It's been a couple of weeks since I've emailed my subscribers and thought I should share this email on my blog as well. That was about a week before this crisis hit California and then ultimately our entire country and countries worldwide. I'm in San Diego and was in my classroom a week before students' exhibition of their 11 weeks of hard work was supposed to take place.
My teaching partner and I were hoping that our school would be able to hold out one more week until our Spring break and allow for the students' community partners, families and peers join us in exhibiting and sharing their work. Sadly, on that Friday, I saw the list get longer and longer of the nearby schools that were closing and eventually, before the end of the school day, ours was announced as closed until further notice.
One of my favorite things about teaching writing is the fact that I get to write alongside my students. I do this not only because I think it’s super fun, but also because it’s so very helpful to my students. The strategies I use the most while modeling writing is “think aloud” and using published texts to emulate what real authors do.
While using the writing process and incorporating these other strategies, students get a real sense of what it means to be a writer and they learn that working through these steps is not easy for anyone (and if it is, they are not doing it right). Students also learn that one single piece of writing could technically go on forever, so knowing when to stop is important, too.
One thing I am asked about often is how to grade for the work students complete in Socratic seminars. I like to think of it more as tracking and assessing rather than grading. It’s more important to track progress than it is to give students a grade because Socratic seminars are designed to meet students where they are in terms of the many different skills needed to have a successful seminar. In order to monitor progress, I track student participation along with a writing piece where I also provide a rubric for a more traditional sense of grading. Together, I am able to really assess a student’s understanding of our class novel and identify areas in which they need more support.
For the first 13 years of my career, I was teaching in a self-contained classroom, most of that time was with 5th graders, and no matter what grade I was in, I was ALWAYS doing read alouds. Read alouds were my favorite part of the day. In October, I usually read The Witches by Roald Dahl and tried to perfect my Russian accent (it was horrible, but still a lot of fun!). At the beginning of the school year, I read Wonder by RJ Palacio to bring the community together through reading. In January, I always chose a book that related to the history I was teaching, whether it be WWII or the Civil Rights Movement. By the end of the school year, I would have mystery, historical fiction, fiction, nonfiction and fantasy under my belt. The kids would look forward to it after lunch everyday and so did I!
This year is my first year teaching middle school, 6th grade, and I was not prepared to give up my sacred read aloud time. And luckily, I am at a school where that is not expected. However, it’s not as easy to fit into my day as I hoped. Typically, my schedule is two 50 minute periods with two different classes. So I see each class twice a day for 50 minutes.
In October, students in my class prepare for their student-led conferences by reflecting on how their school year is going so far and a goal they want to achieve. During the conference, the parents and I (along with the student) create a plan for the goal to be met.
So many of my students recognized that they do not speak enough or at all during Socratic seminars. I was proud of them for noticing this struggle and I started to notice a pattern as to why they were having so much trouble sharing during the seminars. There were two most prominent reasons as to why this was occurring; one reason was because most students were lacking the confidence in their ideas and take-aways from the reading. The other students didn’t feel like they had anything to say.
After speaking with over 58 of my students in these student-led conferences, I felt like a pro at troubleshooting, strategizing and formulating solutions. I was emotionally and mentally drained by the end of that week, but it was so great. I learned a lot about my students and I learned a lot about how I can support many of them in participating more in Socratic seminars.
I love this twist I put on traditional character maps! Above is an example of one I made for the character Auggie Pullman, from the AMAZING book Wonder by RJ Palacio.
In the past, I would have students draw out the character on large butcher paper and write a quick sentence about what is important to the character, what is something close to the character's heart and maybe something the character owned written by his hands and then by his feet, places he went. I liked this idea because it engaging for students to color and design the life-size character map, but it was mostly all artwork and not academic. And as a Humanities teacher, that just didn't feel right.
That all changed when I let go of what I saw others doing and did my own thing!
One of the biggest struggles I used to have with my students during Socratic seminars was getting them to discuss the book when they first started reading it. It felt like there wasn’t much to say until about halfway through the story when we were already meeting for a few weeks. The conversations were dull until the main character started to be developed more and began building to the problem of the story.
Below is a list of strategies I like to use to get the conversation going at the beginning of each class novel:
6th grade Humanities Teacher, Writer, Resource Creator, Curriculum and Course Developer