Saturday, December 27, 2008

What's New with Literature Circles Workshop

A few weeks ago I attended a workshop entitled "What's New with Literature Circles?" led by Harvey Daniels.  When my department head offered me the opportunity to go in his place, I was pretty psyched as I had two of Daniel's books on my shelf at home, Minilessons for Literature Circles and A Community of Writers.

I tried literature circles / book clubs when student teaching and they could have gone better.  I took away some new ideas from this workshop that I'll try this semester.

There were some pieces of the workshop that acted as helpful reminders - things that I knew or had read but forgotten when planning.  One element is the direct instruction of social skills when starting students in book clubs.  Building classroom community is important, but also teaching students what friendliness, piggybacking questions, extending discussion, and peer support look and sound like.  Another is the use of short text before moving to full novels.  A new resource for me mentioned was the book Micro Fiction , a collection of super short stories for students to quickly respond to and discuss.  I had used short stories with my students to practice group discussion, but even these were too long to start with.  The final element is one I will favor a great deal: having silent literature circles where students write and pass their discussion of the book to different members.  I won't ask students to do it more often than discussion aloud, but I like the amount of control it gives me of the classroom, the record of discussion taking place, and that no one person can dominate or withdraw from the conversation.

Daniels also emphasized a few revisions to what had been considered book club requirements when I was in college.  The biggest difference as Daniels saw it was the decreased use of role sheets for book club meetings, especially those that assign cooperative learning roles to the various group members because they are inauthentic.  For me, the greatest change came in the new forms of assessment.  Instead of using book talks, body biographies, or multigenre projects, Daniels suggests assessing the actual book club time for student preparation and participation, also for the sake of authenticity.  Final projects are fine, but Daniels suggests reducing the weight they carry.  How many real-life book clubs involve a culminating final project?

For me, however, the greatest blow to my current thinking was when myself and others asked Daniels whether literature circles were possible with district required reading.  His answer was absolutely and that it could even aid students who are doing book clubs for the first time.  I had attributed part of my previous failures to the district requirement that students had no choice in what they read; however, I now will drastically revise my design and try book clubs again with To Kill a Mockingbird .

In spring 2006, my students practiced literature circles with one short story before beginning a novel; this year they'll meet six times before beginning Mockingbird.  In 2006, they had no more than four minilessons on comprehension tools and zero minilessons on social skills; this year the count is six and five (with some overlap, and I want the second number to grow depending on how I can fit it in.  Social skills minilessons take about 10 minutes each, so I should be able to throw some more in at the beginning or end of some classes).  In spring 2006, our prereading tool was a fairly schooly anticipation guide and one period of discussion; this year I'm reading aloud part one of Mockingbird while we practice with short pieces of text and then setting them loose on part two.  I'm sure I'll be reflecting on my experiences a great deal, and I'll share my thoughts here when I can.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

IEPs for Every Student

Years ago, I wrote about creating an Individualized Education Plan for every student whether they're required by law to have one or not. Next semester, I'm asking my students to do it for themselves and I need the help of my network. Below is my first draft of the assignment. Please help me make it successful by leaving your suggestions in the comments.

IEP Assignment
Starters (choose one):
Soup & Salad (optional):
  • Interview a parent or former teacher. Ask them what they see your strengths and weaknesses are as a student and what things they believe help you to learn best.
Main Course (required):
Write a personal reflection that answers all of the following questions:
  1. What kind of student do you think you are (poor, fair, average, great)? Why do you believe this? What kind of student do you want to be?
  2. Identify at least three attainable goals you have for this semester in language arts. What do you need to do to meet them? How will you know when you've met them?
  3. Reflect on and write about a time in school (a year, a unit, a particular assignment, a class) when you didn't do well. How did you know you didn't do well? What made it difficult? Go into as much depth as possible.
  4. Reflect on and write about a time in school (a year, a unit, a particular assignment, a class) when you really succeeded. How did you know you did well? What made it possible? Go into as much depth as possible.
  5. Reflect on and write about a time in school (a year, a unit, a particular assignment, a class) when you had trouble at first, but eventually succeeded. How did you know you did well? What changes did you, your parents, your teachers, or your friends make that made it possible? Go into as much depth as possible.
  6. Read over your reflections from numbers 3, 4, and 5. Make a list of the things that make learning difficult for you personally, and a list of the things that make learning easy for you personally. Using those lists, create at least three accommodations you believe your teachers, parents, and classmates should provide to make it easier for you to learn and perform well in school.
  7. Review your goals from number 2. Make sure they match your accommodations and still seem attainable, but not so easy that you'll achieve them all in one week. Make any changes needed.
  8. Fill out the IEP Cover Sheet handed out in class.
Dessert (optional):
  • Share your personal reflection with another teacher or parent and ask for their comments. Particularly ask if they would add any other accommodations or goals to your lists.
  • Interview a licensed clinical social worker or a psychologist in an education related field. Ask them how they determine accommodations and goals for the students they serve in their IEPs.