Monday, February 17, 2014

Seeing it through: On capturing Words of Wisdom

Not every idea I try in the classroom works. Sometimes I aim way too high, sometimes pitifully low, but occasionally, God and the universe shoot me an idea and it takes. In fact, the best ideas have  benefits that reach beyond my original intention.

A couple of months ago, I embarked on a long journey with my 8th grade Literature class. We picked up To Kill A Mockingbird, the beloved classic rated only 2nd in influential books behind the Bible according to some sources.  It's 31 chapters long and while wonderfully written, not always easy to understand to today's students. My class is comprised of wonderful students but if pressed I'd say it has a 90/10 reluctant/enthusiastic reader ratio. So, I wondered how I might keep them engaged and interested for the duration.

Utilizing a bulletin board and some vintage paper to match the old fashioned themes of the book, we began to choose one quote for each chapter. I started the process, choosing a quote that I felt reflected a major theme of the chapter. From there I assigned one student per chapter to pick out the quote. He or she would write it on the paper and mount it on the bulletin board. At first, the students began to share and tell why they picked the quote. After a time though, it became a great way to review. Often after a long weekend or when I felt comprehension of some key ideas was waning, we'd go back a few chapters and reread the quotes. We'd answer three questions: Who said it? Who was he/she talking to? What was he/she talking about? It became a great way to review and informally check my students understanding. Those who hadn't caught some of the key ideas received another opportunity to hear them from their peers.

A couple of things happened that I hadn't plan for. The students began to refer to some of the quotes as "words of wisdom" and indeed many of them are. They also used some of them for their end of the book character projects to reflect aspects of their chosen character. A large portion of the final test was over the quotes which reflected their understanding better than a multiple choice question.

Just on a whim and because I had ten minutes to fill at the end of a class one day, I asked the students to write a letter to next year's eighth graders stating why or why not it would be a good idea to read To Kill A Mockingbird. Except for one student (he said it was too long), they all recommended the book. The common themes in their letters: the book helped  to understand a different time period ('back then"), there were many words of wisdom, some intense scenes and some cursing!  Thank goodness for Scout's occasional outbursts which kept my sometimes sleepy middle-school readers turning the pages!

Every good idea I stumble upon helps me as a reader. While reading something that I want my middle aged memory to grasp onto ( my memory is holey and holy these day) this strategy helps me to find the flow of key ideas and themes of a book I want to remember and learn from. Equipped with my reading log notebook and a pencil, I can use this strategy to help me be a more active learner. when finished, I also write about what I liked/didn't like about a book and what I believed I learned from it. Teaching is a great opportunity to learn, I have discovered. The surprising benefits to encouraging my digitally gifted, information overloaded students to read more closely and venture into new and unfamiliar territory is that I have grown as a reader and learner myself. The quote below became one of my favorites and I was thrilled when the young man who found it recognized such an important theme!

Seeing it through,