On my list of things to do this spring break was to plan out the next unit in both of my classes. In my AP Lang class, the time after spring break means a shift toward the AP exam. With only a few weeks left, I’m trying not to panic. Deep breaths, I tell myself. Deep breaths. I feel this panic every year, and every year, things usually works out. I just have to keep reminding myself of that.
My ninth grade world literature class is a different type of problem—though one I fully acknowledge is one of my making (more on that later). Our next novel is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. I’ve been teaching Purple Hibicus every year since 2005. My colleague and I were browsing Amazon looking for new texts to include in the course, and thanks to Amazon’s recommended titles algorithm, we found Adichie’s book, read the description, and then ordered copies. (I also blame this algorithm for the hundreds of dollars I’ve spend on books every year.)
I read Purple Hibiscus in less than 24 hours. And despite a few initial reservations, after I finished the novel, I knew it would be a great fit for our curriculum. Since then, I’ve read a few other of Adichie’s books—Americanah is among my all-time favorites—but I always look forward to the spring when it’s time to teach Purple Hibiscus.
I love teaching Purple Hibiscus for a few different reasons. One, it’s beautifully written, and Adichie offers a compelling, modern view of Nigeria to contrast the tribal Africa they read about in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. I also love teaching Purple Hibiscus and Things Fall Apart together; the two novels pair nicely and together, they raise larger issues of storytelling—more specifically, of the need to have many different stories in order to better understand ourselves and others. Finally, I think the novel’s insistence on finding one’s voice—of learning to speak out and to become free and independent—is an important lesson for adolescent readers to weigh and consider.
Although I’ve taught the book for more than 10 years, I’ve approached the book in many different ways. One of my favorite approaches was asking students to blog as they read the novel, which works particularly well since the book invites a lot of personal response from students. Other years, I’ve had students take turns reading reader-response journal entries at the start of class each day. Notably, I’ve never assigned study guide questions with Purple Hibiscus; with this particularly title, I’ve always tried to allow students’ responses to guide our discussions.
So here’s what I mean about this unit being a problem “of my own making.” I could teach the novel in the same way I taught it last year, or the year before, or the year before that. Goodness knows I have more than enough materials and handouts ready to go.
Online spaces are where my students live…
But this year, I’ve decided to make a signficant change in my approach. I still want our experience of reading Purple Hibiscus to be personal and student-centered, but I also want to take advantage of new blended learning opportunities. Online spaces are where my students “live,” so to speak, and I worry that they don’t necessarily know what they’re doing there. And since our district will be using a new LMS next year—Schoology, which I’ve actually used before—I’m interested to see how I can use it to transform learning inside and outside my classroom.
In preparation for the LMS integration (as well as a potential 1:1 move school-wide), I decided to read Power Up: Making the Shift to 1:1 Teaching and Learning by Diana Neebe and Jen Roberts. If you could see my copy of Power Up, you’d see dozens of pages earmarked and flagged, with my notes running throughout the book on stickies and notepaper. There are many ideas in it I’m eager to try out next year, but also one idea that couldn’t quite wait.
Towards the end of the book, Neebe and Roberts include a chapter on “rethinking class time”—how can technology and a 1:1 environment allow us to use classroom time not just in more efficient ways, but in dramatically different ways? I was particularly interested in the idea of “flipping” my instructional practices. In the past, I’ve “flipped” some classroom lessons by creating videos that students watch at home and then practice the skills/topics covered in class the next day (this has been especially effective with mini-lessons on writing). This type of “flipping” is the one I think most people think about when they hear the term “flipped learning.” But what about reading instruction? Was there a way to “flip” that?
In Power Up, Neebe and Roberts discuss flipping their classrooms so that instead of having students read at home and discuss in class, students read in class and discuss at home. What would the advantages of this flipped instruction be?
First, I hope that the time spent in class to read will give students the environment they need to practice their reading skills. I have hard-working, highly capable students. But they are students whose time outside of school is already stretched among their many classes and activities (and their cell phones). As such, I’ve seen more and more students—bright and well-intentioned students—resort to skimming and scanning our assigned reading each night. Reading becomes another thing they need to check off of their list of too many things to do. Deeper reading can’t happen under these conditions. My hope is that by giving students the time to read in class that their reading will be more thoughtful.
If the skill I want my students to practice is active, engaged reading, then why not actually practice active, engaged reading during class time?
Another advantage to reading in class is that it will give students the “just in time” support that they may need. We know from research that the best time to intervene when a skill is being learned is while that skill is being practiced. If the skill I want my students to practice is active, engaged reading, then why not actually practice active, engaged reading during class time? I can confer very briefly with students to monitor and check comprehension and understanding, as well as simply be there in front of students when they have questions while they read. Too often in the past, I’ve sent students home to read only to have them come back the next day confused; we end up spending much of class time clearing up misunderstandings. Why not catch those misunderstandings the moment they happen? Reading in class can give me those “just in time” moments of support.
Of course, if we’re spending time in class reading, what happens at home? I don’t want to lose the rich discussion opportunities that traditional class time offers, so students will discuss their reading together at home in our online Schoology platform. The other day, I already started setting up the discussion threads for each reading assignment, along with prompts to help students during the discussion. The prompts are open-ended and student-driven. I want students to use the discussion boards as a way to express their own original ideas about the text, but to also see the discussion board as another place where they can ask questions, clarify and extend their understanding of the reading, and see each other as resources for learning.
I also hope that by moving discussions online that more student voices will be heard. Often, whenever I’ve moved learning online, I’ve found that students who are quiet in class have wonderful insights to share when they discuss ideas online. Online discussions are also where students “live” these days, between all their text messages and other web-based platforms. Moving classroom discussion online can also give students practice in communicating effectively—and responsibly—in online spaces.
I spent a lot of time thinking through my plans over the last few days. I don’t want to lose the benefit of face-to-face conversations; no amount of online discussion can replace the magic that can happen in face-to-face interactions. With that in mind, I’ve built in “break” days from our reading so that we can work through and review various parts of the text together in class.
Will this work? I don’t know, but I’m eager to find out…
This post is part of the “Slice of Life” series, organized by the teachers at Two Writing Teachers, whose goal is to give teachers a place to write and reflect. This March, more than 300 teachers have committed to daily writing. If you’d like to read more “slices” (from other teachers and even some students), visit twowritingteachers.wordpress.com/challenges.