My syllabus is the first indication of the radical shift that has occurred in my classroom and my thinking. First, it’s posted on my wiki and not on a piece of paper. With a new semester beginning this week, I’ve gone paperless, which will be no small feat to accomplish, considering I’m not a 1:1 classroom. Secondly, is the content. When I reread the syllabus for my ELA 10B, I was literally shocked at what I had considered literacy. I know at one point I had been satisfied with the rigor of the program I offered. Re-reading it, it pales in comparison to what National Council of English Teachers considers literate.
My Language Arts class looks and feels very different than other semesters. The most noticeable difference is the lack of notes that I’m giving. Normally, when starting our unit on the Holocaust, we would spend several days taking notes, so my students would have an adequate background of the events that coalesced into the Holocaust. How else would they know all of this, if I didn’t tell them?
Now that I teach skills instead of content, my students are researching the events leading up to, and including, the Holocaust. As a class we’re using their research to create a visual timeline on Dipity. Once finished, it will be embedded on our wiki. It’s slower for them to do the research, than for me to give notes that they passively write down, then forget. But it’s much more interesting to hear them talk, and debate, about what they think is important.
We have tech problems to deal with, of course. But doing it this way also allows me to see their ability to problem solve and what they consider the significant events leading to the Holocaust.
In the past, I’ve done the typical novel study and chapter questions. To be honest, my main motivation for having questions was accountability for reading the novel. Not a great reason. In years past, each novel has had its own set of questions that was handed in each week to be marked. Do you have any idea how time consuming it is to mark 4 sets of questions? But the end of our unit, I’d had enough of the whole thing. So this semester it’s not happening, at least not in the same way.
In my class I have students who would be considered high achievers, some who are average, several modified, a couple of alt. ed students, and 3 who are exchange students, one having very little English. In total, my students will be reading from five different books, ranging from Night, to Anne Frank, to Number the Stars. However, all have the same questions.
How? Because the questions deal with understanding each book’s protagonist, their motivations and the way the events of the Holocaust shape and affect the characters. It gives us a glimpse into the human heart.
Each week my students are responsible to read a certain portion of the book. Some weeks they will meet in homogenous groups with others who have read the same book. They will discuss the questions they have been given, and share observations, and hopefully challenge each other’s ideas.
Other weeks, they will meet in heterogenous groups with students who have read books different from theirs. They will still discuss the questions, but they will need to know their characters well enough to be able to explain what they are like to their group, listen for similarities and differences between characters, and infer why they might exist.
The questions are a framework for discussion to happen, since I doubt many have the skills, at this point, to carry the conversation on their own. And so, until they do, I will help them. From my experience, this is a skill that they will struggle with at first. Most of our schools don’t tend to create independent thinkers who can critically evaluate situations. They’ll learn.
Today before picking up our novels, one of my students put up her hand and said, “Yesterday, after school, I went to the library and picked up Night. I read it all last night. Now what should I do?” Well, read another one. I think this student has set the tone for the semester. I’m guessing that at least 1/3 of this class will read more than one of the chosen Holocaust novels.
I want my students to love books, not worry about questions. And while I think it’s important for my students to think deeply, I’m not sure the traditional way Q & A has been used is the way to do it. I want my students to talk more and write less, at least in this regards. I want them to hear how others support their opinions. I want them to be aware of the inferences they make from what may seem to be extraneous information. And I want more open discussion, without necessarily any right or wrong answers.
To be honest, when I read a great book, or view a great movie, my first thought isn’t to sit down with a friend and say, “Okay, so what did you think was the main theme?” I don’t. Maybe the fact that I don’t, is a failure on my part as an English teacher. Instead, I talk about the complexity of characters, and plot, the richness of language, or my favourite parts of the story. What made me laugh. What made me cry. I want my students to experience this with the books they read. And I wonder if they would read more, if it looked differently.
So I’ve changed how I’m doing things this semester. It may not be a perfect solution, but it’s the one I have, for now.
The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. Ursula LeGuin
photo courtesy of flickr cc: lovestruck