After reading Chris's latest blog post about our design of student self-paced instruction within pods, I want to share how I currently plan to approach how this would look in our American Studies class (or even in any English class) when reading one core text. As I've stated before.... I'm open to feedback and suggestions.
How do I assign reading, writing, discussions, and final assessments on a text when every student is moving at his or her own pace throughout that text?
Last year I tried to implement self-paced reading through a directed-choice read unit during the fourth marking period with my seniors. Students were given a choice of three texts. They then chose the one that most interested them and needed to complete it by a certain date during the fourth marking period while simultaneously writing a research paper. Students were given study guide packets for their books and needed to maintain journals on their reading. We also had weekly book talks. The only due dates that the students needed to adhere to were for the research paper, which was broken down into multiple digestible steps. Essentially, my senior classes were reading at their own pace and were directing their own learning of that text. Yes - I guided them throughout it, but since they were now seniors they should have been able to identify themes and symbols, complete characterizations, and comprehend plot devices that were being used in the text on their own.
There were many pros and cons to this approach. The largest con to this was that I would have scheduled book talks on certain days every week that eventually fell flat on their faces. Students would have a schedule, which I created for them, as to when journal entries were due and when our book talks would be held. The main issue here was that eventually the book talks came to a screeching halt. Not only were students still abiding by MY calendar of assignments rather than truly designing their own, but now we ran into the problem by which students would sit together based on their chosen text they were reading and discuss it. I supplied them with massive study guide packets at the beginning of the text. There were supplementary readings, assessments on plot, characters, themes, etc throughout. (I basically gave them everything we would do throughout the study of this text all at once in one large packet.... bad idea, especially with seniors.)
But getting back to the BIG BIG issue I found that deteriorated discussion rather than enrich it was the self-paced environment that was created. One student finished Frankenstein because she is a veracious reader who truly enjoyed the book. A second student was on chapter five of the book. Putting these two students together in a larger group created a huge problem. Student one didn't know what she could say so as to not spoil the text, while student two had barely anything to contribute. I tried my best to motivate students to further their reading through individual conferencing. I had created one Google Doc per student that I would update daily. Each day there would be a narrative about that student's progress in this self-paced unit. Perhaps part of the problem was that I was working with seniors during the fourth marking period, but for the most part it didn't matter how many times I would tell students either virtually via their Google Doc progress chart or in a face-to-face conversation that they needed to be at a certain chapter at certain point for the next book talk; it just didn't happen. So then I decided to break students down based on book AND their progression throughout the text. This also created a problem because I had one group who had so much to say, while another group sat there silently. I was basically putting them in groups based on motivation, which only added to the initial problem. Now kids were being left behind.
So inevitability the book talks fell flat. Now you may be thinking to yourself (because this was my train of the thought, which was heavily influenced by fellow educators).... "Why not have the book talks be centered around themes so that the content or plot of the book does not become the focal point of the conversation? It wouldn't matter who was where in the text as long as the conversations were about larger concepts." It did matter. It mattered a lot actually. For instance: one book talk was about "parenting." My hope was that students would discuss parenting as a larger concept by using some of the discussion questions I provided for them as a means to get their conversation going (just in case they were stuck on how to start it in the first place). Talking about parenting started out very well, but once they brought it to their particular text it fizzled out. Students would not know what they could or could not say, because let's be honest here - the development of a theme progresses throughout the novel itself. A statement regarding how a character behaves is appropriate in the discussion of the development of a theme, but if you are finished with the text you have a full understanding of that character and his/her motivations which in effect influences how you analyze a particular theme within that text. Students got stuck. So we then moved the conversation to the class as a whole. How is parenting different from text to text? Let's just focus on the theme and the larger concept of what parenting means, and subsequently how that it represented in various ways and perspectives throughout the literature we are reading. Students became lost in the mix because of where they were, or perhaps weren't, in their reading.
Basically it comes down to this..... students need to be held accountable. It doesn't matter whether or not they are holding themselves accountable in a pod (or group) system by which they create their own calendar of reading assignments and assessments on those readings, or whether the teacher creates it.... they must be held accountable. So... how do I make this work in a self-paced learning environment where now every pod is in a different place at a different time throughout the one core text we are reading?
I have considered taking the literary circles approach when trying to trouble-shoot how this may look in the English classroom. So let me break it down:
1.) Pod One = 4 students. Pod One receives 5 calendars. Each student gets one calendar for his/her own use, while the last calendar is considered the "master calendar" that is then submitted to the teacher. As the teacher I then know my students' schedules for their reading assignments and can hold them accountable for staying on top of their own scheduled work.
2.) On the calendars that are initially provided there will be reading check-points. By this date it is heavily suggested that you are at X point in the text. This will hopefully alleviate the problem where the deadline for the text and assessments are due, and I have 20 students coming up to me saying: "But I'm only on chapter 10."
3.) Run it like a college class. Have the larger group discussion at the end of the book. Discuss the book as a whole. By that time students will have read the text, written about it, taken assessments on it so that I can gage where a student is in their mastery of literary terms and concepts as well as plot. On the initial calendar that the students receive they will be generating due dates for their pod in order to work toward the end deadline of when the book needs to be read by and when the assessments need to be completed.
Now comes the bigger question: How does this benefit the student MORE than the traditional approach to teaching a book? Because let's face it; this is far more work on both the teacher and student involved.
1.) The students are taking ownership. The student decides what segments of the text will be read. The students need to cooperatively work together to design these due dates for themselves based on their own skills, motivations, and personal schedules. Basically... it's all about the students here. I mean, when I think about it who am I to say when something must be done? I'm creating due dates to fit my own schedule, but what about the students? What about the student who despises reading versus the student who is currently reading three different books at once for fun? We need to keep these kids in mind when designing our plans in order to meet the learning objectives, and perhaps that means telling the students what those learning objectives are and allowing them to instead design the plans on how to reach them.
2.) Students can use each other as resources rather than always looking to the teacher. Jose has read the first five chapters, responded to the thematic questions on his blog, taken the assessments to gage his comprehension of that section of reading and now he can move forward to the next assigned reading section that his pod has put together. But Alex isn't quite there yet. She needs some help, and the first person she can go to is Jose. And why shouldn't she? The teacher does not have all the answers, and I think this needs to be our mantra if we are going to use the flipped classroom model for the English class. I remember as a student loving my English classes more than any other class because we could talk about everything and anything! All the disciplines fit in so nicely and every one of my peers saw something differently. Explore these perspectives within the pods and allow the students to drive those conversations. Now I'm definitely not saying that as the teacher we need to sit back and relax. In fact, I think this is where we are needed more than ever. As English teachers, or perhaps educators across the board, we need to focus on the process of getting from A to B as it works for each student. Guiding students through that process individually will not be an insurmountable task if we use the flipped classroom model as a means to help our students understand literary concepts. Not every student starts at A and many students don't know how to get to B. That's where we're needed!