Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Once Upon a Time: Student-Run Book Groups

Upon returning to middle school last year, after some time in a self-contained fifth grade classroom, there was one challenge that I observed. In middle school, students are placed in honors (pre-AP) classes or in on-grade level classes. What I truly missed was the ability for students on different places in their learning journey to learn from one another. My on-level group was not being afforded the opportunity to participate in literary discussions where there was deep analysis coupled with life applications. They didn't have student models in the classroom who were extremely adept in writing, editing, and communicating ideas using a broad vocabulary. Conversely, the students in my honors classes were being denied the opportunity to break down and articulate their learning so that another person could learn from their expertise...this "why" is a vital part of the learning process. Yes, my students were connected via digital means such as their blog, but that one-on-one, synchronous conversation was lacking. Then a light bulb went off. The other full time 6th grade ELA teacher, Lindsay Kilgore, had a reverse schedule. When I had an honors class, she had an on-level class and vice versa. After a little celebration that scheduling worked in our favor, we began looking at our students' interest and needs.

We noticed that our students this year were really interested in fantasy books and narrative writing. Also our students really enjoyed our A Christmas Carol unit, their first foray into classic literature. Couple that with a local production company doing a performance of Alice in Wonderland, our fairy tale unit was born. Now, to be truthfully honest, I never thought I would be doing a fairy tale unit with my middle schoolers. This time last year, we were doing a huge mystery unit designed by my students. [Student Motivation: It's No Mystery and Saying Yes: Making Their Ideas Reality]. However, I've come to expect that no two years will be the same because no two groups of students are the same.

For this fairy tale unit, we decided that we wanted to provide students with plenty of voice and choice. Since we had a much more diverse population by joining our two classes, we knew we would need to provide some chapter books for them to select from with an option to make another choice on their own. I reached out to my PLN for suggestions on middle level reader fairy tale books (or books write fairy tale elements). After a lot of marathon reading, the books that we settled upon were Cinder by Marissa Meyers, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone/Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle, A Tale Dark and Grimm/Through a Glass Grimmly by Adam Gidwitz, Far Far Away by Tom McNeal, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. When reading, we looked for challenging and exciting text that would interest a wide range of students. We wanted to break the Disney stereotype of fairy tales and really provide our students with texts that brought in strong themes, multiple cultures, history, and strong protagonists. 

When we presented these to students, we themed this entire unit as travel packages, complete with their travel consultant "Faire E. Wiing." Students made choices and then Lindsay and I set about creating diverse, heterogeneous groups a.k.a. travel companions for their adventure. Before students met in their groups, each one of us took a reading survey to gain insight about our specific reading strengths, challenges, likes, and dislikes. Lindsay and I modeled with one another how to be transparent in a conversation with others. Then our students met together and shared with their groups their reading identity with their new book group. As Lindsay and I travelled around listening to their conversations, we realize how transparent they were being with one another. We realized that this was a crucial part of laying the foundation for the success of the next five weeks.

Once our students got to know one another, they were given the task of setting their group norms. They outlined exactly what they expected of one another on their adventure. What will our discussions look like? How will we treat one another? How will be address any challenges? This opened students up to transparently sharing their apprehensions about working with students with whom they were unfamiliar. They had crucial conversations and addressed all of these while putting it in writing as a reminder throughout the five week journey.

Then students received a calendar. Using their books, they set goals and identified when they would hold a weekly synchronous conversation. It was up to each group how much they read each time they met. The only requirements that we gave them were the date of completion for their reading and that they had to discuss their book at least once a week. With these foundations in place, the student groups set off with their plan and an exciting adventure in hand.

Students were given a little over three hours a week to work together. Lindsay and I would rotate through the groups to observe and listen to their discussion. However, what we quickly learned was that they had taken ownership over their reading groups. They wouldn't stop and expect us to take over the discussion. Our readers would ask us questions to draw us into their discussions. It was thrilling to see them work through challenges, grow as readers and communicators, and totally drive their learning. Students who struggled to get through a couple of pages in a book, tore through three-hundred page books and wanted to keep going. (We intentionally chose books that were a part of a series or from a author who had a lot of other books.)

In total, these book groups impacted about one-hundred sixty students. In five weeks, we only had to step in with two students. After an honest conversation with each of these individuals, we guided them into finding a way to address their concerns and rejoining the group as a productive member.

As a classroom teacher, it's exciting to see the success that students reach when they are empowered to make choices about their learning. The ultimate compliment that we received was when students asked when we could do this again. They built new friendships, grew as learners, and they were hungry for more. For me and Lindsay, that endorsement was our "happily ever after" and like the kids...we can't wait for our next adventure. 

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