Category Archives: Literature Circles

Collaboration in the Classroom that works…7 ideas.

Collaboration sounds like a good idea.  You are keen.  You have watched the video.  Your desks are in groups.  And…it isn’t going as well as you’d hoped.  Your students are not acting like the kids in the video.  What are some of the factors that you need to consider once you have decided to try collaboration?

  • The Task. The task you ask the students to do needs to be meaningful and challenging.  There is no need to collaborate if the answer is apparent.  There is no desire to collaborate if the problem is irrelevant.
  • Summarizing or gathering information is not collaboration. A few years ago I was taking a course on line and we were supposed to collaborate in a wikispace.  The problem was that usually the task was to summarize the chapter.  Philip, another participant, always did that first.  After he had done it there was really nothing more to say.  There are lots of reasons for students to share summaries or compare summaries or write a summary together but that is not collaboration and you need to recognize that.  The same goes for dividing up the work load to gather information.  It is sometimes a good practice but it is not collaboration.
  • Collaboration needs to be knowledge building. A great structure for building collaboration in your classroom is to use knowledge building circles.  If students are working towards collectively answering a collective question (e.g. Should the tar sands be developed?/ How can we best protect the swamp habitats?/ What is the best design for a paper airplane?) then having them share their learning as they go creates a collaborative culture.  In a knowledge building circle, students react to each other and not the teacher.  While the teacher may begin the conversation with a question, the student who contributes first then chooses the next person to contribute.  If you have never tried this, the following link will get you started:  http://www.naturalcuriosity.ca/pdf/NaturalCuriosityManual.pdf
  • Background knowledge and curiosity are key. It is hard to collaborate and work with others if no one has any background knowledge about the topic.  If my girlfriends and I were asked to collaborate about fixing a car engine, I suspect that we would get off topic fairly quickly.  Students also need to be curious about the topic if they are going to proceed with the inquiry.  If I am in a group that is discussing a topic in which I have no interest, I probably will not collaborate.  Check out this article for more information:  http://goo.gl/TECxKu
  • Organize your group members carefully. Depending on the topic you may want heterogeneous or homogenous groupings.  Groups that don’t collaborate well, however, often have a member with considerably more knowledge or interest than the others.  Groups with similar interests or similar skill sets may work better at collaborating.  I rarely let kids choose their own groups.  It is not that some kids won’t choose a group that works well; it is that some kids will never be chosen to be in a group and you have already lost if members of the group are feeling unwanted.
  • You are still the teacher. Collaboration doesn’t mean that kids will figure everything out on their own.  You are there to guide, facilitate, ask questions, fill in the tricky bits, lend a hand, suggest an alternative, listen, summarize, find the teachable moment, join in, model.  There are still times when you will need to stop the whole class and do some direct teaching.  Collaboration is not a replacement for good teaching.  It is a pedagogical tool that supports and scaffolds learning for students.
  • Relax. Groups are social.  When you go to a meeting, are you always on task?  Does your group get off track or make jokes?  Of course you do.  Do we need to have higher standards for students than we do for ourselves?  Kids are kids.  Kids have been trained through years of schooling to NOT talk to each other.  If you are introducing collaboration after years of individual silent work, you will have to teach them about collaboration.  It might not go well at first.  But, take a deep breath, regroup and try it again.  If your expectation in the classroom is that this is how we do things, it will work.
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Filed under collaboration, inquiry, Literature Circles, student behaviour, Uncategorized

Rethinking Learning Goals, Success Criteria and Rubrics

When I was a student, back in the dark ages, teachers gave out assignments all the time.  We did them, we got them back marked and we went on to the next one.  I don’t remember ever really thinking about why I was doing something (other than the teacher told me to) or how I would know if it was any good or not.  My experience was probably the norm.

And now we have learning goals, success criteria and rubrics.  The research said we had to make sure that students knew what they were doing, why they were doing it and how they would know if they were on the right track.  I agree with all of that.  But I do wonder if we haven’t gone a little overboard and incorporated too much of the teacher-talk into the student learning.

A couple of things have happened this week that have caused me to reflect.

First of all I came across this quote on twitter:

Posting a learning target [goal] before a lesson is like announcing what a gift is before it’s opened.  Post a question.  Bring curiosity and thinking to the classroom.

Next I was perusing Pinterest and saw a picture of the following math learning goal and success criteria for the lesson of the day:

Learning goal:  I can find the area of the patio.

            Success Criteria:

  1. 1.     I will draw a diagram and label it.  I will label the dimensions.
  2. 2.    I will express my answer in metres squared.
  3. 3.    I will use the formula l x w = A.
  4. 4.    I will have a concluding sentence.

I would argue that those really are the instructions for how to solve the problem and by posting them, students do not need to think very deeply about what to measure, how to solve the problem, or which mathematical strategies would lead to the answer.

A teacher came to me and relayed the following story.  He is used to posting learning goals at the beginning of learning cycles but had forgotten to do so this time.  So, as bell work he asked his students to write what they thought the learning goals of his new literature circles  were even though they were a week into the learning.  He was thrilled, and a bit surprised, that they were “bang on”.  Perhaps it is more valuable when students are able to uncover the purpose of the work instead of just being told what it is.  Obviously his students were engaged in their learning and could see the purpose for it.

Another teacher was starting Readers’ Notebooks in the classroom for the first time and had immediately given out the rubric.  She was disappointed with what the students produced; they were so focussed on the language of the rubric that their letters and responses seemed contrived.  For the second class of the day, she gave the same mini-lesson but did not give out the rubric.  That class’ work was “far better”.  When we are just learning to do something, we need some mucking about time before we can really look at our work and try to make improvements.  I remember when I first started throwing pots on the wheel, I would not have wanted a rubric of the perfect mug with which to compare my first feeble efforts.  Once I had some experience, some lessons, some practice, then I was able to critically look at my attempts and compare them to a standard.

Another teacher and I were discussing learning goals and success criteria and all the different ways that we can express those within the classroom environment:  anchor charts, text deconstruction, checklists, personal goals, statements about good readers and writers.  In the end we decided that the supports we co-create with students to scaffold their learning, are in essence the learning goals and success criteria.  Really, the benchmark for knowing if students understand the learning goals and success criteria is when they can answer questions like these:

Why are you working on this? How will you know it is good?  What goal are you working on?  How will you know if your answer is reasonable?  How will you know when you are finished?  What can you do if you don’t know what to do?

A group of teachers and I were meeting and there was some lamenting about students who always wanted to know their “mark”.  And while the teacher was trying to give “grade-less” feedback, the student was focussed on the mark.

Perhaps we as teachers have created this mindset with all of the best of intentions.  In trying to make the assessment piece transparent for students, have we removed their ability to wonder, question, and risk?  Can we provide students with learning opportunities where they have time to explore, think, create, marvel, try, imagine, construct and “muck about” while still being fair in our assessment practices?  I think we can.  We may need to readjust, at times, the presentation and timing of our learning goals and success criteria.

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Filed under learning golas, Literature Circles, Reading Response

Responses to Reading

When kids are reading we want them to spend most of their time reading, thinking about their reading, talking about their reading and writing about their reading.  But, there are lots of ways to get kids thinking and talking and writing without resorting to the typical comprehension questions.  The problem with comprehension questions is that it is the teacher who has determined what the most important things to think about, talk about and write about are.  While teachers certainly want to guide kids to determining deeper meaning, what is more meaningful for students is to determine and construct their own meaning.

Here are some ideas:

  1.  Readers’ Notebook letters allow you and the teacher to recreate that “dining room conversation” about books that you wish you could have but can’t due to time constraints.  The trick is to write back like a reader, not like a teacher.
  2. Students can write letters to other students in their readers’ notebooks who have read their book.  This works well when students might be reading a second book from a literature circle.
  3. Students can write in their readers’ notebooks as the main character or as a secondary character.   They are still writing to you, the teacher.  If the author is using a particular writing style (I’m thinking about the voice in the BFG by Roald Dahl, they can try writing in that voice).
  4. Students can blog about their reading.  Teachers may wish to start the blog with an open-ended question, or not.
  5. When doing a read aloud students can record their think marks in Today’s Meet or on little white boards that they hold up (white plastic plates work, too) as you read.
  6. If you are reading aloud and want students to be thinking about the character’s feelings (inferring) they could use Today’s Meet, or they could write in thought bubbles on a piece of scrap paper and then share after the reading.
  7. Have a student be a character during a read aloud and sit in the “hot seat”.  Every once in a while, stop the reading and ask the “character” some questions.  Other students could also ask the “character” some questions.
  8. If you are reading nonfiction text, the student in the hot seat could be the “expert”.  At this point you are helping to bring out the content of the text.
  9. In a similar vein, as you are doing a read aloud, within a grouping of students, one student is a character and when you stop, the other students in the group ask questions.
  10. If you have multiple characters and you want students to explore the relationships between them, assign groups of students to be different characters.  When you stop reading at strategic points, the students stop to talk in character.
  11. Instead of having the student in the hot seat be the character, have them be the author.  At this point other students or the teacher can ask questions about why the author made the choices s/he did in writing the next. (e.g.  Why did you make the character seem so unlikeable?)
  12. Readers’ theatre is another way for students to demonstrate their understanding of a novel or text.  As literature circle groups are just beginning their reading, ask them to choose a passage with a fair amount of dialogue which is pivotal to the beginning of the story.  Students turn it into a reader’s theatre to present to the class.  They will have practiced their reading fluency but will also have to determine important parts of the text, how the characters speak, and understand how dialogue works in a novel.
  13. Students can do the same activity at other points in the novel to show where a cliff hanger is in their novel, a section which exemplifies a character’s personality, a scene which shows a problem, the most exciting part of the novel and so on.
  14. When students are reading nonfiction they can create a reader’s theatre that is an interview between a TV reporter and the expert.  This is also a good way to review content before tests.
  15. Students can create “found poems” about the setting, problem, or characters by lifting words and phrases from their book and turning them into a poem by how they put them together and/or arrange them on the page.
  16. Fifteen second book reports are when students stand up and give a summary of their book, the plot, the author’s message or the characters in only 15 seconds.  They don’t need to finish their thoughts and, in fact, should stop mid-sentence as this will make other students interested in the novel.
  17. In order to get students thinking about the background knowledge required to understand a text, ask them to do some research about the time period or issues/theme of the their book and create a powerpoint presentation or photo collage.
  18. Have students, individually or as a book club, determine important quotes from the text and record their thinking in double column format to explain why they chose the quote.
  19. Students can keep an ongoing diary of one of the characters in the novel.
  20. Students can make an iMovie trailer of their book.  Think about asking them to focus their trailer instead of just doing a plot summary.  It could be about the problem, the theme, the characters, the setting.

BUT DON’T DO EVERYTHING FOR EVERY BOOK.  Over the course of the year students can have opportunities to express their thinking in a variety of ways.  The best way to kill a story is to work on it for too long.  And, don’t forget that modeling the activity or doing it as a class first is always best.

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Filed under Literature Circles, Readers' Theatre, Reading Response

Book Clubs and Non-fiction Text

I am guilty, as a female, of reading mostly fiction.  So when someone asks what I am reading, I invariably default to the novel in which I am engrossed despite the fact that at any given time, I am probably perusing at least 2-3 nonfiction texts as well,  the internet daily, and a few journals or periodicals. On a daily basis, I probably share more about my nonfiction reading with friends and colleagues than I do my novels.  We know as teachers that we need to engage our students in both fiction and non-fiction text.  We also know that many of the boys in our classrooms may gravitate towards nonfiction more readily than fiction.  A friend of mine was wondering about literature circles with nonfiction text and how those discussions might look.  And, as a teacher, how might one respond to reader’s notebook entries about nonfiction text.

As always, I began to think about how real readers (usually me) interact with nonfiction.  We need to treat our students like real readers and give them the same authentic experiences.  When we read nonfiction we are generally looking for information.  So when students discuss that information they might:

  • discuss the cool and interesting things they discovered
  • talk about how their new learning fits in with what they thought before
  • reread any confusing parts and try to make sense of new information or things they don’t understand (often we reread nonfiction many times as we grapple with new concepts)
  • talk about how the diagrams or pictures support their new learning
  • evaluate whether they think the author is reliable (and this is very important when doing research, reading websites, looking at primary sources)
  • think about other texts or places to gather information that they may now wish to know since their interest has been sparked

If part of your literature circles or readers’ workshop is to have students write letter to you about their reading, the above points could also be part of their letters.  As a teacher, it is important to write back as a reader.  When other readers tell me about their nonfiction reading, I usually relate it to things I already know about the topic, questions I might have about the information, and why the person is interested in the topic.  So if a student was reading about hurricanes and had written to me, I might respond back with some comments about the facts s/he had told me, some questions I may have about hurricanes, and maybe a confusion that I might have.  I could ask the student to tell how his/her interest in hurricanes had come about and what, if anything, they were planning to do with this new information.  I might relay some information I had about hurricanes and wonder if it were correct according to the student’s source.  We could even chat about whether depictions of hurricanes in film and literature were truthful according to the facts.

Don’t shy away from talking about nonfiction text with your students just because your comfort level is fiction.  Next time you are reading some nonfiction, think about yourself as a reader and how you are interacting with the text.  That is always the best way to guide how you can help students to learn to be a proficient reader as well.

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Filed under Authentic Tasks, Literature Circles