Diane has been working very hard in the last few months to engage her readers. One of the ways she went about it was through the use of spiderweb discussions. They were rough going at the start, but each week the students reflected and determined what they did well and what they should do moving forward to deepen their conversation and include everyone.
Recently we videotaped one particular book club that was reading the historical fiction novel, Between Shades of Gray. Diane gave the students a very open-ended prompt to think about first, and that was all they needed to begin their discussion.
How do you think the challenges the characters have faced in the book influence their life after deportation?
The discussion was timed and continued until the timer sounded. The teacher documented the discussion by creating the spiderweb while listening. Students can also document discussions as we have done in the past through the fishbowl. The web (shown left) was the one documented during the discussion (above). Notice how students were able to facilitate for themselves and keep the discussion moving.
Compare the discussion with the rubric (below). It is clearly evident that the students were successful in all aspects of the discussion.
I wish we had thought to record their reflections after, it was incredibly reflective of how they have done in the past to now. However, a few things did stand out when asked how they liked book club discussions compared to work they have done in past reading classes. The group quickly lamented the use of teacher-created questions and packets that meant nothing to them. They expressed how much they like to have real conversations about their own thinking that doesn’t feel like a waste of their time.
For more background on the spiderweb discussion, check out previous blog posts.
This year we have book clubs in our sixth, seventh, and eighth grade reading classrooms and a couple coming next year to eighth grade social studies! Book clubs can be incredibly engaging when students have choice and the ability to be self-directed, but it’s certainly not a free for all, and like everything else within the workshop, follows a structure that students understand.
Recently the students in Diane’s eighth grade historical fiction book clubs and Bridget’s seventh grade book clubs have been participating in various spider web discussions that look across multiple texts at common themes, but students can and should participate in smaller discussions once or twice a week with those who are reading the same novel as well.
What does this look like?
In Bridget’s class two different book clubs worked together to accomplish a shorter Spider Web discussion without the need for the teacher to directly supervise, meaning more than one discussion can go on at one time. Because the students have already participated in multiple large group spider web discussions, they are very familiar with what is expected of them whether they are inside or outside of the circle.
Preparation – A Small Amount
Students can be given five minutes to do a quick brain dump in preparation. This is one example of a discussion that requires very little preparation, but offers a lot of choice.
Preparation – Focusing the Stop and Jots
Another method that can be used is dividing up the lenses for reading. Having the students choose the two lenses they will read for that week to determine a new understanding and switching their lenses each week. Students in the club do not have to read using the same lenses. If there are four in a group, see how many they can cover by choosing two lenses each.
When students meet they will have collected enough notes to contribute to the various ways the author is developing character, conveying themes, or having an effect on the reader.
Getting down to business
The students here are reading either the Quarantine series or the Legend series. Those reading Legend sat on the inside to discuss while those reading Quarantine sat on the outside to draw the spider web and collect data on the discussion. Once Legend finished their discussion, they switched places with Quarantine. The total time between groups was 10-12 minutes with a couple minutes given to reflect.
With 20 minutes (5 minutes to prepare, 10-12 minutes to discuss and collect data, and 3-5 minutes to reflect) dedicated to discussion once or twice a week, students are given the time to think deeply about their novel, practice analysis using text evidence, and reinforce communication skills that they are ever so happy to do over a weekly text dependent analysis essay.
And the more opportunities they have to discuss and build on their ideas, the more they develop the skills to write better when it is time.
A lot of modeling, scaffolding, and reflection go into this work, but it is more than worth the time spent. Some teachers feel overwhelmed when they try something new and it doesn’t go perfectly from the beginning, but an instructional coach is a great support to use as you create a structure that is familiar to your students.
Through the use of discussions such as the spider web, notice the teacher-created graphic organizers and packets of questions are not in existence and never were. This work supports the workshop’s use of choice, ownership, community, and structure. It is student-led, student-driven, and results in high engagement and motivation. This is authentic reading that students want…just ask them!
When Bridget started hearing about how Diane and I were experimenting with spider web discussions in order to increase engagement while putting the learning in the students’ hands, she decided to jump in and give it a try.
Why not? It’s the end of the year. What a great time to play around with our craft as teachers when the pressures of testing are not weighing down on top of us. At this point in the year, we are already reflecting and beginning to think about what we can do to better support our students next year.
Bridget was game and so we got to work. The work highlighted in this post is our second week into spiderwebs. I used many of the things Diane and I learned in her classes to get it off the ground last week, but because this is a different population, Bridget and I discovered in the first week that we needed to provide some scaffolding for the seventh graders.
The data showed that the seventh graders quickly understood the idea of talking about their dystopian book club books and staying on task; however, we saw and heard a lot of summarizing and sharing rather than analysis and building on ideas. In order to support the seventh graders this week, we put some supports in place.
Preparing for the discussion
The fast and furious brain dump
Since the students were taking the time this week to stop and jot what they were noticing about the systemic and individual conflicts within the dystopian book clubs, we started this class period with the opportunity to use an open ended prompt that they could write fast and furious in order to dump their thinking onto paper.
This is not formal writing that we worry about our own structure, craft, mechanics and conventions. This type of writing was to dump thinking onto a page in order to begin to process it. We promised we would not show this writing to their writing teachers. The good thing about the fast and furious brain dump is students don’t get hung up on how to write it and can focus just on their own thinking.
The challenge with the way we did the brain dump is there is no “I’m done”. Students write until the timer sounds, and whenever they think they are finished, they ask themselves, “And what else?” and keep going whether its another piece of evidence or starting on a new idea.
After the timer went off, students had an opportunity to share with their shoulder partner some of the ideas they came up with.
While students turned and talked, Bridget and I eavesdropped and had some of the students we listened to share some of the takeaways that we labeled as theme statements.
The image to the right shows some of the theme statements highlighted from one class period.
We had the students have a quick turn and talk about which one of the highlighted themes applied to their novel as well followed by an even quicker fast and furious brain dump on the new theme statement.
For this first class we randomly chose books to join the discussion in the fishbowl, but we found that we got a lot of sharing and summarizing, so we quickly adjusted for the next class, realizing more scaffolding was needed to deepen the conversations.
We decided if students needed more support with deepening conversations, we needed to zero in on one or two of the highlighted statements. We chose one or two based on how many students chose each so that we would have 10-12 students inside the fishbowl for the discussion around common theme(s).
Based on the work Diane and I have done in her classes and last week’s discussions in Bridget’s classes, we felt that students would still benefit from the fishbowl as they learn together to strengthen discussions.
Students not inside the fishbowl listen and collect data to provide feedback for growth as described in this previous post.
What did it look like?
After each discussion, students who collected data had time to turn and talk about what they noticed before the class had a chance to reflect on what went well and what they need to do moving forward.
Time for Reflection
It’s imperative that students have the time to reflect on what they think went well and what they can do moving forward to grow.
A quick story about the importance of reflection
Last week, which was the first day of a spider web discussion in Bridget’s class, the students had 5 minutes for their fast and furious brain dump. In fifth period the ideas were pouring quickly into reader’s notebooks in the form of charts, diagrams, long writes, and I was giddy with excitement. With so many ideas I was sure this first discussion would be A-MAZ-ING!
When it was time to begin, I set the timer for 6 minutes and then…
they said nothing!
They literally said nothing for 6 painful minutes inside the fishbowl while people on the outside, ready to collect data, sat and waited for anything, but nothing happened.
In the reflection they were all very vocal, both inside and outside the fishbowl. They brainstormed all these reasons why they did not start and what they could do in the future. So we gave them the opportunity to redeem themselves; the next day I showed up and we tried again. This time we had 6 minutes of amazing conversation with lots of student prompting, which is what they decided they needed from each other to feel comfortable.
This side story is to illustrate the importance of reflection and to allow a space where students can fail but grow from those experiences. Bridget and I were dying inside, wanting so badly to save them from themselves during that initial 6 minutes of silence, but I am confident that through their reflection, which highlighted how insecure they felt and what they could do to support each other, they gained more than if we had thrown them a lifeboat.
One reflecting discussion
A note about choice with scaffolding
One of the tenets of the workshop model is not only student voice and agency but also choice. Currently Bridget’s students are in a dystopian book club unit that offers 14 different engaging series to choose from including, Shatter Me, Darkest Minds, The Maze Runner, Gone, The Loners, The Uglies, The Selection, Matched, and The Missing just to name a few. Clubs could be as small as 2 and as large as 6 to ensure that students have choice.
For our discussion we also allow for choice within the fast and furious brain dump by keeping the prompt open-ended, again allowing students to write about what they have been noticing and their personal takeaways.
Even though we decided to highlight and further explore some common themes we were noticing, the list was generated by the students, meaning each class had a different list, and the discussion was around 1-2 of those student-generated common themes, again chosen by the students to further explore.
At no time did the teachers decide upon the theme statements for students, which meant each class’s discussion was very different because they were based on what students chose to explore. Student choice amps up the engagement and buy in, but also allows students to take ownership and not rely on teachers to make decisions for them.
It is especially challenging for students to have a spiderweb discussion while reading so many different books, but by focusing on common themes within the genre, students not only get to explore how they play out in other books but also get interested in books within the genre that they might want to choose later for independent reading.
In the future, I do want to share one club’s discussion as an example.
I look forward to next week and seeing how students continue to grow!
Master teacher—two words that have been on my mind lately making me wonder.
What exactly is a master teacher? Does this teacher have a certain number of years under their belt? Or maybe it’s dependent on education. Does a master’s degree certify a teacher as a master? Diane and I both have many years of experience, a master’s degree, multiple certifications, and we have racked up an incredible number of post-graduate hours. Are we master teachers?
Even after years of experience, continued education, professional development and reading, we are always learning, growing, and cultivating our craft. In our profession, I truly believe that master teacher is not a destination, where one day we will land, but a realization that there is no end to our learning and growing. Instead, master teachers are continuously spiraling through Hall and Simeral’s Continuum of Self-Reflection that includes the stages of unaware, conscious, action, and refinement.
Our recent collaborative efforts brought us to waning student engagement. Diane asked me to come in and collect data on her students during recent mini lessons. Looking at the data, we were able to discover the need for minor tweaks and adjustments, but the most recent tweak brought us to a screeching halt. While Diane was doing a turn and talk refresher lesson, the engagement spiked, but when she had the students reflect afterwards, we heard again and again that students were bored talking about what their teacher told them to talk about. That’s when it hit us—Diane and I were not practicing what we preach!
We recently ran part of a professional development day at our local intermediate unit, so the concept was fresh on our minds. We had the group participate in a spider web discussion, a method that comes from the work of Alexis Wiggins where students determine what they will discuss. Just like that, Diane and I realized that while we were concerned about waning student engagement, we were really sitting in the unaware stage of the continuum and suddenly we were thrown into the second stage, the conscious stage.
That’s when we realized we often present to teachers using spider web discussions—putting our learners in the driver’s seat. After every presentation, we are thanked time and time again by teachers who suddenly feel empowered to put their students in the driver’s seat as well. So why were we not using this same tool with students? There’s no easy answer, but it was apparent that we needed to roll up our sleeves and get to work.
This new awakening brought me back to thinking about the master teacher. It is the master teacher who realizes we are never going to be forever in the stage of refinement—we will always have something to learn and so much to improve. I, for one, think our students deserve to have teachers who are masters of self-reflection and learning.
We are now on a new journey, one that will foster student engagement. Our goal is to share our discoveries—through reflective practice and learning—along the way.