Friday, April 11, 2008

Finishing the Year with Google Docs

The best part of the new developments in technology is how they can make okay plans I have done in the past much, much better. I am hoping this is the case with my AP English Lit students' final novel study: Things Fall Apart. I have always had them tackle this novel in seminar groups where they prepared discussion ideas ahead of time then discussed the reading in small groups with me as a resource not their teacher. It has gone fine and even very well -- but the discussions ended in the class. I am hoping Google Docs will expand my classroom outside of the 45 minutes that happen in the four walls of my room.

I started by changing around the discussion prep work (see this here), incoporating sharing and reflecting on the group's Google doc before coming to class. Students have to, for example, add a question they have about the reading to the Google doc for the first seminar. For the second seminar, they have to reflect on the discussion their group had and note on the Google Doc the most important themes and issues they see thus far in the novel. In class, the Google Doc will allow all of the students to be clued in to their books and the discussion rather than typing furiously away taking notes (see seminar guidelines here).

Overall, Web 2.0 tools have given me class time I never had before -- the students' own time at home alone yet still connected with each other in web-based discussions. Individual literature reflections have become full-blown discussions before class even happens (using the Turn It In discussion board). I hope Google Docs can become yet another venue for this independent yet collaborative thinking my students have been doing. It just so happens that I really don't need to be guiding every aspect of their discussions -- they do just fine, if not even better, playing with the ideas on their own.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Pushing Inquiry Further

My students' work with the inquiry frame for Oedipus Rex (see post below) worked well enough that I decided to push it further as we start our final theme for the year: cultural identity and isolation. Doing something twice always means the second time is better, so I knew I had little to lose.

We began exploring this final theme on Friday just by looking into what the individual words "cultural," "identity," and "isolation" meant. This produced great ideas -- particularly the point that you can be be isolated even within the culture that creates much of your identity. We discussed literary examples to explore it more, and it was neat to see them play with familiar characters in a new way. I ended this part of the discussion by having them define what we would need to look at in our upcoming readings to help define this theme. On their own, they said we would need to define first the culture then define how the characters were placed in relation to this culture. From there, we could explore.

They defined my unit plan. On their own. This inquiry stuff works.

I ended class with the following question to introduce Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis: How do our everyday cultures (that is our families, jobs, friends, classes -- those things we experience every day) affect who we are and who we aren't? I told them that we were starting small with this exploration -- with a story that rarely even left a single home. We will the build on this by reading Things Fall Apart, starting as outsiders to the culture that is at the foundation of the novel.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Framing with Inquiry

One of the most worthwhile things I never find enough time to do is read about teaching methods. This takes me back to my undergrad and grad days where I had to write out formal lessons plans and try out new strategies. This forced experimentation always showed me how well things worked in ways I had not anticipated. So, a blurb about an inquiry-based approach to literature in the Council Chronicle has my mind working again as I think about WHY I teach a lesson the way I do. After years of teaching, I can often lose the original idea behind a tried and true lesson.

Today I made the inquiry-based approach the overt guide for our discussion of Oedipus Rex. We had looked at two questions before beginning -- "What if your search for self leads you to something you do not want to know?" and "Do our actions determine our fate?" -- and then moved on to reading the play in class and playing around with the character of Oedipus in nightly on-line discussions. Typical literature discussion stuff.

So I dragged out the questions again as the start to our class today, saying that now it was time to see what Oedipus could teach us about the answers -- my inquiry frame. Our discussions ranged from the strong characters of Sophocles's writing to the ancient Greeks' view of fate to the views of fate we have. This class tends to be quiet, so it was not the liveliest discussion ever -- but it was real. The students talked about how, as much as they want control, they like to think there is some fate in their lives -- that things happen for reasons. This led to their college decisions (which have all come in as of April 1 -- a coincidence or fate that I had this discussion today?!) and whether some of the difficult news they had heard had a role in a larger plan. Not all students saw it this way, and the give and take with this was impressive. They were not trying to convince everyone of their views -- just playing around with ideas. I ended class by having them write down their thoughts on fate and choice and life, and the keys did not stop tapping for a full five minutes. I don't know what they each specifically wrote, but I know they were intrigued and connected.

An old method proves effective again. I am now going to try to be more overt all year with my world literature themes -- phrasing them with the questions that have always lurked under why I grouped the particular set of books together in the first place. Going back to our roots as students of teaching often uncovers great things.