The All Important Discussion

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Tomorrow begins my first “literature unit” of the year, and I am thrilled to be using more than one novel. Instead of just using Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, I will be pairing it with All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. This means my students will get to choose between two titles instead of being made to read one. I book talked both titles last week, and students completed an independent survey to share with me which titled best suited them, and why. Below is a description of this upcoming unit:

What would you see if you observed this unit in action? Let me start by saying that I do not use large question packets or study guides. Those can be easily copied, and more importantly, they would be showing students what I want them to notice in these novels. I want to see what my students notice on their own, so when it comes to my literature units, an observer would see independent reading with annotations, and then many cooperative group discussions using those annotations. Sure there would be additional activities, but they wouldn’t play as large of a role as the discussions.

Why are the discussions so vital to the success of the unit? Discussions allow students the opportunity to learn from one another. I sit back and listen, only piping in when needed. Here is an example from a few years back that shows the power a discussion can have:

A group of ten students were discussing the flashback scene in Speak where the reader finally finds out what really happened to Melinda. The group consisted of 7 girls and 3 boys. One of the boys truly did not believe that Melinda was raped. At first, some of the girls in the group unleashed their wrath on him, but then after overhearing the very loud conversation, I had them stop and think about how they could prove their point to him. Afterwards, I watched four students use their iPhones and a student computer to look up 1) the definition of rape; and 2) the role alcohol can play in rape. The rest of the students reread the scene in the book, and wrote new notes. After ten minutes of this “research,” they came back together to explain their findings. The one boy who was originally doubtful now understood. I commended the whole group for taking the time to prove their point, and most importantly, that they did it on their own.

So why use All American Boys with Speak? I added Speak to my curriculum because my students needed to talk about this topic (see above), and I feel the same way about All American Boys. Incidents of police brutality have been all over the news lately, and students deserve the opportunity to talk about it. (Click here for more information about All American Boys.) These talented authors give the reader two different perspectives to view the incident from: one boy is the victim, and the other is a witness. Both boys are struggling to deal with the repercussions, and soon the whole community is too. Last year when this book came out, more than 50% of my students chose to read this novel, so I knew that I had to work it in. It got more of my students reading last year, and I know it will have the same effect this year.

Are my new students really ready for discussions? I believe so, for I have already been preparing them for these all-important discussions. Since the first day of school, students have been completing short class building activities to get to know one another. They receive constant reminders about the behavior expectations for each activity we do. When we start cooperative discussions this week, there will be more reminders. It won’t be perfect right away, but I will continue with the reminders. No matter the grade, students need these constant reminders to properly participate. My co-teacher has been an asset with this, for she went to Kagan training over the summer. Just incorporating a few techniques at a time is slowly transforming our classes. I’ll be sure to share more as the unit progresses.

How do you organize your literature units? Please feel free to share below.


2 thoughts on “The All Important Discussion

  1. This fascinates me and makes me want to do a similar unit. I teach ninth graders and I have difficulty keeping them focused and on task. Letting them guide discussion is a goal, but I haven’t helped them develop the internal behavior management tools to really engage the process is a meaningful way. Can you talk more about the “class building activities”and the “constant reminders about the behavior” that are particularly suited to helping your students develop a mindset to engage in these discussion?

    • Believe me, we are not there yet. The second half of the year always goes better, especially after a lot of behavior strategies the first half.

      The class building activities are short 2-3 minute activities where they get to know their classmates without worrying about the content. For example, in September they ask questions about what they did over the summer, favorite foods and movies. (Kagan has their own ideas too, so their website might help.) Some classes pick it up quicker than others. I have one class right now that is still struggling, but we just continue practicing and praising those that do well. The constant reminders come from a chart I made about rules for types of activities. I’ll have to post it. It’s quite helpful.

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