Tuesday, May 01, 2007

this is the good part

I am blissfully awash in data. I'm working in both Rebecca and Cameron's classes now, so I have double the fun--fieldnotes, student freewrites, book club norming sheets, discussion records. And all of it wonderfully surprising and stimulating.

I should update you on my and Rebecca's experiment the last couple of weeks. It worked. And I don't mean that in the sense that I often say the phrase when I'm talking about my teaching. It worked in a teacher research sense, meaning that we got good data out of the deal. (NOTE TO SELF: I want to come back to this notion of what it means to say something "works" as a teacher researcher in a later post.)

If you scroll down to a post I made a couple of weeks ago ("Dragon Drawings and Other Social Postures"), you'll see that we wanted to try to cue kids to talk more about the difficult, controversial, or challenging aspects of their book club texts, and we also wanted to hear whether or not their book club interactions influenced their understanding and interpretations of their books. So for their last two book club sessions, we've tried using the freewrites to book-end the period. A week ago, immediately prior to their book clubs, Rebecca asked them to free write for a few minutes to this prompt:

"What challenges, controversies, or difficulties did you encounter in this section of your reading? How did you react to them?"

After students had written for several minutes, they moved into book clubs and began their discussion. As usual, she asked them to talk as they wished and at some point to record each members' best contribution on a discussion record. At the bottom of that record, we also ask them to consider a question common to every book club in the room. For the question on the discussion record that day, we asked them to make a bulleted list of some of the ideas they had written about in their individual free writes and to briefly consider how others in their group reacted to the same issues. Again, the point of this was to help them actually discuss these if they hadn't done so previously.

Then after book clubs wound down, Rebecca asked students to draw a line across the middle of the page where their previous free write ended and write this time about how they now felt about the same issues after having discussed them with their other book club members and why.

Because we liked the rhythm of this process last Monday (and the data it produced), we tried it again yesterday, but changed the questions slightly. In the first freewrite, we asked students to also identify the issues they felt most passionately about from those had listed, to explain why, and then to consider how their understanding of that particular issue was influenced by their personal background (e.g., social class, gender, ethnicity, upbringing, where you live, etc.). Students were again cued by our discussion record question to discuss these issues, and then for the final free write, Rebecca asked them to do a couple of things:

1) to think about how others in their book club had influenced their reading experiences, and

2) to rate their book club experience overall (thumbs-up, thumbs-down, or somewhere in between) and describe how reading in a book club was different from reading alone.

Through this series of questions on students' freewrite, we're trying to cue students to think about how their responses to text are shaped by both their own backgrounds and their interactions with others. We're also asking them to rehearse these ideas before they have to share them with other members in their book clubs, and we're attempting to collect data in these areas as well.

We haven't formally analyzed either set of free writes yet, though we did skim them after both classes, and they're practically burning a hole in my backpack. On that cursory read, however, I've been fascinated to see how kids are defining "tough topics" (i.e., what they found "difficult, controversial, or challenging"). The one response that's stuck with me for two weeks now was by a kid Rebecca says is incredibly bright. He's reading _Cry the Beloved Country_ by Alan Paton.

If you don't know that book, it's set in the forties in South Africa just prior to apartheid legislation. The narrator is omniscient, but most of the action centers on the life of a black minister from a small village whose son murders a white anti-apartheid activist during a botched burglary in Johannesburg. Rebecca and I chose this book because it's what I call a "green-light text" in _The Book Club Companion_. In other words, because the book is a classic, most students and parents accept it without question as a book appropriate to be read in school. As I argue in my book, I think it's important to include at least one of these in any book club book set so that kids can opt out of more in-your-face texts and topics if they aren't ready for them yet. In my and Rebecca's minds, though, this book still qualifies as a tough text because of its subject matter and its difficulty level.

Now back to the kid and his first free write. Let's call him Jack.

Rebecca and I have observed over this book club cycle that the students reading this book have been detached from it overall. That has played out across the data we've collected so far as well. In his first free write, Jack commented that he knew that race was *supposed to be* the controversial topic in this book, but honestly, it hadn't been personally controversial for him, partially because he didn't have to deal with it in his own life (not surprising since this is a white kid writing in a mostly white school and community) but also because of the way the story was told. In the latter case, the narrator's voice had distanced him from the story. Jack went on to say, however, that WHAT MIGHT BE CONTROVERSIAL IS THE FACT THAT HE AND OTHERS IN SOCIETY FEEL DISTANCED FROM RACISM, PERIOD.


I mean WOW. How insightful is that? Remember, this is a fifteen-year-old talking.

Except that I'm out of time, I could keep writing. I don't know if Jack shared his insight with the rest of his book club or if he just discovered it during the moment of writing or if he's thought about it since. Suffice it to say that I have, though. Even in the cursory first read of data analysis, that insight alone has kept me thinking, has generated more conversations with Rebecca and Cam, and has resulted in my hunch that we need to provide even more curricular scaffolding than I'd anticipated when we're asking kids to read tough texts. My conversations with Cam and Rebecca have resulted in the generation of some new curricular materials that I'm pretty excited to try out and a whole lot of new questions.

So stay tuned. This is getting good.


susan said...

Wow! Being able to lurk over your research allows me to ask the same questions of my teaching and pay more attention to the outcomes. Wow!

Cindy O-A said...

Love those kinds of "wows," too :)

Natalie said...

Well, your evidence proves a point I'm always trying to make with my Art Ed students - the importance of providing some kind of reflective structure. Didn't this insight came on the heels of some added structure with the pre-write activity? That 'metacognition' factor.

One of the obstacles I've run into multiple times is a bias against putting structure to a creative problem. But it has always seemed to me that deeper insights and more creative thought comes as a result of grappling with the structure than would have happened if a student were left to his/her own devices. Certainly the maturation process eliminates the need for outside structure, but I feel strongly that it is an important element for students.

Since the whole idea of creating a structured format for writing in the artroom is the focus of my own research I was excited by this latest finding. I look forward to reading more about it.

JC Clarke said...

We just did a brief mini-unit where we read some non-fiction material about Malcolm X. What blew my mind was a couple of kids who seemed to want to express blatantly racist perspectives in my class. I pretty much let kids say what they want to say, but I don't let that B.S. slide, so it was a bit of a tough moment. What made it even more surreal for me was that they were referring to the movie Borat as though it was a racist film. Holy cow, do they not realize that Sasha Baron Cohen is Jewish? Is the irony completely lost on these kids?

The overwhelming opinion of the rest of the class seemed to be "who cares?" Racism just doesn't seem like an important issue to most ninth graders in an almost entirely white school. The sad part is that they need exposure to these issues as much as any demographic, if not more.

The more I hear about Jack the more interesting I think he is; what an amazing kid. Those are the students that for some strange reason I seem to connect with. I used to resent the fact that the counselors used my sections as dumping grounds for the difficult students, thinking that it was because I was a new teacher, but now I take it as a compliment.

respo said...

I am taking a few ideas from your list of quesitons.

Perfect timing too - i am getting ready for another survey!