Student ownership and engagement

Posted: October 18, 2016 in Uncategorized
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So, Ive been thinking about student ownership of and engagement in class discussion. I teach a section of senior English (the course is called Good Reads), and I do not want to lecture or have a forced march through each page of the books we read.

When I taught 5th grade, I did a lot of work with my class on gradually being more independent in discussions. I had all year to work on this. We started with much more teacher led discussions, did a lot of commenting on a blog for homework to get ready for discussion (wow did this improve the level of discourse!), moved to round table “Great Books” style discussions (teacher does not answer questions, only asks questions), then to students leading group discussion on the blog, and finally to students leading very small in person discussions. It was a lot of work to make that transition happen, but we did usually get there.

In high school, I think those of us who teach discussion based classes, sometimes imagine that students will just take ownership of discussions, be involved, see the bigger picture. (I have a vivid imagination and also like to imagine that there is time in the week for me to do all my work, have lovely dinner table conversations with my family over delicious, home-cooked meals, read for pleasure, exercise, and make art. HA!)

Here are a few things that I find get in the way of student ownership and engagement in discussion:

  • Other classes! It turns out students have work to do in other classes too and can’t devote all their time or energy to my reading. What?!
  • Bells and set periods. To do this well, I would like to have time to debrief, discuss not just the content and skills of English class, but also the skills and habits that lead to good discussion. 48 minutes goes by in a flash. By the time everyone arrives, we are down to 44. And, the big kids can have longer conversations once they get going, which is great. It leaves less time for that important reflecting work.
  • The reading is more complex. If students are going to be in charge of the discussion, the content has to be at a “take charge level” which is probably lower than a “listen and understand” level. (These are very technical terms.)
  • Grades. Ugh.

So, nothing on the list above is going away. I am forging ahead.

Last year I tried using some of the literature circle roles in small groups with choice books (I wrote about the set up and the entire experiment.) We did discuss what I was looking for in advance; however, it was more about the different jobs. Leading up to the small group discussions, I made a point to call out when I was dong one or the other job in the course of our discussion, but since the literature circle format (jobs etc) is not necessarily familiar to students, the jobs piece was too forced. The discussions themselves were mixed. Sometimes better than others. It was ok, but as I am thinking about it now, we had not practiced enough in a bigger group, and most importantly I did not follow up on the roles and expectations of the group. There ended up being too many competing interests. That’s on me.

Back to this year.

We are reading a number of books, but I decided that The Catcher in the Rye was perfect for student groups to lead discussions. First of all, I think it falls into the “take charge level” in terms of difficulty. We are also not worrying about the readers workshop/literature circle jobs so much as what makes for a quality discussion. Together we generated a bit of a list and I added some. Ultimately we ended up with this document, although the first time around I forgot the specific pages part.

Before early groups were in charge, I email the group to remind them of the general outline, that they can rearrange the room however they want, and offer myself to support however they need.

The first discussion was fine. Several people were absent and the group hadn’t gotten the “find a passage” reminder. They had some good questions ready and wanted to engage the group. I passed them a note part way through to encourage them to find a way to quiet one person to give others room to talk. However, they did not enter into the conversation much themselves. I later realized that this might be them copying what I do when we have a particular type of discussion. I do it because, as I have written about before, when I join in, everyone looks to me. So, before the second group I made sure to clarify that they did not have to be, and should not be, as removed.

The second group went last week. They planned a task to get the group going. It was a good opening option, but the class hung back. I finally jumped in with an answer/passage. This got things rolling. The group did a good job with questions and bigger themes as well as having particular passages that someone read aloud, and we then discussed. In addition, they managed to invite some quieter students into the conversation. Their discussion had legs.

I noticed that the groups have both chosen to have us sit around a big table, which is fine. Both groups have also mostly just lead discussions, no particular activities. So, at the end of discussion two, I reminded folks that an activity for part of the time was an option too.

Today, the third group guided our discussion. They had a theme around which they focussed our attention. It related to the section they were tasked with discussing, but also the earlier sections. The group of three took turns, engaged with the group, and had particular passages ready. The topic led the class to branch out and connect the book to themselves and what is going on in the world. Again, several of the more quiet students joined in.

Needless to say, I am very happy with how things are going. Not only are the students stepping up and coming prepared, I am able to participate in the conversation as another class member (almost). Maybe I can join in because we have other, assigned leaders. I’m not sure. The more I think about it though, I think that there are a number of things that have contributed to our success.

  • We talked about the parts of a discussion and made a list of what the groups were responsible for in advance.
  • I have been able to do a tiny bit of debriefing with the entire class after (sometimes days after) each discussion.
  • The content, in this case The Catcher in the Rye, is at a “student ownership” level.
  • They are having good conversations, which leads to more people being involved, which leads to better conversations etc. It’s a good cycle.

Now if only I did not have to figure out how to grade this.

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