Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Student Choice in Reading: Let Students Decide Whether They Want to Read a Shakespeare Tragedy, Comedy, or History Play

One thing is certain: when students are given choice—whether limited or wide open—they read and write more.  -Kelly Gallagher, "Moving Beyond the 4x4 Classroom"

Why Is Reading Such a Chore?

What makes something a chore? Is it the essence of the activity itself, such that mopping the floor, for instance, is inherently more chore-like and more obligatory in nature than doing something else, such as watching a movie? Is it really that ontologically simple? Surely not. The idea that something is a chore due to the nature of the act itself is an obvious oversimplification: it fails to account for the importance of context. That's why cleaning the house can also be therapeutic, perhaps even fun. The word chores functions, not as a label for a certain set of activities, but as a description for how one feels about the activity he or she is engaged in. The question has more to do with why one is engaging in a given activity as well as how one came to be motivated to do it in the first place.

As teachers of reading, this is exactly the kind of oversimplification we are battling when students enter our classrooms and say, "I don't know. Reading is just not my thing. It's such a chore." They have become convinced that reading is one of those activities that falls under the category of chores.  How can we convince them otherwise? How can we get them to experience the joy of reading again?

What happens when, over time, an activity that one used to enjoy begins to feel more like a chore? Whether it's something that's leisurely or something that demands a large amount of work, an activity risks becoming a chore, in my opinion, when one (or all) of the following factors starts to seem amiss:

1. Agency in the form of having a choice in the matter.
2. Purpose in the form of knowing why you are doing the thing in question.
3. Relevance in the form of appealing to one's interests and/or passions as an individual

Even things we enjoy doing can become a chore when we no longer feel a sense of agency, purpose, or relevancewhich brings up the important question for all teachers:

How can we make students see reading as something other than a chore? How can we prevent what Kelly Gallagher calls Readicide, namely the "systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in our schools"?

Kelly Gallagher suggests several things for combatting the phenomenon of Readicide. One suggestion that's challenged me to grow as a teacher and designer of curriculum is the idea of providing more opportunities for student choice, thereby getting students to exercise agency in determining what texts or books seem most relevant and purposeful to them. 

Core Texts: Community at the Cost of Agency?

I am a big fan of building a learning community around the collaborative study of a core text, whether it be classic or contemporary, but I slowly have come to realize that, if that's all I'm doing, students will inevitably lose sight of one (if not all) of the above three factors (namely, a sense of agency, purpose, and/or relevance).  Community is important, but so is agency. In agreement with Kelly Gallagher, I think there needs to be a balance, but in no way can I claim to have made room for choice to the extent of a "20/80 model" like that in Gallagher's class

On a quick side note, I personally think there are strategies one can employ for purposes of empowering student agency even when one is reading a singular text as a class. I suggest the following ideas:

1. Let students choose to be a certain kind of "expert." Sometimes I'll create four reading groups: Group 1 reads for setting, historical/authorial context, etc.; Group 2 reads for character development and analysis; Group 3 reads for theme analysis and development; and Group 4 reads for rhetoric and literary style. Each group is responsible for being the experts in the room when it comes to discussions that relate to their topic of choice (Go here to read more).

2. Allow students to have more direct influence over what you discuss and how. There are so many technological platforms that make this possible. I often use google docs as a back channel for students to make clear to me what they want to talk about and address in the novel we're reading (go here to read more). My friend, Joel Garza, often uses hypothes.is to amplify student voice and particularly to empower the quieter students in his classroom (go here to read more).

3. Gamify the experience for the students. I've written extensively about the pedagogical benefits of gamification, which can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

4. Allow students to persuade each other and to choose democratically a core text for the class to read.

I don't think that assigning core texts necessarily implies a lack of agency, purpose, and/or relevance for students, but it does demand us to be intentional and creative as teachers. On the flip side, promoting student choice for reading also doesn't need to be seen as a threat to cultivating a sense of community in a collaborative classroom. There are ways to foster community while allowing students to direct their inquiry more independently, whether limited in nature or in a completely open framework.

Student Choice in Reading

A couple years back, NCTE published the article "Top Five Reasons We Love Giving Students Choice in Reading" and the first reason the authors identified was the idea that "Choice empowers students":

School is sometimes a frustrating place for students. Their technology-rich world is robust with opportunities for decision-making and choice, but when they enter the classroom, the opportunities for choice are much more limited. When students are routinely assigned books to read without any opportunity to act on their own judgment, many end up dreading the reading and often fail or refuse to complete it. But when we provide students with choices (even within parameters), they make their own decisions and they feel empowered and important. (Campbell, Dubitsky, Faron, George, Gieselmann, Goldschmidt, Skeeters, and Wagner)

I emphasized the 2nd and 3rd sentences because I think this gets to the heart of how choice connects to relevance and purpose, especially for the 21st century student. Our students' technologically-laden world is one that constantly invites them to make choices, to interact, and even to manipulate the things that capture their interest. This is why school can seem so frustrating at times: They don't have that same sense of agency.


This year, when designing my latest unit on William Shakespeare, I was debating whether to do a Tragedy, Comedy, or History play, and it occurred to me: Why not let the students choose? I knew I would limit it to a 3-option choice, meaning there were still strict parameters when it came to exercising student agency. Despite how minimal it was, a significant change in student engagement was immediately evident due to a simple gesture on my part: I trusted them to make a choice based on what sparked their individual interests the most, and simply put, that excited them.
Working off the thematic question of What does it mean to be the Other?, I selected three very different plays: Othello, Merchant of Venice, and Richard III. On the first day, I framed each text for the students (we watched movie trailers for each one as well...). We also identified common themes across the plays, and I encouraged them to explore each option a little more by getting on YouTube, Google, and other platforms to find out more information.
Once students selected the play that perked their interest, they received the following instructions:

(1) Based on who chooses what play, you will form “reading groups” with other students who are reading the same text as you.
(2) On the class calendar, each reading group is scheduled to lead a class discussion on various days on a weekly basis.
(3) Groups will lead class discussion only on the due dates for completing each Act of the play (meaning there will be five scheduled presentations for each group).
(4) On those scheduled due dates, each group is expected to present their ideas in a 10-15 minute period of time. Each presentation will be followed by a 10 minute harkness-style question and answer session, and all reading groups are expected to participate.
(5) Presentations will be based on the questions related to the themes that are listed below. Groups may use the same question (or questions) for multiple presentations as long as each presentation develops the revisited question further.
(6) Expectations for each presentation:
     (a) They must be at least 10 to 15 minutes in length
     (b) They must address at least 3-4 of the questions that are related to the themes
     (c) Students must turn in presentation notes, outlines, or scripts
     (d) There must be multiple citations of the text to provide evidence
     (e) Presentations must be cogent, prepared, and collaborative: everyone has to talk
     (f) Optional: Students may use media, visual aids, etc., to enhance the presentation

My school's schedule operates on an ABABC block schedule, meaning I get to meet with students for 80 minutes on either A or B days, and I see every class for 45 minutes at the end of the week on the C day's modified schedule. The reading plan looked something like this (with a few improvised adjustments along the way...):
For each play, we identified 7 common themes we wanted to talk about: (1) Prejudice towards Otherness (2) The idea of Bonds, especially with Family (3) Marriage & Love (4) Hatred (5) Honesty & Trust in a World of False Appearances (6) Gender Politics and (7) Justice vs. Vengeance. There were 3-5 questions for each theme that potentially could be applied to any of the three plays, and students could use any of those questions to frame their weekly discussions on the days they were assigned to lead the class meeting.  (Go here to see the complete google doc that contains the questions as well as the rest of the resources related to the project)

It was very much an experimental risk on my part. How would it go with students talking to each other in class discussions while reading different texts? Would it fall flat? Would students make interesting connections? Overall, I was blown away, watching students teach, challenge, and make connections for each other in organic conversations that were purely student led. By giving them choice, the students gave back as well both to me and to each other. There were days, no doubt, when it was dry, and by the end, I think we were all ready to move on. However, with a few adjustments to the calendar and to the volume of discussions, I will definitely be doing this again next year.  As the authors make clear in "Top Five Reasons We Love Giving Students Choice in Reading," providing students with more choice (whether it be limited or open) empowered them to have more meaningful conversations, to deepen relationships with both peers and the teacher, and to think more independently as developing learners (Campbell, Dubitsky, Faron, George, Gieselmann, Goldschmidt, Skeeters, and Wagner). I saw all of this at work on a daily basis when students took ownership of their choice to read a Tragedy, Comedy, or History play, and although there were a lot of student-led discussions and presentations, there was also time for independent reading, group preparation, and small group discussions with the teacher. 

For a final project, students had the following choices as well:
1. Team up with 1 or 2 other students from your class section (or from another section).
2. Decide whether you want to partner with peers who read the same play or with people who read something different.
3. Select one of the seven themes from the student-led class discussions.
4. Choose to either create a digital essay (using sound, image, & text) or a podcast episode (using sound and voice) that explores the theme you selected.
(Again, Go here to see the complete google doc that contains the final project instructions as well as the rest of the resources related to the project)

We examined examples of both mediums and discussed their merits and flaws, and students were let loose to make their compositions, and overall, the final products were creative, funny, and diverse. You could tell they had a good time: With all the options, I think it felt less like a chore and more like an opportunity to take a risk and be creative. (One of my favorites was a podcast created by 2 sophomore boys where the episode would periodically be interrupted by Shakespeare-era adds like the one from the company "2 Murderers for Hire"). I will say, I had no idea what to expect with the digital essays; it was new territory. Overall the products were beautiful, and to demonstrate, I leave you one on Richard III created by Rosalind K. & Reagan L:

Works Cited

Campbell, Bridget, Andrea Dubitsky, Elizabeth Faron, Deborah George, Kelly Gieselmann, Brooke    Goldschmidt, Keri Skeeters, and Erica Wagner. "The Top Five Reasons We Love Giving Students Choice in the Reading." English Leadership Quarterly, National Council of Teachers of English, 2016. Accessed 27 March 2018.

Gallagher, Kelly. "Moving Beyond the 4x4 Classroom." Kelly Gallagher: Building Deeper Readers & Writers, Gallagher & Associates, Inc., 15 July 2015. Accessed 27 March 2018.

Gallagher, Kelly. "Reversing Readicide."Educational Leadership, ASCD, March 2010, Vol. 67, No. 6. Accessed 27 March 2018.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Rethinking Class Participation using Hypothes.is Annotations - A Guest Post by Joel Garza

I called roll for the first time twenty-four years ago. For the past eleven years, I've taught high school English at Greenhill school in Addison. We're an independent school. Our learning management system is Canvas. We've got students who take Global Online Academy courses. Our students are tech-savvy. I'm not emailing you about tech. I'm emailing you about relationships, relationships that Hypothes.is, an online free annotation platform, helps me develop.

I entered teaching because of relationships. I wanted to honor several teachers that I knew—if I’m honest, my becoming a teacher was an act of discipleship. I wanted to continue the conversations that they had started with me that excited me. I wanted to spread that good news. 

The setting of these relationships was always very simple--most of the time we were in some shabby room.

But we were all looking at each other, we were all trying to figure out the same text, we were all trying to answer questions that had been asked for centuries. You know, Socratic seminar stuff. I love it. Those conversations, that format of learning taught me the value of daily engagement. I was taught that participation was necessary, not only to shape my understanding but also to shape my classmates’ understanding.

In every department where I studied and taught, daily engagement was worth a grade, usually a huge part of the grade.

Years later, I recognized that calling that part of the course “participation” might, in effect, create a bias against certain kids.

It's not that these kids don't have anything to say. It's just that they aren't at their most comfortable speaking up like that every day. Last trimester, I tried to find out how many students were like this. So I conducted an unofficial survey. I told students, “Introverts are energized by private solitary moments; extroverts are energized by public social moments. Which one are you?”

I discovered that there are a lot of students who are not energized by the Socratic seminar. There's a lot who would benefit sometimes from some other entrance to the conversation. Enter Hypothes.is.

By means of Hypothes.is, I've got another entrance for these students, and I've got another word besides “participation”, another way of evaluating them. I keep my antenna up for their “tenacity”—How are they grabbing hold of the material? Twitter hashtags, e-mails to the entire class, or in the case that I'm about to walk through for you here, Hypothes.is annotations.

So that's the first thing that I want you to know about Hypothes.is. It gives students an entrance to the material in a public, trackable, shareable way that benefits the entire room.

So in many cases, I would “prime the pump” of the discussion. I would post questions in advance about particular passages.

Within the first hour of posting these “discussion” questions, though, students responded—before class. They responded in great detail. They added their own questions. 

The next thing I want to share with you is the easy way that Hypothes.is user interface allows me to offer targeted feedback to individual students. Here's a student that in my old way of grading was below average with respect to participation. He was reluctant to speak up even when asked a direct question. By means of Hypothes.is, though, you can see he has probed each reading each day in a single unique way. Before Hypothes.is, I did not hear from him every day—with Hypothes.is, everybody did.

What this allowed me to do also was check to see the kind of annotations that he made. Very often this student would swoop into the reading, drop an annotation, and swoop back out. So I asked him, “For the next reading, please read not only the work, but jump in later so that you can see and read other annotations. I want you to make a comment on a classmate's annotation. I want you to get a conversation started.” 

So by means of Hypothes.is, I was able, first of all, to give this student an entrance, but I was also able to give him a way of engaging his classmates, not just the material.

Another student was very good at understanding the thematic importance of a particular passage.

What I had to ask her was, “Pretty please, ground your observation in a specific literary device next time. I want to make sure that you've got a hold of the stuff in terms specific to poetry, not just in terms specific to you personally.” 

This student had the opposite problem.

You know, she could slice and dice literary devices.  She had clearly been quizzed on them at her previous school. What I needed her to do was to move beyond merely pointing out the literary device to demonstrating how that literary device shaped meaning. So those are the two big takeaways that I had first of all.

Hyptohesi.is grants entrance to the material that a traditional classroom format sometimes does not. Also, Hypothes.is allows instructors to encourage students to take risks.

And they do. 

Please reach out to me if you have any questions, comments, or ideas for a collaboration! 


Friday, November 10, 2017

Maintaining Student Equity in Classroom Discussions

As an English teacher, I often have discussion days in class either in the form of Socratic inner/outer circles or in a Harkness-style context. One thing that Harkness has taught me is that there is often a disconnect between how I perceive the discussion to go and what the data actually reveals upon reflection afterwards. What I mean to say is that many times in class I thought a discussion went really well: the energy was high, and the insights were diverse and illuminating, and I didn’t have to say very much at all. However, the data may have painted a very different picture; for instance, whether I immediately realized it or not, perhaps the conversation lacked the proper balance of gender equity. Or perhaps only 80% of the class truly participated, and the excluded 20% were the same students who always seem to be overlooked and therefore not heard.

How do we maintain real equity in classroom conversations, and more importantly, how do we track that over a sustained period of time?

One program that has been a game-changer for me as a teacher is the iPad-based app, Equity Maps. The program allows you to map the room digitally in terms of who sits where, thereby allowing the teacher to enter each student’s name as well as his or her gender. Once the discussion begins, the teacher can tap a student’s avatar to signal that the student is speaking; when the next student responds, the instructor taps that person’s figure on the screen, and the program draws a line to the next participant (just like one would do on paper in a traditional Harkness discussion). There are also options to mark when there’s chaos, silence, or smaller group exchanges during the live discussion. 

What’s amazing about the program, however, is what it provides once the class activity is done. Immediately, the instructor has the following data for reflection and assessment:

1. Instant playback of the group discussion
2. Data about how many times a student spoke
3. Data about how long that student actually spoke

4. Analysis of gender equity and whether one gender dominated the conversation

5. Overall assessment of levels of inclusiveness for the entire conversation

Equity Maps dispels any misguided perceptions on the teacher’s or student’s part about how well the conversation went and therefore forces one to be more honest about the greater value of that day’s discussion. It has made me a better facilitator, encourager, and evaluator of what needs to happen every day in a conversation whose main priority is promoting equity among all participants. What I’ve also come to discover is that the information can be insightful feedback for students: they need to see and reflect upon the data as well because deeper learning can only happen if we build in time for reflection upon that learning.

How do you maintain real equity in classroom conversations, and more importantly, how do you track that over a sustained period of time?

Friday, October 27, 2017

Reflections on OESIS Boston: Humanities without Textbooks & Bringing Poetry to the MakerSpace

Two weeks ago, I attended the OESIS conference in Boston, MA, and I’m still processing all the things I learned over such a short period of time. I had the privilege of sitting on two panels, one on online collaboration and another on student agency, as well as presenting with my colleague, Joel Garza, on some of our previous collaborative projects.

I wanted take a moment to share some notes and observations about a couple sessions I attended that relate to English instruction (Also, for more reflections on OESIS Boston, check out the article just published by Global Online Academy, The Power of Networks: 10 Ways Schools Are Tackling Innovation):

1. Humanities without the Narrative by Deborah Shaul from La Jolla Country Day School

Deborah’s session was about blending a US History curriculum with an American Literature class without using an anchor textbook for the course. When Deborah ditched the textbook, it freed her to approach the content in a less linear fashion, and instead, scope and sequencing were often shaped or influenced by the interests and choices of the students as they immersed themselves in a deeper, more interconnected investigation of American literature and history. As she stressed, by allowing to make more choices as to what primary documents they wanted to research, the teacher and the author of the textbook were no longer the “keeper of the keys” to the narrative. One thing I appreciated about Deborah’s session was her candidness about student and parent responses, which were not always positive. Doing away with the textbook created fear and anxiety for some. They weren’t always sure what to study or how to do so, but I think such push back always happens when we truly turn over agency to students in relation to their learning. Why do some students prefer having a textbook?

(a) It serves as a security blanket because the answers are explicitly provided
(b) Students don’t always trust their own answers nor those of their peers
(c) It’s easier to perform well on a test when one can memorize pre-packaged content

She surveyed her students, asking them how they prefer to learn, and Deborah was a little disappointed to see that many students still prefer lecture/power point formats. However, I think it’s important to step back and ask ourselves: are students conflating “getting good grades” with learning? Perhaps the survey results reflect that kind of confusion that one would expect from the average independent school learner whose main priority is his or her transcript.

If you have more questions, you can reach out to Deborah at @Dshaul3.

2. Discovering Poetry Through Maker-Space Projects by Amy Alsip from The Oakridge School

Amy shared with us a project she did where students made poetry as well as artifacts inspired by their literary creations in the context of a MakerSpace. One through-line I noticed that connects Amy’s project to Deborah’s curricular innovations was the role of student agency in each scenario. Students would enter the MakerSpace, and there were several stations/choices for poetry creation:

(a) Dice Roll haikus
(b) Using book spines to create poetry
(c) Using the name of paint samples to create poetry
(d) “Blackout poetry” using markers and a found text (like a newspaper)
(e) Using scrabble games to construct poetry
And there were a few more stations that escape me now…

Amy Alsip presenting her poetry/maker project at OESIS Boston
Students would then share their 20+ poetry creations with peers to get feedback. Once they had selected their favorite 3-5 poems, each poet would return to the MakerSpace to create an artifact inspired by the poem in question, and once again, they had many options:

(a) Coding
(b) Sowing
(c) 3D Printing
(d) Repurposing found materials
(e) Circuitry Boxes
(f) Legos
Again, I believe there were 1 or 2 more options that I cannot recall now

The whole project culminated in a poetry read-aloud night at the school for the community to attend. Of course, the students got to showcase their fabrications as well. As an English teacher, I like how a project like this reminds us that English classes have always been spaces for making.

If you have more questions, you can reach out to Amy at @amyalsip.