor. It’s been ages since I tried a new hobby, and I find the challenge pretty intense. Prone to put perfectionistic pressure on myself, my need to “get it right” limits my ability to play. This is problematic. And pretty stupid.

I will never get better if I do not take risks — with brushes or pigment or with the water.

For a long while now, I’ve followed my friend Laura’s work with watercolors. Her talent paints.jpgpiqued my desire to give painting a try, so I sent her a message asking advice on beginner supplies. She was gracious and encouraging in her response.

Then, I bought not three brushes but nine, not one medium-grade paint set but five, not one pad of paper but seven — in a variety of sizes. And I saved over 48 watercolor tutorials on Pinterest, plus, watercolor images of flowers, people, trees, waves, birds, landscapes, gardens. . .and pigs; and followed 18 watercolor artists on Instagram.

Because it seemed a lot easier to get ready to learn to paint than it did to try and fail.

Kind of like writing.

If you’ve read this blog awhile, you know I’ve been thinking about writing a book almost since starting 3TT. I’ve outlined three now. But I think and talk and read what others say about writing much more than I write. Like my hesitation about painting, this is problematic.

Of course it is.

And it reminds me of many of my student writers — the fear of getting it wrong or not making the grade, the vulnerability it takes to put ideas out there.

It’s real, and sometimes it’s stifling.

As I’ve worked to conquer my fear of learning to watercolor, practicing lessons on Skillshare (which has a plethora of lessons on multitudes of topics — check it out if you haven’t), trying new brushes and different washes and color combinations, and, finally, just relaxing into my art, I’ve discovered what I hope all young writers discover:

Writers must write for themselves. They write because they feel the tug of it, the need to express thoughts and ideas and meaning. Because they want to. Just as I paint for myself –the joy of it, the adventure in seeing if I can, the peace it brings me.

Recently, 3TT was asked this question on Twitter:  How often do you think MS and HS writers should publish? and I responded–

3tt tweet

I’ve thought about this exchange a lot since, and my thinking has led to more questions than answers:  How can we help our writers set personal goals for their writing? Which comes first:  the personal goal or the desire to write? If there’s no desire, can writers still write well? Does it matter if students write well?

Of course it does.

But just like every watercolorist finds her style, every writer must find his. All too often, school writing means prompts and formulaic structures, word counts and rubrics that restrict meaning-making more than they invite it.

So what can we do to open spaces that invite writers into the vulnerable places needed to grow? The best way I know is to keep it real.

Here’s a short list of what real means to me as I teach writers.

  1. Design Lessons based on what real writers do. For example, they don’t use standardized prompts — they come up with ideas they want to explore, creating their own prompts. Try quickwrites that inspire students to think about their lives and the world around them. Plan time for them to talk to their peers in ways that expands their thinking. Plan time for them to explore topics that interest them or challenge their thinking. Don’t just ask students to write about what they know. Ask them to write about what they notice.
  2. Make your writing life visible. Our writers need to see our thinking as we organize our thoughts into words on a page. They need to see us clarify, discover, and make meaning. They need to see that revision leads to improvement. Revision is not just a one-and-done step in the writing process. It’s not a strategy. Revision is a living breathing move writers make, and they make it often. Model all of the moves you do as a thinker, reader, and writer.
  3. Talk about everything related to writing and writers. “Writing floats on a sea of talk” (James Britton). Our writers need to share their ideas with one another — and with us as writing coaches in conferences. Often, we wait to invite writers to talk about their writing in peer feedback groups or in conferring sessions after they have penned their drafts. Real writers talk throughout their writing processes — from idea to draft into revision and on to redrafting. Talk leads to clarity and discovery, and in my experience, purposeful talk is the best resource teachers have for helping all students grow in confidence as writers.
  4. Immerse writers in beautiful language, clever word play, effective and powerful stories, essays, and poetry. Mentor texts that show students the impact of word choice, figurative language, and everything else from how an author creates believable characters to using dialogue to propel a plot forward are valuable teaching tools. Studying mentor texts helps students internalize what writers do. They come to recognize organizational patterns and structures they may choose to use in their own writing. Before I write pretty much anything of import, I study mentors. Don’t you?
  5. Make writing personal and purposeful. When we write about things we care about for readers we care about, we make deliberate choices as writers. Too often, and I am guilty of this myself, our writers only write for their teacher. Now, maybe your students differ from mine, but I’ve taught many a writer who didn’t care that I was her reader, and it showed. However, when I removed myself as my students’ primary audience and worked to build a community of writers where they wrote for one another, almost every student (sadly, there’s often a few hold outs) began to take greater care and ownership of their writing. They knew they had readers other than me. Of course, we can also help students determine outside-of-class purposes and audiences for their writing, and I encourage it; however, I’ve found that sharing our writing within our own classroom community is just as effective.

By no means do I claim to know it all when it comes to teaching writers. The puzzle working with adolescents is as real as my desire to help them grow as writers — and my newfound desire to learn to watercolor. I do know authenticity matters. When we make choices about literacy instruction, steeped in the authentic practices of what real readers and writers do as they read and write, more students engage in the tasks we ask of them. They take more risks. They more often than not rise to the occasion. And they shine as writers in their own right.

If you’ve made it to the end of this post with me, I appreciate you. And while I am not super confident in my watercolor abilities, and I have a ton to learn about the art of it all, I do have a stack of 20 bookmarks I’ve painted — mostly of birds because they make me smile. If you’d like one, share this post, follow me on Twitter @AmyRass (if you aren’t already), and send me a direct message with your name and address. (First 20 only. I’ve got a book to write.)

 

Amy Rasmussen has decided she loves teaching writers more than she loves to write, but she’s working on a balance of that as she attempts to discipline herself to “get ‘er done.” She has also decided that watercolor painting is harder than it looks. Amy’s currently on a “gap year” from the high school English class as she works on a book about authentic literacy instruction and facilitates professional development as an independent literacy consultant. She misses kids. A lot.

Adopting a Persona as We Move to Adopting Workshop

I am committed and inspired to move into true Reader’s Writer’s Workshop after NCTE and a near semester under my belt in a new school.  I left for the conference in Houston with a plan to read The Great Gatsby in December, and as much as I wanted to totally scrap it and start with a routine inspired by Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher in 180 Days,  I didn’t.  

I paused.  

Although every classroom minute is precious and developing readers is the most timely need, I wanted to give myself time to process this shift, to think through how my classroom would run, and brainstorm how to help my students, who from my inquiries have only experienced the full class novel, navigate texts with more autonomy and independence.

Going from trained text regurgitation to full choice would have been a huge, potentially disastrous, shift for my students.  Since August, they have looked to me to create meaning, to judge whether their writing is “right” or “good,” asking what I think about the text versus presenting their own original idea.  These students will grow immensely from workshop, which makes me so excited for January, but I felt they first need scaffolding up to meaning-making and trusting their interpretation and ideas.

I created a Book Club atmosphere with students for our reading of The Great Gatsby, having students meet in “Discussion Tables” with their peers to process the text with each other.  As 180 Days suggests, I asked students to come with one question and one comment to their discussion tables.  Students were also responsible for close reading and annotating/sketchnoting key scenes of the text, commenting on development and language.  Their annotations served as a launch point for continuing and deepening the conversation. A Book Club-style approach allowed for a more structured release of responsibility to students while maintaining the shared experience of full class novels my students are accustomed to.  I stood back as an observer, listening in to their conversations, witnessing students make meaning together versus wait to be guided to a single answer or idea.

As the unit was primarily based on discussion and conversation, so was their culminating assessment, the “Persona Discussion.”  Students were given a choice of what character they wanted to embody, from the core characters like Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan to more minor characters like Mr. Gatz or Meyer Wolfsheim, even “background” characters like the party goers were an option for students.  The core characters provided limited space for interpretation while added characters, like party goers, allowed for more creativity in the persona. Students signed up for a character and prepared by thinking through their characters in their journals.

IMG_0803.jpg

The discussion works like a Socratic Seminar, where students are the drivers of the discussion and can be adapted for both fiction and nonfiction.  I created this assignment for AP Language students who loved to debate and discuss in Chicago–they adopted the persona of Henrietta Lacks’ family, doctors, and author Rebecca Skloot after reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  For Henrietta’s Persona Discussion, the central question of the discussion was a quote about medical ethics. 

Students felt that the smaller characters were given a voice, an idea we discussed earlier in the passage when examining the wealth and marginalization of “the other” characters in efforts to disrupt the traditional text.  

 

Maggie, who played Myrtle, said she liked feeling immersed in the book:  “At first, I felt like Myrtle would only ask questions to Tom or George, but as we all started being our characters, I thought about how Myrtle and Gatsby were actually more alike and could have been friends, and I wanted to ask Daisy about her marriage more.”  Jordyn said the discussion was better for understanding the web of deception because “…it was like seeing the book as a play or real life and it made our group discussions more real or, like, meaningful.”  After discussing the text as a reader so much, Riley, a reluctant reader who has learned, as he admitted, to “fake it,” said, “It was more fun to prepare to play someone than to think about the big ideas for a regular seminar.  It made me want to do well and really know Tom.”  

As we build into full workshop mode in January, students have a foundation for how to enter a text, methods for creating meaning, and more confidence in their thinking.  Students were engaged with this type of discussion and reflected about their enjoyment, so I am going to incorporate it into next semester, perhaps jigsawing the characters from students’ choice reading or book clubs together from different realms or as a way to review major characters and texts before the AP Literature exam.   We’ll see what other “personas” develop!

 

Maggie Lopez is enjoying Utah ski season while re-reading 180 Days as she preps for second semester, American Girls: The Secret Life of American Teenagers before bed, and The Poet X in class.  She wishes you a very merry, restful holiday season!

 

%d bloggers like this: