I’m a firm believer in the power of student voice and student choice. When students are trusted and taught to make thoughtful, reasonable, and sometimes risky choices with their reading lives, something magical happens. They learn. They grow.
But after a semester of embracing the concept and practices of individual student-led book choices in my grade nine classes, I decided to assign a whole-class text. It was time. My students were ready.
I assigned Of Mice and Men.
First of all, it’s a classic. Students are smarter for reading it. It feels like serious literature. It’s chock full of imagery, foreshadowing, symbolism, and injustice. Students feel emotion when they read it.
Second of all, it’s manageable. It is 105 pages long. I gave my students eight days to read it. Books were handed out on a Sunday, and students needed to be finished reading by the following Monday. For some, that meant they could read it multiple times. A few finished it overnight and then got right back to their choice novels. Others planned to read fourteen pages per night so they could finish just in time. Even though they all read the same text, voice and choice were still built into the assignment.
While reading the book, they regularly met in small groups, book club style. They discussed topics of their choice after making plans and committing to be accountable to one another. It was the perfect opportunity to introduce the Notice and Note fiction signposts, and many of their discussions were prompted with something they had noticed while reading.
Once my students were done reading and discussing, it was time for some assessment. In order to prepare for the book club discussions, students annotated their thinking, their questions, and generally marked the passages that resonated with them.
The day that they were supposed to have the book finished, I collected each copy of the book and did a quick annotations check.
It took about 90 minutes to go through all of them. Our ninth grade team had decided to give some basic guidelines to our students: annotations should be plentiful, at regular intervals, show a variety in type of thinking & approach, and add original content.
We don’t ask our students to annotate everything all of the time, but because they needed to be ready to have purposeful and deliberate discussions with each other, the annotations seemed like a good call. After checking over each student’s annotations, I handed back their results and let them know that if I had under-rated them, they could confer with me in order demonstrate thinking that I had missed. This assessment provided quick feedback, and didn’t require a ton of teacher time for grading.
If students weren’t happy with their marks, they were given another opportunity for learning and for demonstrating proficiency. They were given the option to read and annotate another classic novel within two weeks. They were also instructed to schedule some conferring time with me to make sure they were on the right track.
There were guidelines and timelines for the second opportunity to demonstrate the skills and strategies they needed to learn, but enough choice that students were comfortable with the options. This idea of choice reinforces that it’s not about which title we are reading, but about the skills and thinking that are required when we read for this purpose.
The next assessment was a traditional multiple-choice comprehension quiz. It’s the first one I’ve administered in quite a long time, and because it is part of a portfolio of assessment, it feels like an appropriate thing to do. In the last few years I had avoided this type of assessment, favoring other writing tasks, reflections, and conferences. Those are all great ways to check students’ understanding, but the difference this time is that it is in addition to the other types of assessment, not simply the assessment. I’ll probably ask students to do more of this type of quiz, as it still feels low-risk. It’s only a fraction of their grade for this unit, but it quickly helps me get a picture of my students’ understanding.
The last assessment our students completed was a graded video discussion. Teachers weren’t in the room for these, which seemed like a game-changer. Students used their books (with annotations) and directed their own small-group discussions for roughly twenty to thirty minutes.
We were able to assess the discussions later, rewinding and fast-forwarding as needed, knowing that if we missed something we could go back to it. After the discussions, I can confer with students, pausing at important points in the discussion to point out especially thoughtful moments, explain where I think the thinking could have been pushed.
All three of these types of assessments helped to create a big-picture of student understanding and their ability to apply strategies and skills. The marking/grading took a reasonable amount of time, and we teachers know that is an important consideration.
The entire unit, from passing out the books to the final assessments, took ten school days. It was a fun and thorough way to check in with my students’ ability to read an assigned text, complete some discrete tasks, but still allowed us to move on to the next unit of learning quickly. I think we will do it again. Waiting a whole semester might have been too long.
How do you do whole-class texts? How do you ensure that your students are familiar with the traditional classics? I’d love to hear in the comments below!
Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for nineteen years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family will be moving across the agua to Managua, Nicaragua next year, where a new adventure will begin.
Follow Julie on twitter @SwinehartJulie