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Break it Down, to Improve the Learning

It was a period and a half before class and I decided the plan had to change after listening to a bunch of reticent students share how they felt about full class discussions.

This year's AP class has 34 students in it and of those 34, about six are assertive, confident speakers who always have something interesting to contribute. That isn't to say that the other 28 don't have anything to say, it just means they have a hard time competing with folks who aren't as shy.

Making sure everyone's voice gets heard is an important expectation of mine and this year has proven to be a bit of a challenge, but I'm still not giving up.

Originally, the class was going to participate in a whole-class discussion after 2 days of preparation for it, ensuring that everyone had adequate time to refer to the text, talk in small groups, and then bring their learning to the rest of the class. After all, the small groups had such wonderfully rich conversations about the text, that I didn't want anyone to miss out on what was being said.

So in the eleventh hour, I decided to go with two more rounds of small group conversations where the students intermingled with different folks each time, sharing what they had heard and connected with and listening to the others, also contributing thoughts and questions to the class hashtag on Twitter #wjpsaplit.

While groups spoke, they were asked to take notes, and then at the end of the period, rather than report out verbally, students were asked to write about their thoughts from the conversations with the following prompt:

Using what you learned in the small conversations and your own understanding of the texts from the last few days, demonstrate your knowledge and thoughts on any one or two of the discussed themes making sure to:
  • Make specific reference to one or more of the texts (at least Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, but also possible Hamlet and "Allegory of the Cave"

  • Make connections between the theme and a larger understanding of absurdist theater

  • Make connections to your life and other texts where appropriate

  • It was an informal writing assignment, so it wasn't an essay and it's not being "graded" in the traditional sense, but rather offering me a window into what they took away from the experience which will help me proceed moving forward as I can adjust future instruction about the texts based on what students were saying and may also offer me some insight for future instruction around the topic.

Some themes students addressed were:

  • the importance of individuality and how that applies to "Allegory of the Cave" and how essentially Rosencrantz and Guildenstern spent their existence happily within the cave until they "were sent for" and set the course of their own existence down a different path, sometimes quite passively.

  • meaning and absurdity and how incessant questioning of random events only runs us in circles and makes us think but doesn't enact any kind of change

  • other students tackled the idea of control and choice in our lives and if it is a farce.

  • After class ended, I had a continuing conversation with two students about the end of the play and how Stoppard doesn't ever confirm Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's death, but rather they just disappear and the audience is left pondering the meaning of life and death. He was bothered by the fact that they didn't really question or try to change their fate once they knew they were ambushed. While the other student was more interested in how Stoppard shows us the necessity of individuality and how Rosencrantz and Guildenstern somehow lose out because they are inextricably linked to each other.

These conversations and the one's students shared in their writing are a reminder of the depth of student thinking and how if we set the right parameters, students will come up with really meaningful, engaging ideas.

What opportunities do you offer to students to engage them in deeper thought? Please share

*This post originally ran on my Education Week Teacher blog in April of 2016.


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