Blogs, books, and students’ choice: Can I combine them into something useful?

by Mr. Sheehy

I’m about to launch into a unit with my freshmen where I rely quite a bit on blogging (I even title it “Blogging a Book Report”), and as I lay it out this year, I thought I’d record a bit of my thinking since it so closely relates my most effective strategy regarding the use of blogs in the classroom.

Ultimately, my driving concern behind the unit’s existence is that I need students to read something closer to their reading level. This allows me to work more explicitly on reading strategies and the reading process, as well as push them towards recognizing on their own when an author utilizes particular literary devices. It’s a bit too hard to accomplish these goals at one time when reading a more challenging text like Romeo and Juliet, where the instructional energy goes towards guidance in comprehension (whose doesn’t with Shakespeare?).

In my school, the irony is that the freshman curriculum standards are filled with these challenging texts (The Odyssey, Romeo and Juliet), and the easier texts are reserved for upper grades. Texts that strike me as particularly suited to 9th graders (To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men come to mind) are reserved for our juniors in American Literature (and reading them with the 11th graders leaves no room for Huck Finn or The Great Gatsby – the sad side of this irony). The result, unfortunately, is that there are no suitable texts left in my possession to read with my 9th grade class (no novels, that is – there are plenty of short stories).

That predicament, however, leaves a bit of an opening for me. I have the maneuvering room to conduct a unit where students pick their own books. The literacy team in our district has been particularly high on the idea of literature circles (more thoughts on that later) and they’ve purchased for our department a nice selection of books typically enjoyed by teenage readers. They’re not from a college prep reading list, but they’re not bad.

Though I’d like to read a book together (entire cities are trying to get their citizens to read the same book, and now schools are passing up the chance), I will instead ask my students to pick titles from this selection, providing them with a choice – that revered opportunity in the land of education. But what of their learning? How can I train them in the skills of evaluating texts (or of reading better) when I’m not reading the same text as the student (or have never read the text the student is reading)?

“Ay, that’s the rub.” This is where I attempt to strengthen this unit each year, because as strong as I think my strategies are for guiding students to read better, I always look back on units like this with a bit of disappointment. What I attempt to do is guide students with carefully crafted reflections – a series of one page written responses evaluating characters, plot, and the setting (see an example from last year). I was fairly happy with students’ responses on these assignments last year, though too many times students fell into plot recitation, and other times the analysis fell victim to last-minute-itis.

What was missing was two fold. The first missing element was the tracking of their thinking as they read, which is often where students expose their intelligence. One of my favorite tracking devices is a thinkmark: a bookmark with seven blank squares where students jot the page number next to their thinking about a particular part of the text. My other favorite methods for recording thinking include double-entry journals and simple lists of questions. These kinds of assignments expose my students’ brilliance more than any other activity I do. A case in point is my unit on Elie Wiesel’s Night, where I guide discussion entirely by students’ questions, since they are as good or better than any I would develop or borrow from a conference. Last year I did a few of these track-your-thinking assignments during the book unit, but I did not follow them up; I simply had them hand in their thinkmarks or questions and then handed them back after reading them. I have to do more than that to capitalize on the thinking they’ve exposed. The power of my Night unit is not so much that I have them ask questions but that I have them respond to those questions, which means they not only initiate thinking, but formulate it into an articulate response to the book.

And that is where I need to augment the unit this year. I may add to the required number of responses (I tend to require them to respond formally four times during the reading of a book, but I could see increasing it to five), but it’s not just adding more responses that will strengthen the unit: it’s crafting the responses I have them write to arise out of the thinking they do as they read. I would like them to write articles that are grounded in their own questions and hypotheses about the books.

Sometimes, however, their own questions and thinking will not inspire them enough to write much (sometimes I struggle to write one article in response to certain books I read). In those cases, I look to an even more ideal situation: they would write articles that arise from both their questions and the questions of others (like my ideal tale of collaborative reading). Ultimately, that injection of social learning is something that I’d love to attain for these units.

That brings up the possibility of literature circles, the hot idea around my district. I am sympathetic to my peers who love the idea of this method, but I am not going to board that train. It’s one idea, not an elixir, and the idea is not so brilliant that it trumps all these other brilliant methods of teaching language arts. But ignoring that somewhat snotty comment of mine, my real problem with these literature circles is a classroom management issue. The method, as it has been explained to me, requires students to read and discuss according to schedules set by their group, which means on a given day, half the groups may be planning to conduct a discussion and the other half may be planning to read. When you’ve got pockets of students discussing their books with animated and (potentially) on-task conversations, what are the kids who are trying to read supposed to do? How are they going to interact with a book without silence? I just don’t see it working.

Enter the blogs (and the second set of issues from the way I’ve done this unit in the past). Here I begin to combine ideas of literacy and reading instruction with technology. The conversation occurs, but for the most part, it occurs in silence and online. Students can form groups of up to four members and read the same book. Each student is then responsible for tracking questions and writing four conversation starters on his or her blog. Students also need to respond to each of their group members’ blogs in the comments (or, if they choose, through pingbacks).

That sounds great, but there are many problems inherent in it.

  • First, from a teacher’s standpoint, it becomes difficult to bounce around the blogs and find who is commenting where and how many times. The effort required of the teacher is disproportionate to the task required of the students, but it is essential to hold students accountable if comments and the conversation are to work.
  • Secondly, the commenting and extending of the conversation is itself a skill that students need to be taught. It’s an important skill, but to teach that along with my other objectives begins to load the unit with a burden it can’t hold.
  • Third, the linking across blogs, though a wonderful technical possibility and a theoretical dream for bloggers, can confuse students and make them less likely to seek and connect the conversation.
  • Fourth, and lastly for now, is that the blogs do not necessarily provide by themselves an adequate platform for the exchange of ideas. During my Night unit, for example, I find it necessary to use a wiki page to list and display questions students raised as they read.

A few of these problems have solutions that I might be able to work through with students. For example, I might be able to overcome the cross-blogging issue by requiring students to create a new blog for their group – one dedicated to their reading of that book. Who is to say a blog’s contribution cannot span only a short period of time? It would be a snapshot of one conversation rather than a home for numerous chatter. This single blog might alleviate the issue of checking comments as well, since all the group members would be required to comment there on that one site. The issue of platform could easily lighten by assigning students a page in our class wiki that they could use as a group scratch pad – a place to stick their questions and thoughts before turning them into formal articles for the conversation. That does not address the issue of learning the art of conversation, but perhaps by alleviating the other issues, I would have more time to address and model such skills through mini lessons during the unit.

I could also jump into conversations and moderate them as they go. Here I’d have to learn the great lesson I wished I’d learned as a high school soccer player. I was a sweeper and a leader of our team, and I assigned myself the task of making sure members of the other team’s offense were marked up (that is, defended by one of our guys). What I would often do, however, is see a man unmarked and yell out that someone needed to mark him. Then if no one moved, I’d yell again: “Someone needs to mark #24!” What I should have been doing (and honestly never recognized at the time) was a simple trick of classroom management – see the unmarked man, find whom I wanted to mark him, and call for that particular person to act: “Nate, mark 24!” The result: less yelling, more action. On the blogs, why not do what I’d do in a class discussion – put a person “on the spot” and ask him or her to respond to a particular idea that another student raised. It’s not hard, it just requires that I become a moderator on the blogs in a similar manner to how I moderate in person.

I’ll still ask them to look for particular literary devices, and the best way to prepare for such analysis may be to preface the reading of the book with a few examinations of short stories, where we learn a handful of new devices that are often used in novels and rehearse them constantly through the unit (things like irony and character foils). Such proximity may keep the devices fresh in students’ minds, I would hope.

And then there’s the basic stuff to make sure they’re actually reading – daily logs where they record pages read, high standards for grades so no one can effectively bluff their way through assignments, quick feedback so they know what is expected of them. Add all that to the moderation of conversations I would hope to do, and I can definitively declare one thing about this unit: it will not go as well as I hope. I may know what it takes to succeed, but that does not mean I have the ability to make it happen.

And that, I suppose, is what public education is all about.

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