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Word Shakers


An excited group of 8th graders is a skittish beast. Believe it or not, they are capable of engaging in deep discussion with a little teacher snake oil. In fact, I think the techniques I’m about to discuss can be fruitfully applied to nearly any age or ability of student and will result in a stimulating, text-based discussion about whatever you happen to be reading together as a class.

First, a deep breath.

“Now, hold it for forty five minutes,” I sometimes say. Too corny? Maybe, but it's true that the simple act of a focusing breath or two can have a powerful effect.

Next, reactivate the velcro. Reviewing previous learning is significant. One method is to go over the notes from the last class. Which begs the question, how do you get kids to take decent notes?

I ask students to begin a typical class of literary discussion by opening their writers’ notebooks, putting the date in the upper right hand corner, and a heading that’s not too sexy: “Book Thief, Part X, pp __-__” will do. Whenever responding to a book or taking notes on it, I want students in the habit of noting page numbers. Nothing anchors a discussion like actually referring to text.

Before talk, we go back to the book. I give a few minutes to review the assigned reading, and ask students to write down points for the day’s discussion. Sometimes, I dress this up a bit. For example, today we were continuing to look at the book’s final section, a task we’d started the day before. So, the warm up prompt was “Yesterday, Today.” The directions were to review one’s notes, the text, and memory to find a significant point from the last lesson, and also, look at the currently assigned chunk of pages and find a point worth sharing with the class. In both cases, use page numbers to cite text, and explain the significance.

This five minutes yields great dividends in the literary discussion to follow. No awkward pauses and everyone has something to say when called upon. The literary luminaries will still shine, but others have a chance to contribute, too. What does the teacher do with this time? You review, too. After all, isn’t the truth about reading that every time one encounters a text it’s different? Depending on the cast of light, or maybe whether or not the ball team won yesterday, you’ll notice new and different stuff. Even if you don’t, as a teacher who’s read it before, this moment of review will help you zoom in on what you want to bring out in today’s discussion.

And remember that this is a discussion, not a lecture. Being brilliant is easy, but making your kids smart is a lot harder. Instead of pontificating, direct traffic: “We’re going to zoom around the room now and everyone share their ‘yesterday.’” Once that conversation starts, don’t stay mute, by all means. Add value. Piggyback on their comments or bring out key points Socratically. Extend their ideas; add insights about literary technique to a mundane (but original to that student) observation about plot. Just make sure that you aren’t talking more than they are.

By the way, I no longer do teacher-produced “reading quizzes” to students, because I think it privileges my understanding of the text above theirs. Am I better reader? In most cases, yes, if by better one means understanding more about how literature works and life in general. But, if one defines “better” as “having an original, personal interpretation of the work that is well-grounded in what you’ve encountered as a unique reader,” it would be difficult to argue that I am “better.”

The fact remains that I’m me, and they’re them. How brainy I am on any given day isn’t that important. My goal is to pull out the hidden treasure of each student’s unique individual response. Hence, reading notes and discussion instead of traditional reading quizzes. Guess what? I can still tell who read and who didn’t.

So there are days I give a free pass to those who didn’t. Should my job be to bring them along and provide the means to stay with (or get back into) the game? Or should I spend my time as a gatekeeper, letting only the most devoted students into the sanctum of understanding? I’d rather reach every student, not just the best.

Talking this way lets everybody play, one way or another. If their eyes glaze over, or for homework if you get carried away, set aside a few minutes for each person to write about something they’ve heard that they think is important. During this part of class, the desks of the kids who never say a word squeak just as loud as the ones where the talkers sit. Same as yours.


I teach ninth graders, who would benefit well from this strategy as well! I am also so glad to hear you say that about reading quizzes-- I hope you don't consider this "spamming," but I recently blogged about my changing feelings on quizzing, and I feel much the same as you:


I teach first grade. While they are not as advanced as 8th graders, it is a gifted group that reads short works from Kipling, Pinkwater and Milne to name a few. We do a great deal of shared inquiry. I believe your tweaks will have a positive impact on our relationships with books. Thanks

I teach college freshman and my biggest challenge was motivating them to read in the first place. It was not unusual to have 17 or 18 out of 20 students show up to class not having read a single word of their assignment. I struggled with this constantly - because your technique is terrific, but it doesn't work if the majority of students don't do the reading. Do you have any techniques or advice on how to conquer this problem?

That is a great post. It's good to have somebody else who's done it confirm how good it works. You have incredible results, by the way.

Good stuff!

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