Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Using Google Docs and Online Discussions to Increase Student Engagement with Shakespeare

I’m a big fan of reading Shakespeare aloud in class, assigning various roles to students, even if the reading process takes a little more time. Using online discussions has allowed me to do this more often than not since we can outsource the discussion to the digital sphere beyond the walls and time constraints of the daily class meeting. In fact, I’ve seen three additional benefits to “flipping” the class in this way: (1) the shy student rises to the occasion, voicing her insights with just as much volume and force as the more vocal learners; (2) the teacher is not the center of the discussion (even in Socratic seminars, decentering the role of the teacher becomes difficult) for I simply monitor and direct attention to certain highlights of the a-synchronized conversation, but I resist chiming in directly; (3) students later can cite each other in their papers, making the discussions an experience where they are reading and thinking for each other and not simply for the teacher.  Citing each other’s comments from the digital discussions also provides an authentic audience for the writing process and provides opportunity to practice digital literacy.
Here's a screen capture of an Online Discussion from one of my classes
I didn’t start this post to reflect on the benefits of online discussions; I wanted to share a strategy I’ve been using to keep ALL students engaged when trying to read a difficult scene aloud in class. My classes typically have about 20 students in them, and reading aloud only engages the handful of students who have a part in the given scene being read. How do you make sure the other students don’t “space out” and disengage from the experience? More importantly, how do you create an environment where they remain engaged and do so collaboratively? Short answer: create a back channel and distribute tasks which get them to read the text closely with intention.

A week or so ago, we were reading Act 4 of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth and we had made it to the last scene (Scene 3 which takes place at the English court). It’s a very difficult scene for high school students: it’s long, wordy, with plenty of digressions that are difficult to follow or unpack. I knew that the 16 or so students who would not be reading would have a really hard time staying focused, so I set up a Google Doc, changed the sharing settings such that anyone with the link could edit, and typed in four categories of interest: characteristics of England; characteristics of Scotland; the definition of a king; and lastly, the definition of a tyrant. I divided the non-readers into four groups accordingly, and their job was to get on the google doc to type bullet-pointed notes related to their assigned category as it related to the scene in question; meanwhile, the other handful of students read the scene aloud for all of us. Everyone was focused because we all had a task, and the entire class participated in a collaborative, close reading of a very difficult scene from the Scottish play. At the end, we put the document on the digital projector and reflected on the notes as a class – better yet, as a reading community. It was a huge success born out of a simple, no-brainer solution. More importantly, they made the notes together and constructed the meaning collaboratively, and I simply sat back and enjoyed the experience. Here's some screen caps of one classes notes at the end of the reading:

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