Many teachers will tell you about a “teachable moment”—that magical moment of learning that propels teacher and student forward: an epiphany. I refer to them as “ah-ha” moments, a Zen-like rush of clarity. These can be times when students have a breakthrough in understanding content, or connect the dots by thinking critically. Sometimes as teachers, we forget that we learn alongside our students. Not long ago, I had my own epiphany. Here is the journey of how it happened.
After many unsuccessful attempts in my first two years of teaching of trying to read the same book with students at varying reading levels, I vowed never to read a “class book” in my 8th grade Humanities class again. They were messy! Students were either disengaged or confused. During my third year of teaching, I resolved to only use the tried and true scaffolded literature circles based on student readiness. I admit, the first time I tried them I wasn’t necessarily sold on the idea for a myriad of reasons. They felt forced. More importantly, the students wouldn’t follow the protocol of sharing their findings. Moreover, if students did not read their book, other group members would suffer.
Students also struggled sharing their views on the novel during their meetings. When I envisioned these student meetings, I hoped to find rich discussions beyond the context of plot, setting and characters. Yet, all students did was read their answers from the question sheet and have flat, forced conversations. Nonetheless, the benefits of literature circles outweighed the negatives, and I stuck with them, even though they lived stagnant in my classroom for several years. I knew something needed to change.
This is when three separate, albeit, almost magical, occurrences happened. I felt as if the stars were aligned and were pointing me in an obvious direction. First, I had been planning my project on immigration. Secondly, it was the week of student-led conferences. Lastly, I had just started my differentiation class for the High Tech High Graduate School of Education.
For the Immigration project, my literacy goal for students was to learn about different immigrant stories through fiction. The novels were intentionally chosen to depict various historical and modern day immigrant struggles. There was a mix of reading levels represented. Some of the titles were La Linea by Ann Jaramillo, Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nozario, Uprising by Margret Peterson, Breaking Through by Francisco Jimenez, Ashes of Roses by Mary Jane Auch, Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, and Alligator Bayou by Donna Jo Napoli. When I had done this project in the previous year, I found that my students liked reading their novels, yet did not efficiently complete the dry literature circle assignment sheet.
During each of our student-led conferences, I realized that each student had different talents. Most of them enjoyed the books they had been reading; yet the general feedback was that they did not want to be forced to fill out a sheet. My assumptions were accurate; I knew the sheets were stale. They agreed with me that they were too constricting.
And then it hit me! It is such an obvious idea! I could differentiate the product they need to create to bring with them to their literature circles. I came up with heterogeneous options that gave students the choice of which one they could accomplish. My thinking was that giving students choice on the assignment based on their interests, could help with the struggles with comprehension of the text and could elicit more student engagement.
Here are the ideas I came up with:
My students and I discussed other possible options for the assignments. As a class, they came up with some amazing ideas:
After the initial groan my students offer whenever I give them any assignment, the further I explained the options, the more I began to overhear students discussing which ones they were going to do. They liked the freedom to choose whichever option they preferred. They also were very surprised that they were “allowed” to choose the same option for each literature circle meeting. Another change was how often they meet. In previous literature circle assignments, students met twice per week; now they only meet once. This was done intentionally because I wanted more quality and attention to details put into their assignments. It was time to see the results!
The following week, I noticed a number of changes in student engagement. First, I witnessed somewhat stronger conversations regarding the text. Ultimately, however, I feel that I should put more structure into place for the literature circle meetings. Each student shared their work, but did not connect it to the text as much as I had anticipated. Second, students were held accountable for the reading and completed their options. Options one and two were the most popular choices, with options three and six trailing close behind. No student chose to create option five.
There are a few lingering concerns I have about these assignment. The major one is quality of work. While I gave them a full week, I still feel as though they are waiting until the last minute to get it done, and therefore, the work is not their best quality. I also worry that they will get too caught up in the product and not focus as thoroughly on the reading itself.
While it is important for me to reflect on my initial thoughts, I thought it would be most prudent to get feedback from my students. Here are some of their responses:
“I like the new lit circles because they are very open ended. In the old lit circles, we did not have much choice as to what we could write/create because it was more structured. I like the new ones better because we can do almost whatever we want with the assignment because it is formed around our own opinions and choices. Also, the new-lit circles let us choose our favorite option and elaborate on just one thing. With this set up, we can be very reflective and thorough with that instead of having to worry about 4 different requirements and having to elaborate on something we weren’t as passionate about. One thing I don’t like about our new lit circles is that for some people, it is not structured enough and they can get away with little to no effort at all. Also, I don’t think some people are as motivated to complete the assignment and they may or may not do their part as well as other group members who put more effort into it. I like the way we are doing the lit circles now, though, and for me they are perfect.” —Bonnie
“I think that the options are ok. I liked the other lit circles better because I feel like having to pick an option makes it stressful. I did not know which option to do so I ended up doing my lit circle the day before it was due. I like how we had a structure on the other lit circle.” —Zoe
Judging from the feedback from both students, I believe that these assignments have great potential. I’m excited to see how the project will evolve. I feel as though as I continue to modify and pay attention to student engagement, the literature circle assignments can become even more valuable and accessible for all types of learners at different readiness levels and interests. I have realized a tremendous amount from gaining student feedback through out this project. More importantly, I have learned that it is often not what systems and structures we put forth as teachers, but by just listening to our students, we can have our own “ah-ha” moments.