Saturday, September 29, 2012

Engaged in Evidence Gathering

My students love post-it notes.  I buy or find ways to procure the square 2"x2" ones.  A smaller size would probably work better for most classroom activities but cutting the notes in half works just as well (making sure, of course, that each half has some stickiness).  I've had to beg, borrow, and steal sticky notes after the last activity my students did, which shows, perhaps, how adding a little novelty can keep students engaged in something as simple as gathering evidence.

After reading Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman and an article on community gardens, my students prepared themselves to navigate "Antaeus" by Borden Deal.  We briefly discussed the mythological connections to the title of the story.  If Antaeus, the giant, maintained his strength by touching the earth, why then is his name used in the title of this story?  What allusions can be found about earth creating power in the individuals or in the gang?  We also discussed vocabulary.  What if the definition were not conveniently located at the bottom of the page?  Whatever could we do to decipher the meaning of the word, the sentence, or the passage?  Therefore, context clues became our second focus for the activity.  Interestingly enough, many vocabulary words the students documented could also be used for as allusions to earth and power.

With two levels of focus in mind, students equipped themselves with the textbook, a stack of sticky notes, and their small groups of three.  Their goal was to tag the textbook with the sticky note when they found a piece of evidence that could answer either the allusion or vocabulary question.  They needed to make notes on the post-it about their thinking and what prompted them to tag that passage, sentence, or word.

What proceeded for the remainder of the class period were engaged discussions about the text.  Students who do not normally speak, much less read aloud, were voicing opinions or writing on sticky notes.  Members within each group took turns reading aloud, creating the potential for a roomful of groups to sound cacophonous.  Instead, the reading, digging for evidence, asking questions, and documenting thinking generated an electric hum that felt rather energizing.  My advice would be to not shy away from small groups reading aloud, even in a small classroom.  When given a specific focus and a stack of sticky notes, even the students who are normally the least engaged will rise to the challenges set before them.  One caveat: I did assign students rather randomly in some classes but very purposefully in others.  I asked a few students to do this activity alone and receive assistance from me rather than from their peers--not a decision I take lightly because I believe Vygotsky had something when he wrote about the social component of learning.  But I also believe that students should have a positive group learning experience, which sometimes does not happen if not everyone in a group has the same goals.  A few students asked to read and work independently, and I reluctantly allowed that option.

There may be a few disadvantages to having only a class set of literature textbooks, but I haven't really discovered many.  First of all, we don't use them as readers in the classroom.  My department selects various stories, some from an older, beloved literature book, a few from our newer one, and many complementary materials from our own searches.  Secondly, this activity would not have been nearly as effective if the students each had his or her own book.  You see, the final step of the evidence-gathering process was to remove the sticky notes from their books and place them on a piece of notebook paper.  Before removing the note, the group members needed to check their notes for completeness (page numbers, quotations, etc.).  As class ended, I collected the sticky note-laden papers.

The next day, when I returned the papers to the groups, I asked them to look at what they collected.  We began to discuss allusion by only referring to the evidence on the sticky notes.  It was difficult.  Regardless how much the students remembered about the story, most of them had very little actual evidence.  Writing a vocabulary word, the word "allusion," and page 472 did little to help them articulate why it was a piece of evidence.  When they set out to "clean up" their digging, students pulled quotations from the text and linked them to the power of the earth.  They identified the context clues around the vocabulary words.  They documented the page numbers.  They wiped me out of post-it notes--even when the notebook paper would have worked just fine for day two.  I am eager to try this activity again, but they may not let me get away with not using sticky I will be borrowing that Office Depot catalog soon.

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