In mid-December, Heidi and I met with our mentor, Carol, who introduced the continuum of self-reflection. Upon reviewing the different stages, we began a conversation about meeting teachers where they are on the continuum and how even teachers who fall under the refinement stage can still grow and continue to build on their skill set. Through that conversation, I decided that I wanted to focus on increasing student engagement.
Heidi and Carol visited the class where I noticed the most students that were disengaged. It was noted that students were struggling with something as simple as the turn and talk strategy as well as transitioning from the active engagement part of the lesson to the independent practice. At that point, students were seated with book club partners, but they were not necessarily comfortable talking with them. This led to a lesson where I revisited how to have a powerful turn and talk discussion and students had the opportunity to practice that strategy. Heidi suggested having students turn and talk to explain the directions before independent practice to help with that transition. After the lesson, we spoke about what Heidi and Carol observed. Students showed some improvement, but we knew there were more strategies I could implement that could be more successful.
We were just closing out our unit on nonfiction book clubs and starting historical fiction book clubs. At our regional meeting, Heidi participated in a session called “Maker ELA” where students represent their ideas using different items in a brown bag, such as, playdoh, paper clips, and popsicle sticks. Heidi was eager to try it out and came up with an idea of having students represent the struggles and issues faced by people during the time periods that our historical fiction books covered. Students were introduced to each time period by viewing videos of that era and from there they created their visual representations. To say this project was a success would be an understatement. Students who are normally reluctant to participate were actively engaged and having fun with it.
Heidi and I had learned a discussion strategy called a “spider web” discussion at a PIIC meeting last year that we had used when presenting at our local and regional meetings. Additionally, I had used this strategy last year in my reading class and my students loved it. We planned our first spider web discussion where students discussed the adversity the characters faced in their books and how they responded. At the end of the discussion, we asked students what they thought went well and what could be improved on. Their suggestions were thoughtful and were used to create the norms for the next spider web discussion.
Before we began the next spider web discussion, we revisited the discussion expectations and suggestions given by students. One of those suggestions was to make the discussion topic debatable. Students responded to a short write that had them choose the statement that they agreed with and support it with evidence from their historical fiction book. Although, more students participated and seemed more engaged, there were students who were off topic and disruptive. My mentor, Carol, developed a key to track students’ involvement in the discussion and also mentioned that our next discussion should be arranged as a fish bowl to give students an opportunity to track the discussion. These ideas drove our planning for the next spider web discussion.
The classroom was organized so that there was a small circle of desks with WITTMYST written across the top as a reminder that students should always support their response with evidence from the text. Before students participated in the next spider web discussion, they responded to a short write prompt and shared their response with their turn and talk partner. Students reading about the holocaust were selected to be in the fishbowl while the students on the outside were tracking the conversation. I revisited the expectations and norms created by students and the conversation among the students began. It was evident that the strategies put in place had an impact on the success of the discussion.
After reviewing the data collected, we noticed that the discussions in every class showed growth, some more significant than others. There was an increase in evidence provided to support opinions, more students participated, and students took more risks in an effort to connect their ideas from their books to their own lives. However, there is still growth to be made, and I will use the data to plan another spider web discussion.
Reflective teaching has been a game changer for me and how I approach planning and instruction. The feedback from students regarding the discussions and highly engaging lessons we implemented was enlightening. I realized how important it is to ask my students for feedback, reflect on my own teaching and effectiveness, and plan accordingly. We started this year with the Reading Units of Study and while the texts and strategies suggested were highly engaging, I was finding it was easy to get stuck in a monotonous cycle of what my students were describing as boring. Because it was the first year of implementation, I was afraid to deviate from the lessons, but once I knew how my fears were impacting student engagement, I quickly accepted support and felt more comfortable bringing in effective engagement strategies that do work well in a workshop classroom but are not necessarily shared in the narrative of the Units of Study.
From my initial meeting with Heidi and Carol, I presented the idea of increasing engagement as an opportunity for growth. Throughout the entire planning process and implementation, we had conversations about ideas, what was working, and what could be modified. The outcome revealed that reflection is the key to growth and transformation. In order to continue growing as an educator and provide lessons that are powerful and engaging, I will maintain the habit of constant reflection to drive planning and instruction.