Posts Tagged ‘student ownership’

So, I’ve been thinking about class activities recently. In particular, I’ve been thinking about activities that are not class discussions about the reading.

I try to mix it up in my English class. We might have several days of general discussion, some passage analysis, but I also try to have actual activities. Recently, we have worked on several webbing activities. I wrote about this the other day. For complicated information, I think showing the interconnections of characters, ideas, themes, really has to be done in a visual way. Plus, it’s the kind of thing that is hard to take notes on when it is just discussed and not created in the course of the discussion. Therefore, the web or chart or diagram serves the additional purpose of being a note-taking model as well.

Another thing I am trying to do is give more responsibility to the students in terms of leading class. (Student responsibility and independence was the topic of #NCTEChat on Sunday 3/19. Great chat. Check the archive for details.) So, earlier in this semester, pairs of students led class. Although they had options, all chose to lead discussions. These discussions went well, mostly. However, I wanted the students to branch out and think about other class activities that would be valuable, that would help the group think more deeply about the writing, the time period, the characters, etc. Having students think about what type of activity would best support deepening their learning about particular ideas seems to be an important step in taking responsibility and ownership of their learning. To move this process along, I decided to put some more parameters on what ‘leading class’ could look like for round two. This time, students had to plan an activity for their group (small groups) that was anything except a straightforward discussion.

In advance, we brainstormed a list of some possibilities. I didn’t just throw them out there with no support. Many of the options were things I had done with the students at some point during the semester. The plan was for each individual to be in charge of one 15 minute activity for his or her group. We were on a tight schedule, but had enough days for all activities. Then, we had a snow day, which messed up our schedule a bit, but was oh so lovely.

One of the students planned for the group to make a web with the four main characters. She had her small group at the board. Two of them wrote and all (mostly) participated. They made a web and had some time to consider what it looked like. I came around to the group a few times. Within about 12-15 minutes they had this.

Web created by students reading Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys


At that point, I joined the conversation and asked some questions to push their thinking beyond creation of the web to analysis of the web. We noticed that the character who, at that point, was trying to distance himself the most, seemed in some ways the center, or at least to have the most linkages. This was interesting to consider.

In another group, a student planned for them to make a Venn diagram of two presidents/characters. These two are part of the story, but not the main protagonists. Making the diagram was an interesting way to compare two seemingly very different people who had the same position and were faced with similar decisions. Here’s what they did.

Student venn diagram for Presidents Johnson and Nixon in relation to Vietnam War in  Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin.

Although there’s not a lot of detail there, what I do notice is that they have really gotten to some key big ideas that I would say are the point. These students are big idea people and history guys. And, while I think if I had asked them about the similarities and differences, they could have gotten there, I am glad that they found a way to get there on their own and thought that this was worth investigating.

What I see in both of these examples is not so much the web itself, but the thinking that the web enabled. There is nothing super impressive about the individual bits of information in either diagram. What is there is the potential to see a bigger picture and a roadmap to get there.

So, I’m still thinking about my commonplace book assignment for my senior English elective students.

So far the students have been collecting their own personal bits and pieces from the book and commenting on what they have collected. I have not necessarily checked these collections, but I do see that everyone has one. Some are on paper, others are Google docs, some are using Google Keep, another is using Evernote. A few times students have volunteered that something we were discussing in class was something that was part of their collections.

By Beinecke Flickr Laboratory [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Image of 17thC commonplace book By Beinecke Flickr Laboratory [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

I gave a test midway through the book and asked (among other things):

Please comment thoughtfully. What types of things have you been noticing so far? What kind of patterns do you see in your notations/collection? What are you looking for? What are you not noticing? What does this say about what you look for in a book?

Here are some examples of what the students said (each paragraph is from a different student):

I have been noticing the theme of mindfulness and the role that doubt plays in the book… I believe that I look mostly at the characters in the books, and how they evolve and how they struggle to achieve their goals…

I have been noticing that Harbach’s style of writing is incredibly descriptive and heavily detailed. His words have a sort of “flow” where the book kind of flies by and the pages begin to “mesh” together and reading does not feel like a chore… I like the highly descriptive tendencies of Harbach’s writing, and I highlight a lot of his most beautiful sentences.

I see patterns like very thoughtful quotes and meaningful quotes throughout my commonplace book…It seems that I look for a book with descriptive and flowing language as well as many meaningful lessons that each character learns.

…In my collection I see a pattern of broad themes not specific details. I think that speaks to me as a reader as well as a writer. The big ideas and overarching themes are what keep me engaged …

In my commonplace book I am noticing that all the characters have their own personal issues which affect their interactions and speech patterns…I am looking for recurring patterns in characters commentary and their development. I am not noticing any characters that feel completely satisfied with their situations. This says that what I look for… is the characters flaws.

Mainly I have been noticing two types of quotes: ones that are inspirational/are advice and ones that have a strong use of literary devices that make the sentence pop out and come alive… After looking at all the quotes I have collected so far, it is clear to me that I enjoy reading books that have a sense of reliability with not boring text, incorporating literary devices to make reading more exciting and have an extra layer to the text.

In my common book, I have a mixture of two main themes. The first theme is with complicated sentences. I love detail, so certain sentences …really interested me… I am looking for sentences that make me want to read them over and over, never getting old of the complicated language… The second main theme in my common book is relationships…

I was really impressed with the patterns that the students found in their collections.

We are now more than half way through the book and I have been leading or at least coming up with the options for what to discuss in class. I’ve been alternating between big picture thematic discussions and closer passage analysis. I often come in with a list of options that we could discuss, more than enough for class, and ask what topic folks want to start with first. Sometimes I ask for suggestions in on online forum on our learning management page. The point being, it’s time to change it up.

After reading all the answers to the commonplace book question I have put the students in groups based on the focus of their noticings. I’m planning to have the groups meet to discuss particular passages that relate to their topic or think about some idea that is particular to their topic. Although I worry they will skim over some important parts, I see that they have real and specific interests that can carry discussions. I need to let them do that.

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.