Category Archives: Unit Plan

Book Club Toolkit: Meeting Protocol

This post describes some of the policies and procedures of the book club, originally described in this earlier post.

Lucky for us, both of our 10th grade classes are staffed by Student Assistant Teachers, who had experienced the book club before, either as freshmen or seniors with Alexa Dunn or Matt Kay.

They gave us a lot of pointers in the planning process, including:

  • Let students set their own pace for reading (but provide guidance to keep them moving)
  • Make sure there’s follow up for the job sheets, or else people will slack (they were emphatic about this!
  • Don’t let the meetings drag on — if it feels like groups are wrapping up, end the session, even if it’s less time than you expected.
  • Keep computer use to a minimum — as evidenced in the photo, one student took notes on their laptop, but everybody else was on paper. This prevented the screen-as-shield effect on discussion.

Because many of our students had participated in book club last year, the introduction went smoothly. We suggested a “median” number of pages they would need to read if they wanted to move at a steady pace, and then students quickly got down to business selecting jobs and deciding on their page goals for the first meeting.

When the meetings happened, here are some unexpected results:

  • Students did police each other to get the work done, but not until after the first or second meeting — when it really sank in that a group was crippled if somebody came to the meeting empty handed.
  • After four meetings, some groups requested flexibility in how they prepared. One group elected to write letters to the main character. Another group chose to finish the book faster, and then watched the movie version for the last two meetings. We always allowed this.
  • Groups sometimes explored a particular theory over multiple meetings. This was great — each meeting allowed them to add new data that confirmed / refuted their idea. (Two groups reading “Passing” became especially focused on the possible gay subtext in the novel — and were then thrilled to see that they weren’t the only critics with that theory.)

Because they only had two options, several students (and sometimes an entire group) did not “love” their books. But the culture of the book club kept them more tuned in than they would have been otherwise–and also gave them space to discuss why they didn’t love it in a critical, productive way.

After the first couple of meetings, we introduced one more element, namely an introduction to literary theory and applying those “lenses” to their book club. More on that later.

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Book Club Toolkit

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The wish for book clubs in my 10th grade classes came out of a mid-year survey. Students reported that they were enjoying picking their own books, but that they missed being able to have class discussions about their reading. (We did read short stories and essays in class, but it’s not quite the same.) 

To those ends, we decided to give our students fewer choices than you would for a typical book club. They could read either “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston, or “Passing” by Nella Larsen. Both were required titles in last year’s curriculum. We gave them time in class to physically browse both titles, and then wrote down who picked what in order to place them in groups of four.

The next day, we revealed the groupings and then gave them the basic instructions.. Click on the role titles for the job sheets.

Welcome to your Book Club!

You club will be meeting twice a week: on Mondays and Wednesdays. There will be seven meetings starting Thursday, Feb. 20th (one time only) and ending Wednesday, March 12.

Before each meeting, you must…

1. Decide on your page assignment before you meet. If the readings were divided evenly, Passing would read 19 pages between meetings, and Their Eyes Were Watching God would read 27 pages between meetings. Keep this in mind when making your schedule!

2. Pick Roles via the worksheets. There are four possible roles right now:

Questioner, Note-Taker, Clarifier, and Connector.

If your group has fewer than 4 people, make sure you have a questioner and note-taker, they’re required! If your group has more than 4 people, you can double up on clarifier and/or connector.

3. Read and prepare for your role. Before the day of the meeting, you must complete the reading, as well as fill out the worksheet to prep. (Note-takers are the exception: they take notes during and after the meeting instead!)

During the meeting, you must…

1. Fill your role, but mix it up too. Book club will run at least 20 minutes each time you meet. Don’t just go around in a circle and spend 5 minutes on each role. A good group contributes spontaneously and comes up with new ideas on the spot!

2. Play devil’s advocate when needed. If everybody is agreeing, don’t be afraid to try out the opposing viewpoint. You never know where it might take you!

3. Cooperate. It’s a club, not a war!

Additional notes

1. You must play each role at least once. Once you have tried every role, you may repeat.

2. You may do independent reading alongside your book club book. The assigned reading may not get you to 30min/night 5x a week. Just make sure you get your book club reading done first! We will still have reading journals, so you can tell us about either book in the journal.

3. If you’re struggling, read with a partner! Read out loud to each other, review before class. And try listening to the audio as well — both are posted on canvas.

Book clubs are a common practice, including at SLA, and I take zero credit for any of these ideas. Our resident book club expert is Alexa Dunn — everybody who adopts the practice goes to her for materials and advice! After consulting with her and Matt Kay, I figured out a way for book clubs to work in my independent reading setting.

More on how it went in a later post.

EduCon Session: Reading Writing Workshop Gone Digital

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Sometime last summer, I decided to set my sophomore English students free.

Well, that’s not entirely true–it started earlier than that. Heather Hurst put the thought in my head last year, when I got to read her dissertation based on research in my classroom and it blew my mind a little bit. She had already used a workshop model back when she was a classroom teacher, which made it seem less impossible to me.

And then I spent a couple of weeks communing with Nancie Atwell’s “In The MIddle,” which, as Lehmann put it to me sometime this fall, is the book that everybody reads in graduate school, thinks it has great ideas, and then shelves it in favor of a more traditional approach.

That was me for five whole years. I was exactly like Atwell herself, before she transitioned into the workshop model. And her assessment of that life rang true to me: “I didn’t learn in my classroom. I tended my creation.”

So, after a lot of hard thinking (like, the furrowed-brow-this-hurts-my-brain kind) and sketching out of routines based on the “In the Middle” model, I decided to take the plunge. On the first day of class, I told my sophomores:

This is going to be a grand experiment that we embark on together.

Here are the next four things I told them:

  1. This year, you will read what inspires you and write about what moves you.
  2. We (Ms. Pahomov, Mr. Kolouch, and your Student Assistant Teacher) are here to instruct and support…
  3. …But you are in charge of your own learning and improving as a writer and reader.
  4. Constant Check-ins = more feedback and help when you are learning, instead of when the project’s done.

Of course, I meant to blog our progress starting in September… but now, in January, I’m happy to report that we are still living in (and loving) reading writing workshop.

If you had told me even two years ago that I would be doing this, I would have unequivocally responded: you are crazy.  And yet, here we are. Students participate in independent reading full time. They contribute pieces of writing to their portfolio each quarter, and they decide what genres and topics to tackle. I get to give more individualized, formative feedback that students actually use. More than ever before, I can say that I really know my kids.

Interested in learning more?

A whole group of us will be talking about this “grand experiment” during our EduCon Session this coming Sunday, January 26th at 10:30 AM Eastern. We encourage you to join us in person, if you are attending live, or via the live stream that will go out via the website.

Additionally, we would love to hear what your particular questions or areas of interest are for our presentation. Here are two questions we plan on addressing so far:

  • How do you scale this model for a public school classroom of 30+ students, and an overall grading load of 120+ students? (The workshop model is often seen as viable only in a smaller private-school setting.)
  • How do you blend digital and analog tools to make the model more meaningful and efficient for students? (The most recent edition of Atwell’s book is from 1998, so reference to technology is minimal–I think there’s a mention of having students word process their final drafts.)

Feel free to send us your thoughts in advance, via this site or the EduCon write up. Or just show up and join in the conversation!

Truth and Storytelling: The essentials from “Sweetheart.”

I had big plans to post some back to school activities on this blog. Now it’s October.

But! Here’s an activity that we did as a part of our Truth and Storytelling Unit via “The Things They Carried.”

After reading the chapter “Sweetheart of The Song Tra Bong,” students had figure out the main plot points of the story, but by making it “universal” — no mention of the characters or setting, just some generic titles. We used “Person A” and “Person B” for Mark Fossie and Maryanne.

We then compared notes and made an outline for the class. One of them looked like this:

sweetheart storytelling

Is this a war story? No. This is a break-up story.

After we play with that a little bit (movie version: “I’ve grown, you’ve stayed the same” and “It’s not you, it’s me”) it’s time for the next step:

Based on our “universal story” version of “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” discussed in class, it is your task to write a remix of that story. The basic conflicts, events, and resolution must stay the same, but the topical situation (names, places, dates, details) must change.

Start by coming up with a new setting for the story, and decide who or what the characters will be. (Hint: some of the most creative versions will have non-human characters.) Then tell the story of the break-up!

We got a crazy range this year, as always — students being transferred to different schools, a hamburger and ketchup being separated when the meat needs to go in the fridge, and a Nike sneaker upset when it sees its partner with a necklace of shoelaces dangling from its neck. (Love that reference.)

O’Brien’s focus on storytelling makes this activity especially illuminating, but you could do it with any text. Boil it down and then start again from there.

We’re all telling the same story, so how are you going to make yours good?

 

Project Based Learning, Session 4

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Most of this session was centered around Brad Latimer, Math teacher at SLA. He shared a downloadable collection of lesson plans and materials with us, which included project descriptions and rubrics for both Algebra 2 and Calculus projects. And then we peppered him with questions for an hour and a half.

What makes group work happen?

  • Classroom set-up matters. In Brad’s class, students are always in pods of 4 or 5 except when quizzing. At the start of a regular class, they work on their warm-up in groups, and are also assigned to occasionally present the warm-up in those groups. They are used to doing structured class work and presentations all year, so getting into group projects is less of a challenge. By the time they get into projects, they know who they do and don’t work well with.
  • You have the flexibility to both have students pick their own groups and pick for them.

How do you deal with the group work “disasters?”

  • At the first day of a project, he asks students: Have you ever done a group project? Have you ever worked in a group where someone hasn’t carried their weight? Students then talk about what makes a good partner.

Do your projects have clear roles for each group member?

  • The short answer: Sometimes. Most of the time he lets people figure out their own roles, so they figure out how to best work together.
  • You can be surprised about what tasks might “wake up” a student, so that can be an advantage to not assigning roles.
  • It can be great to have a project that relies on individual work that is then combined into a group final product / presentation. There’s more interdependence.
  • But there’s also a struggle between giving students independent autonomy and also getting them to deeply collaborate with each other. Too much freedom can encourage students to just create in separate bubbles and slap it together at the end, without integrating and proofing their work.
  • For one project, Brad had an 80/20 point value split for group/individual points in a project — so students were individually motivated, but the majority of the grade still relies on the group project.
  • From Jaimie: One way to help track progress is to have students self-assess on a chart each day: what do they think the goal was, and how well did they meet it during that class? The teacher can then do a quick check-plus check-minus on the day. This also becomes a part of their process grade for the project, so they are motivated to hold on to it.

How do you scaffold students who are new to group work?

  • Very, very carefully and with repetition!
  • For freshmen, big projects usually have a clear deadline after each class of work. Sometimes the master plan for the project isn’t even revealed until halfway through the work (or even later) to prevent students from the “sticker shock” of a big project that they think is insurmountable.

What would you do differently? What are project based traps?

  • Try to give out the rubric quickly with the project description. THey need to see exactly how it’s going to be scored and what the point breakdown is.
  • Break the project down into intermediate deadlines.
  • There is a lot to be said about showing examples from previous years. There are different ways to do this — share it briefly, let them peruse for a set period of time, or longer, but let them know you know it well.
  • Do the project yourself!
  • Be flexible with changing projects mid-stream. Or seeing a glimmer of good work for the next round of pojrects. Or tossing one when it really didn’t work for students.
  • Let students pick three students they’re interested in working with, and the option of a “no go” list for people that would be bad matches. This gives them freedom while also giving you the ability to control for productive groups.

Next week, we will be sharing and peer reviewing our draft lesson plans.

Related posts: Project Based Learning, Sesson 1 / Session 2 / Session 3

Project Based Learning, Session 2

Photo on 2013-02-20 at 18.10Going into the session, folks had been asked to brainstorm what unit they would like to transform or create in the project-based framework, and maybe write a couple of essential questions that they thought would be useful.

Stuff From This Week

We looked at a few documents outlining key ideas behind Understanding By Design, including the “six facets of understanding” described below. People were asked to discuss: which of these are you already hitting in your classroom? Which are eluding you and/or your students?

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Next up, we looked at a cheat sheet of sorts — “question starters based on the six facets of understanding.” You can find the full list in this document; here’s a sampling:

Explanation

  • Who_________?  What__________?     When _________?     How________?     Why_______?
  • What is the key concept/idea in ____________________________________________?
  • What might happen if _______________________________________________________?
  • What are common misconceptions about _______________________________________?

Interpretation

  • How is _______________________like ________________________(analogy/metaphor)?
  • How does _____________________________________________________relate to me/us?
  • So what? Why does it matter?

Application

  • How and when can we use this (knowledge/process) ____________________________?
  • How is __________________________________________ applied in the larger world?
  • How could we use _______________________ to overcome ________________________  (obstacle, constraint, challenge)?

Perspective

  • What are different points of view about _____________________________________?
  • How might this look from ______________________________________’s perspective?
  • What is the evidence for ____________________________________________________?

Empathy

  • What would it be like to walk in ____________________________________’s shoes?
  • How might ___________________feel about _____________________________________?
  • How might we reach an understanding about ___________________________________?

Self-Knowledge

  • How do I know________________________________________________________________?
  • What are the limits of my knowledge about ___________________________________?
  • How are my views about __________________shaped by ________________________ (experiences, assumptions, habits, prejudices, style)?

The real meat of the evening, however, was when SLA English teacher Matt Kay talked to us about his process for writing essential questions. He shared his process for the book “Kindred,” which he teaches to 9th graders. His Essential Questions for his unit are:

  • What is the relationship between who we are and what society expects of us? (What does society expect of us?)
  • Okay I didn’t get the other two written down… but they were good.

He tweaks his wording every year, as “after teaching for seven years, you get intimate with a novel.” His questions have also gotten longer, instead of shorter — he edits his questions to reflect the kinds of questions students themselves are asking. He also has a sort of floating Essential Question that he uses for creative prompts: “If you were this character, what would you be doing?”

None of these EQs, he noted, are skill-based. These the things they are going to be troubling with, and “never really find an answer to.” He builds questions that they can wrestle with — if not, it’s not a good essential question.

He doesn’t give them all three at once — introduces them as they appear in the book.

Q&A with Matt Kay

Do his students know the phrase “essential question?
Yes, although eventually wants to fool around with them creating their own.

What role do the questions play for his students?
As discussion starts, all of these can be prompts for class discussion. A class often starts with “what happened” in a book, but the questions can help draw the discussion deeper, and link between days. You want to make them okay with the idea that they’re reaching toward something that they’re not going to get — but they’re not feeling frustrated by that. It’s a puzzle that they never quite fix.

As for the six facets of understanding, “empathy” and “self-knowledge” are the two that you have to reach for. Asking the hard questions is the challenge — often for the teacher as much as the students.

What happens if kids go in a different direction?
Give kids power and agency — let them know they have brought up something new and interesting — it removes the barrier between teacher and student.

Essential questions are easy to apply to a classic, literature discussion. How do you use them for units based around skills and content?
Matt gave an example from his “grammar boot camp” unit — “How does someone’s language affect the way other look at them?” He shows papers from last year (with the names taken off) and asks what judgments they make about those students — are they smart? are they good students?

It’s about the “why” of the skill, and the dangers of not having it.

How do you know that the project-based inquiry model is working?
Who’s asking the question? You know it’s landing when students are asking higher-order questions on a regular basis. If you still have to ask all of the questions, they haven’t absorbed the intention of PBL and understanding by design.

I then noted that this version of “success” can get skewed — kids can ask higher-order questions all day but get nothing explicit “done” — so I asked: so how do you find balance?

Matt’s response to that: for PBL to be successful, kids take initiative on their own projects. Instead of asking “Can I,” they approach him with things they have stated. They gain a confidence to start things — even if they don’t have all of the skills in place. And they don’t always need a prompt.

Everybody went home with UBD Template instructions as well as a Blank_UbD_Planning_Template. The goal for next week is to have “Stage 1” planned out — at least a rough draft, so we can compare and refine during the next session.

Happy planning everybody!

Related post: Project Based Learning, Session 1

Working through school wounds.

This activity is a continuation of my write up from yesterday about getting students to identify what their “school wounds” are.

Once students had picked a category they identified with — numbness, creativity, compliance, underestimation, or the average — we handed out some blank paper and asked them to draw:

What was an experience that made you lose your desire to learn?

The results were sometimes predictable, sometimes unexpected, and often hard to look at and accept.

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We talked a bit about where all this was coming from — many different places, obviously. If this was had been my English class, we would have been composing essays / digital stories post haste. As this was the spring of senior advisory, however, we took a more mellow, holistic approach, talking it out in groups.

We also followed up with a second, positive prompt:

When was a time that learning came alive for you?

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I have to admit, I was a little bit relieved that several of the drawings kids created were directly related to school. I also liked this one, which showed a timeline of many different influences on learning, both school-based and self-chosen:

Wounded By School_Page_5

Our final push with this activity was along the lines of, “you’re going to college soon. You probably have four more years of “formal” learning in front of you, and some more hurdles to jump with school. How are you going to heal your wounds now, and get through this?”

Of course, looking at it now, I don’t think that line of thinking pushed hard enough. In fact, I think it was sort of cowardly — asking students to accept the poor structure of school at face value and just “deal with it.”

The question I want to ask now:

How could we all transform school, so that these wounds don’t happen?