I took time to reflect on the first day of school recently, mentioning how I like to dive right into the work of the class. So, I thought I might share a little about what that work looks like in the opening weeks of my ninth grade classes.
Backstory and Acknowledgements
In the summer of 2007, I spent most of my summer in a National Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute, with the local Boston affiliate. There are a lot of things I could say about that experience, which warrant many posts of their own.
However, I had the pleasure of viewing an interactive presentation with UMass Boston professor Janna Jackson about the connections between reading and writing. Jackson had recently finished a chapter in a forthcoming book about the research that connects reading and writing, which was fascinating to me at the time. It ran deep into a topic I had contemplated but my understanding was still in its infancy. It was a solid presentation. Most important, her methods and questions got me thinking immediately about ways that I could remix the heart of the presentation for a high school audience. The result was a variation that I have been using to begin my English classes ever since.
Remixing with My Own Spin
My approach has evolved over the years, and I like to think that I have improved in how it goes. Chief among the things that I nicked form Professor Johnson was a pedagogical approach that is essentially guided discovery. A handful of her core questions still serve as an anchor. I also use the same short story, “Fetch,” by Robb White, because it can be read quickly and easily, as well as having a twist ending that beckons a higher degree of reader consciousness.
Once I distribute the story, I ask students to read and mark the text up, whatever that means to them. Their mark-up ends up being a diagnostic tool for me as I scan the room to see what they think is meant by that term and how I will adjust my teaching as a result. Additionally, I ask them to pay attention to how they read the story, to be aware of what is going on in their minds as they read and make note of it.
After a quick couple of formative questions to make sure everyone understands the story, I take a poll of how many anticipated the ending, which seems to annually float between one-third and half most of the time. I record and store the results for a later exploration into how they know what they think they know about the story.
Then I simply ask students what stood out or leaped off the page for them in the story, recording all of their responses on the white board. Their responses really lead the way, from that point. Once I have collected a number of responses, I look for one that will provide a good transition to one of the reading strategies, I know I am going to highlight (I riff off the six in Strategies that Work). I might ask some questions about why a student chose to identify a particular item to see if the strategy will rise to the fore. Often one of the strategies will bubble to the surface. If not, it is not too difficult to reframe something a student has noticed in a way that has them identifying the kind of thinking or strategy that explains the noticed element. Easily within a class period a handful of strategies can be revealed all from what students have noticed.
Encouraging Students to Notice What They Notice
I always stress that they exercise many of the strategies without even thinking about it. Yet, I push more and explain that I want them to become more reflective and aware of how they operate, why they draw certain conclusions, why and how they notice some things and not others. This effort serves a few purposes that have much longer implications.
First, in naming the strategies that are being employed they necessarily have to be more observant and aware.
Second, I want to establish the students as the driving force for the direction we are going. What they notice leads the way. I may guide things and fill in holes, but I take my cues from them, and try to make that transparent to them.
Third, we begin to assemble a vocabulary of how we will talk about the process of reading, which they will later discover is almost identical to the process of writing.
Fourth, in discussing strategies like, relating, inferring, questioning, and more, I am laying foundations for later inquiries that drill-down on the nuances of certain strategies individually. For example, I spend a lot of time later focused on how to develop and ask really good questions, which will be foundational for later essay writing.
Last, the experience is preparation for the kind of meta-cognitive reflection that I will routinely ask them to do, as I spend considerable time asking students to self-assess their own work and experience as an antidote to a lot of teacher driven assessment and evaluation. Ultimately, I increasingly try to put students in a position of power to make choices and think about the results from those choices. It is all an effort to help them own their own learning.
All of this is likely to take a class period, sometimes spilling into a second. It really is dependent on the students in the class. Yet it serves as only a beginning to chasing bigger game.
Building on Reading and A New Wrinkle
Once strategies and other groundwork has been established, the big game question, which comes right out of that long ago presentation by Professor Jackson, “Are reading and writing similar?” Pursuing an answer to that question takes many days, but it sets an agenda, adding to a foundation of class norms, expectations, and practices. Examining the similarities and differences between the two leads to more questions, of course, and shapes nearly all of our initial reading and writing in class. Perhaps I can post more on that in future.
Since I have an iPad and have been messing about with Haiku Deck for awhile now. This year, one of the tweaks I made in my delivery was using Haiku Deck. So here it is, for what it is worth. I was having terrible trouble with efforts to embed it.
Foundation for Class
This is the first couple of weeks of my English class and how I attempt to prime the pump for all I hope the students to yield during the course of the year.
As I begin to mix in short works of fiction and non-fiction, we return to the connection between reading and writing, which proves a theme for the early part of the semester. Students discover all kinds of connections, without me having to tell them. I just keep asking them questions with a greater goal of getting all of them to start reading like writers and writing like readers. In truth, that is probably the meta-goal of any course English I teach, regardless of content, level, whatever. It is an inexhaustible journey.