Making Curriculum Pop

The other day I was reading Matt Taibbi's editorial in Rolling Stone about my home state of Illinois' governor Rod Blagojevich. The best paragraph:

"This bullshit [politics as usual] we hoped might end with Barack Obama. But then came Blagojevich, as sleazeball whose massively publicized success in scheming a way to drop turd in the new president's inaugural punch bowl is a gate-crashing leap above station on the order of Paris Hilton screwing her way into a speaking roll in Gandhi or Amadeus."

Taibbi colorfully highlights the fact that when one person's ego is fed at the expense of a group things go all Chinua Achebe - they fall apart. Given the fact that so much of our grading systems and incentive structures are built around the individual it is not shocking to see greedy Wall Street brokers driving our economy into the ground for personal gain or a governor withholding funds from a children's hospital until they made campaign contributions. Everybody wants an A+.

One teacher I work with who happens to be a first-year NYC teaching fellow (learn on the job - earn certification) went to a private Catholic High School, the teaching he received was similar to the teaching I received in a public high school. You know the drill...
Step 1. Read book/story/content
Step 2. teacher talk about book/story/content
Step 3. take test on book/story/content
Step 4. write essay about book/story/content

All year we've been working hard to break him from these patterns. During one of our coaching discussions we started talking about his high school and he started telling me about the student mindset... "We all knew we'd get A's - it was just a matter of who would get the A+; and we copied like crazy to make sure we got every point."

Richard Elmore, a school reform specialist at Harvard, points out from his long career of classroom based research that, "engaging instruction remains all too rare across schools of all types." One can only hope our profession finds ways to engage kids in a way that builds social capitol for our schools, nation the globe. People think national health care, free post-secondary education and "improved schools" can change the world - well they can, but only if we learn to work together.

As teachers we can always work on better structures to help us and our students learn how to play nice together in the big sandbox. From there we can cross our fingers and hope the ways of doing, thinking and treating other people we tried to teach are used beyond the classroom.

Back in the day Harvey Daniels became a leader in articulating roles and responsibilities for all group work in his seminal text Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in the Student-Centered Classroom

During the last couple of years my mother and I (yeup, she Nings) have been remixing and recreating the lit circle templates in a way that makes group discussion pop. The layouts are quite elaborate and filled with what I like to call collateral learning. When you download them - you'll see what I'm talking about. We have a series of ten thus far. The Ning only lets me share three pdfs at a time so I'll get them all up before the end of the week.

My mom has talked to some other teachers and they've filled her brain with ideas for math specific group templates - so stay tuned for those at some later date.

These cooperative learning organizers were given to the aforementioned new teacher this week. I'll let you know if they help us break the cycle of ... imbalanced group work. Hopefully, you'll find these to be useful. As always, if you know any student teachers who need ideas get them to this link so they too can take our most-excellent collaborative learning PDFs for a test drive. Remember, these collaborative learning roles, just like yesterday's discussion moves, take a while to stick.

And A Very Ruby Tuesday To Everyone,


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Ryan- Thanks. I am attending a Harvey Daniels lit circle seminar here in the Chicago area in April. I'll share your handouts with my colleague who's attending with me. The reflection on individual inentive in school is interesting food for thought related to ethics in real life. I'll toss that in when my seniors do their ethics unit in compostion class soon.
Lori Rogalski

How are you? H to the D is a big one, I bet you're excited to go, yeah? I hope to catch him sometime. Do share any cool tips and tricks when you get back. Please do pass those PDFs on - they were made to be used, so the more people that use them the merrier!

I'd love to be a fly on the wall for your ethics discussions with your seniors.

Take care and stay warm!

I love role sheets! What sometimes happens in my classes is that the "Artist" creates some lame, last-minute abstraction that doesn't make sense to anyone but him. As someone who's not an artist, I can sympathize, but I needed a way to get the artist to truly engage with the text rather than simply depict something that happened. One way I've found is to have the artist collage instead of draw. He grabs 2 or 3 old magazines (I get the school library's cast-offs every year), focuses on one idea, character, conflict, etc, and looks for images in the magazines that strike him as relevant to that concept. He tears out/cuts out these images and fills one side of one piece of paper (no spaces in between), then looks again to see what gets created. Usually he sees something even bigger than the individual images. The student then explains the concept he collaged and perhaps why he chose some of the less-obviously-relevant images he did on the back of the collage (for me) and out loud to his group.

This idea works well for the whole class, too. When I taught Life of Pi, for example, about 1/2 way through I gave this assignment to everyone with several choices: they could collage Pi's relationship with Richard Parker, Pi's spiritual condition, Pi's emotional state, etc. I threw on some tunes and, while they chatted at first, they soon fell into looking for relevant images. Some found it very difficult at first, but even the most confused got the hang of it eventually. Students found the exercise revealing on several levels, and when they shared them the conversation about text, character, etc became much richer.
Secret Agent Jane,

How are you - we'll have to meet up soon! This is a great remix of the artist idea - I love this line "the "Artist" creates some lame, last-minute abstraction that doesn't make sense to anyone but him." Collage is an awesome substitution!

See you soon I'm sure!

These are beautifully done, Ryan! I love lit circles, have used them for several years, walked away from them for a couple of year because I feared not enough skills were being taught, then, I got over it, and we're using them again. I'm trying to set up a pbworks space, so my kids can discuss online. It will be something different and new.

Thanks for sharing these.

Thank you for writing! I'm so glad you dug them. Please do share your wiki space when you have it up and running!

Happy New Year!

I enjoyed doing these in Pam's class and plan to try them out on my TAG group this next semester sometime!
Thank you for posting these!! They look so much better in color.
Sandy B.
Thanks Sandra - on Part II you can find the whole packet...

Hi Ryan - Thanks for sharing this with us, the handouts are so much better than those I have used for lit circles in the past.  I hope it is okay for me to share them with my preservice students. I am teaching a seminar class for preservice teachers in a new program, Teaching Residents at Teachers College  They have all been interested in learning more about lit circles and cooperative groups.  Do you have an article or handout that would help them know how to teach these roles to their students?  This website is so awesome, thank you!  Rebecca Stanton

While my class read Ender's Game, I did something similar.  Instead of having weekly quizzes/essays, I divided the students up in groups and had them work on a group presentation that discussed specific chapters of the book.  Each student had a specific job with specific responsibilities.  I definitely want to tweak it to make it more of a classwide discussion, but for the most part I was impressed with the effort that I saw.  Here are the assignment guidelines and group job sheets.


Alex - very cool - thanks so much for sharing! You might also post these as a stand alone discussion forum post int he YA Lit group also - maybe w/ a title like "Enders Game Cooperative Learning Ideas" or something more brilliant - lol!  I'm sure lots of other folks would dig checking your work out.

BTW - there are are more lit circle PDFs HERE and beta Media Circles HERE (book forthcoming).



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