So Mac recently posted about her literary unit with her 11th graders. With the 9th and 10th graders, we had the same task, but the differentiation came through the rubric. Students were still expected to read and analyze a self-selected text, participate in weekly discussions about their book, determine their own thesis and find their evidence to support it.
A difference between our classes is that with my 9th and 10th graders, some are brand new to English and some have 2-3 years experience. This necessitates that the task be accessible for the newer students but still allow enough freedom for the more experienced students to challenge themselves.
Planning for Book Clubs
In terms of choosing their texts, we approached it similarly, students had a day to survey all the books we had available as book clubs. By the end of the first day students choose the top 2 books that they were interested in reading. On the second day, students “dated” the books and had 15 minutes to read the first book, then another 15 to read the second. At the end, students reflected on and choose the book they wanted to read, with the understanding that they were now “committing” to this book for the next 1-3 months.
We planned the unit together, assessing how many copies we had of what books, deciding which books we thought students would find interesting and connect with. Although we provided this starting point, students were also free to choose any book that interested them. I had several students elect to choose their own books. Our intention in planning was that students would have the support of a group from the beginning, yet the freedom to read independently or with minimal supports should they choose.
Conferencing: student generated thesis
Once students had read their book for a while and were getting a sense of what it was about, I started conferencing with students about what they were noticing about the book and what they wanted to say about the book and what they thought the theme or message of the book that they wanted to discuss for their essay. This became their thesis. After all students had a conference and had articulated a thesis, I continued conferencing but now about what evidence they had gathered to support their thesis.
In my experience, choosing appropriate and quality evidence can be something that needs to be taught into a lot. In this case it was very helpful for students to have articulated their thesis and then ask, “What evidence do you have to support this?” If students struggled with evidence, then it was an opportunity to re-visit and re-assess the quality of their thesis. The thesis, or statement they want to make about their book should be something so prevalent that finding evidence is easy for them. It also allowed for the questioning, “Does this evidence show/prove your thesis?” “Does it illustrate what you are trying to say?” If students had chosen random quotes, or quotes that were “weak” given what they wanted to discuss, in this line of questioning and discussion about their book, they were able to self-identify and have a question to ask themselves when choosing evidence.
As Mac stated in her article, students engaged in weekly discussions about their books. Sometimes with students with books that had similar themes and some that seemed to have nothing in common. This allowed students to practice explaining their book, the characters, plot and key events various times, to various people. I was worried about accountability for the discussion days and created general questions that could apply to any book to help students in case they weren’t sure what to talk about. However, during discussions, I would circulate the room and check in with different groups, I found that I didn’t need to assign a grade to keep students accountable.
We attempted several online forums to facilitate discussion across the grades and across books. Synth was a relatively easy way for students to post mini podcasts about their book, but didn’t facilitate the discussion and responses to each other in the way we were hoping. Flipgrid ended up being much more successful in a discussion style communication, however getting the students to respond to students across the grades was more difficult than anticipated. We thought they would be excited to be able to discuss with students they didn’t know in their school about their books, but for my students, I think intimidation and a lack of confidence about their English proficiency played a part. Next year, we want to start using Flipgrid from the beginning of the year so that it is less intimidating and is simply part of the class activities and expectations.
The thing that I am most proud of with this unit of literary analysis is that students truly read their own books, at their own pace and were able to make meaning and interpretations about what they read on their own. As Mac stated in her article, we didn’t provide guiding questions or discussion questions for students as they read. Rather, we had general questions for their discussion, showed them how to notice their own thinking and questions they had while reading. This allowed for students to come to their own realizations and reactions towards the text. We monitored their progress and had checks for understanding during our conferences with students.
Writing their essay
I have to admit that for the 9th and 10th graders, their essays were a bit more formulaic and not as emotionally moving as the 11th graders. We started with their thesis, their evidence and then determine their connection outside of the book. While efficient, it did create a formulaic and traditional literary analysis type essay. Next year I definitely want to start with they personal connection and the “falling in love” with their book as Mac did in order for them to develop their voice and skill in writing outside of the traditional rote structure. On the other hand, given their are newer to formal writing as well as English, I do think there was a benefit for them. Ultimately, we do want them to break those structures. (See our book review of John Warner’s “Why they can’t write: breaking the five paragraph essay here.)