On Thursday we started the class with a read aloud of Gary Soto’s short story, “Seventh Grade”. The sixth graders, who are anticipating their move to middle school in a few months, loved the story about a boy named Victor who was starting his first day of school in seventh grade.
After the read aloud, students turned and talked about what the story was about while I listened in. Since they had a solid understanding of the events, I presented the teaching point.
Then using the text, I modeled by looking through the lens of inner thinking.
I then asked partnerships to make their plan for the day. They could choose to examine the text through the lens of Victor’s actions or through Victor’s speech. Once partnerships had a plan they got to work using one color to underline all evidence of either speech or actions and looking closely to find patterns.
On the second day partnerships turned and talked about other possible lenses and then chose a second lens to look through from the list.
The sixth graders did amazing work in their partnerships. While they worked, their teacher and I moved about the room sitting with partnerships to coach them through the strategy.
We were flexible with each partnership. Some were only able to accomplish one lens, many two lenses, but one partnership got the hang of it quickly and was able to practice looking through three lenses by the time we finished day 2. All partnerships finished day 2 with more of an understanding of the strategy for analysis.
Notice that students did not need to write the TDA to show their thinking. This is HARD work and HEAVY lifting for the students. Before they can write TDA essays, they need the time to gain their confidence in using the strategy for analysis.
A lot of modeling of the strategy
A lot of time practicing using the strategy in partnerships
A lot of time being coached through the strategy
A lot of choice in what they are looking closely for
A lot of time, opportunities, choice, and talk to gain confidence
Notice the students engage with the text by doing all of their work on the text. They do not need graphic organizers created for them or worksheets to fill out. They need the strategy, the text, their partner, choice, modeling, and coaching.
On Tuesday we will put “Seventh Grade” aside and look at a new text. I am so excited to see how they tackle this next short story with confidence!
Let me start with a quick flashback and confession. When I came back to teaching after having my kids, I was slightly out of touch. I had kids that ranged from two to seven and I was busy. My reading was limited to what I had to read for continuing education classes, self-help books like how to help my child with ADHD, and children’s bedtime stories. So when my students were asking if I liked Hunger Games or Twilight, two big series at the time, I was at a loss. I noticed that everything kids asked me about, I had the same response, “I haven’t read that yet.” And I’m going to be honest with you, I was not going to read it because I was too busy. And that’s what I hear so often from so many teachers, “I just don’t have time to read.” And I get it.
What I noticed was my students were reading less and less as I was less and less in touch. And let’s be real…why would kids read when even their reading teacher isn’t reading? The older kids get, and especially in grades sixth through eighth, the more they despise the do–as-I-say-and-not-as-I-do-approach. So if the adults around them are not reading, why should they? It’s clearly not important, right?
Fast forward a few years and my oldest, a very strong reader, was starting fourth grade. He was also starting to read books that were on my middle school classroom library shelves. I wanted to be able to talk about books with him, so we started reading one series after the other at the same time. It started with Among the Hidden, then The Hunger Games (our favorite) before moving on to Divergent and then The Fifth Wave. But while my son and I read each series and talked about them, I noticed that I was having more and more conversations with kids at school about these same books and we were all excited about it. I was having trouble keeping those books on the shelves and started adding more and more because my students were reading more and more, and before I knew it, I was reading their recommendations too.
Without even realizing it at first, I had so many readers who were devouring books, and it was because I was reading. No incentive nor connection to grade motivated students to read more than having a teacher who was a reader, and I think there are several reasons why.
By just reading I had a common ground to talk to kids. If I was reading something like The Cellar I would talk about how much this book hooked me because it was similar to an episode I might see on the television show Criminal Minds, which is a series I love. It was a dark, twisted, fast-paced psychological thriller. Kids were then starting to talk to me about the type of television show or movie that was similar to their books, so when I came across kids who didn’t read because let’s face it, they just had not found the right book yet, I could ask, “So what types of movies and television shows do you watch?” and go from there.
By just reading I was experiencing the same struggles as kids. You think grown ups are busy? Kids are busy too! They have school, after school activities, family obligations, distractions, and disruptions in the home too. I started paying attention to those struggles and simply talking to kids about it. I would tell them for example, “Last night I was so sucked into scrolling through Twitter and Facebook, and I just didn’t feel like reading my book. I tried anyway, but I’d read a page and then turn on my phone to scroll again, and I was just not getting my reading in. I noticed this is happening to me a lot…I’m just procrastinating. So I set my timer for 20 minutes and told myself I am not allowed to touch my phone until the timer goes off and I read. It worked. I think when I notice I’m procrastinating and wasting time on social media, I need to remind myself to set a timer and keep increasing the time to get back to my reading goals.” You know what I found out? Kids respect that. They respect the honesty about real struggles because it’s not always easy to read, but I would share my struggles and become a model for coming up with strategies for those struggles. Kids think reading just comes easy to some. It doesn’t. We all face struggles and have to use strategies to overcome them. Pay attention to the struggles and talk about them!
By just reading I became a mirror for what I expect. We can’t tell kids how important it is to read and then not read ourselves. Yes, there are a ton of benefits that our kids need academically including the development of vocabulary, background knowledge, inferring and analysis skills, but they also need the development of empathy that we we get from reading about characters who live different lives with different struggles that we may not experience ourselves but others in our community may. And guess what? Grown ups need that too! But so long as kids see that reading is a chore they have to do and the grown ups can say they are too busy or they don’t like it, then we will never be able to get more than a small population to be readers.
Forgive me while I stand on my soapbox a bit longer.
So where am I going with this? Well, I am proposing, as educators, we become the mirror. Not just reading teachers…all of us. We put our excuses away and we read. We know that consistent, independent reading is a HUGE factor in academic success. But to make real change, we need to start with ourselves and let it grow from there.
I’ve been thinking of some starting ideas. What if every teacher advertised what they are reading. Let the kids call you out when you are spending too long with that same book! Actually sometimes when I just don’t feel like it, I remember that I share my reading with kids. They know what I am reading, and I can’t stay stuck in a book too long. That alone gets my butt moving. So what does that look like?
What if we all posted our current reads. I’m currently reading two books. One I listen to in the car on Audible while I drive my kids here, there, and everywhere. And the other I read most nights (I’m not perfect) before I go to bed.
What if we shared great reads with kids in person or even through Twitter?
Imagine being able to just type in a hashtag like #Snyderowlsread or #Shafersharksread and getting book recommendations. This is something kids can do too!
I challenge all of us to take the challenge and become the mirror. I know from experience that the more we read, advertise, and share, the more we hook students. So imagine if this was bigger than just a few teachers. Imagine what could happen if as a staff we all took the challenge.
It all starts with us. We are teachers. We teach, we inspire, we motivate, we encourage, and we are so much more effective when we are the models for what we expect.
So, I will step down off my soapbox, but I have one question…
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!