Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Living and Reading

Today, I began a second installment of book club with my English 12 students. This was in response to the overwhelming popularity of our first book club foray in February.

This idea came to me intially as I tried to think of ways I could help my students become lifelong readers. How do we see those who are no longer in school "living" life as readers? Akin to those who continue to run long after they have graduated from PE classes, where in society do I see people reading for meaning and pleasure? The answer lies in the book club phenomenon that has swept the US and Canada (Egad! Oprah again!)

The book club offers an opportunity for people from diverse backgrounds to get together and debate, discuss and decipher books they have all read. Perhaps reading is not the end of the process but rather the beginning of the conversation that good books seem to generate. The book club offers so much for the English student: active reading, engagement, discourse, critical thinking, active-listening, questioning, being enlightened by the thoughts of others. But this is still all teacher speak.

Why do adults CHOOSE to be part of a book club, even though there is no looming authority figure or class assignment? …because it’s fun, and somewhere along the way, all that heady intellectual stuff also happens to follow.

Joanne Leblond, our teacher-library and I lead a brief book talk to introduce students to some books that have been fixtures on bestseller lists and/or are the darlings of critics. From there, students chose the book they would like to read and discuss. We tried to replicate as close as possible the ad hoc conversations about books readers often happen upon - these talks occur in hallways, elevators, during class, meetings and even between between bathroom stalls.
We toss the titles of books to friends and acquaintances all the time.

Oh, you’ve got to read….
Have you read….?
If you love…you’d love…
Oh, I’m reading such a great book right now...

Here is an excerpt of what I shared with the students

What we’d like to replicate here is the sense of excitement and buzz that comes from sharing a good book with a friend.

I don’t want this to feel like a course assignment because, for whatever reason, this robs books of some of their magic. I want the discussion to be organic and authentic.

I have set up a discussion board for each of the books that you can use to bounce around ideas or to ask questions or discuss anything you fancy. I will not be setting specific requirements for when and what you should be posting. I think a reasonable amount would be 2-3 posts/responses by our book club date. The learning will be intrinsic and very personal so post whatever ideas inspire or irk you and post at whatever time of day and at whatever point in the book you like. The point is not to post just to jump through the hoop; post b/c you have something to say or something to wonder or something to ask. Post because you want to engage with another reader. This is a community of readers we are creating.

I want you to enjoy the book and let its ideas wash over and through you. I want you to be a reader. Let's not talk about assessment until after the book club. If you engage meaningfully in this book club, you will be happy with your marks. My goal is to help you enjoy reading; how does one assess this? This is my dilemma. Just read and think and discuss and you will do well.
We will have two weeks to read your books and then meet in a location off campus (real life, right?) The meetings will be organic affairs where participants will drive and steer the discussion on a meandering but nonetheless meaningful path.

On the designated book club date, we lunched, sipped coffee, slurped Vietnamese pho and balanced tuna sashimi on chopsticks at eating establishments throughout the neighbourhood. I attempted to visit every group and in every instance, my English teacher's heart swelled taut at the sight of readers meeting socially over food and drink to talk passionately about their relationship with a book.

Can't wait to see what the second round has in store!

Friday, May 1, 2009

In response to Kim McGill's blog re' collaborative writing.

I think collaborative writing adds a new dimension to the writing process that reflects the needs of our contemporary culture. Although there will always be a place for private and personal writing, the ubiquitous nature of blogs, facebook, twitter indicates that more and more so, writing is moving into the public sphere. Most writing that is published electronically is, by nature, works in progress. We post, we receive feedback (solicited or not) and we often rewrite or reconceptualize. In this way, teaching collaborative writing explicitely is crucial. I have had some success using Googledocs, wikis and track changes in Word.

1. Googledocs - I agree that giving collaborative writing a purpose is essential. Without a authentic purpose, there is simply no motivation to write. The writing itself is not as effective as a product in and of itself.

Working with Google Docs, students wrote a wikipedia articles collaborativey (I used revision history to track their contributions). Students were very excited that they would be contributing to Wikipedia (a previous attempt to draft in wikipedia was a disaster...yikes!). As such, their writing was focussed and directed. What I found quite surprising was the ownership students took of the process...the natural editors in each group took on the nitpicking duties, those with particular strengths in layout took ownership of this domain. The process which evolved was rather fluid in that students also made decisions independently or in groups, to contribute their particular strengths to the piece. Once they had finetuned the piece to the satisfaction of all, groups met face to face to make some final tweaks before uploading to the blowing winds (kind or malevolent) of wikipedia.

2. Wikis - Once again, the purpose of collaborative writing was established. Students groups used wikis on our virtual classroom to create a presentations to be delivered to the entire class. In this instance, we divided up literary terminology into groupings based on commonality; each group would become the experts of one area of terminology (character, irony, rhetorical devices...) and teach to the rest of the class, using their wiki document as a lesson plan, visual aid, note-skeleton. I used history to track contributions.

An added bonus lay in the permanent study notes that students would have access to for study purposes. The class also worked collaboratively to design the test by supplying questions from their area of expertise to a test-design wiki. Boy, did they think they were getting away with murder! But alas, the learning was in writing and knowing exactly what would be on the test!

3. Track Changes in Word: I tend to only used this with senior students because younger ones do not seem to be able to take the suggestions and comments of others and transfer it into meaniningful improvements. After several classes of writing their personal narratives alone, I asked English 12 students to turn track changes on, then walk to a new computer. They were asked to insert comments/suggestions for style, voice, fluency as well as make deletions or additions to the writing. When writers returned to their work, the mark ups were shown distinctly in red. Student writers had the option to either accept/ignore the editing comments made. This process honours collaboration but also gives ultimate veto power to the writer. I think this particular strategy is only effective with more mature students who have already discovered a distinct, albeit evolving, voice.

For me, the value of collaborative writing does not lie in the product but in the process; students are challenged to think critically, negotiate tactfully and engage meaningfully in a real life skill. The learning is layered and seamless.