If you’re looking to incorporate student choice into your next novel study, find yourself an enthusiastic media specialist. And a solid set of anchor texts.
First, you’re going to need to recruit your school media specialist. Last year I embarked on one of the scariest journeys as a teacher. I knew I wanted to do a unit on dystopian fiction. With the call for more student agency, and eyeing my reluctant readers, I decided to allow my students to choose their own novels for this unit. Now, this requires a strong librarian. My librarians pulled hundreds of books for my students under the dystopian genre. On day one of the unit, I marched my excited students down to the library where the media specialists hosted a Hunger Games-theme “reaping” for the books. Here’s another idea for this activity. Students had the opportunity to sample at least five dystopian novels during this event. They were then tasked with choosing a favorite for their assigned book.
The level of engagement in this activity alone was so high. My students were so excited to begin reading their books because I had empowered them with that choice.
Because my students for the most part were all reading different novels, the use of common texts that would keep us anchored throughout the study of the chosen concepts became imperative.
For this unit, I had decided that I wanted students to explore four key concepts: Literary Traditions, Thematic Development Across Texts, Thematic Analysis, and Analyzing the Dystopian World Created by the Author.
As a class, we would read a common text, and within that common text, a concept would be taught. Students would then apply the newfound knowledge to the analysis of their personal novel choice.
The next step for this unit was for me to form literature circles for the students based on their selections. The librarians provided me with a list of the students’ names and their selected book. I then sorted them into groups, which proved quite difficult because there were just too many books in my pool of selection. In an ideal world, I would refine this unit by limiting the titles from which to choose. But this requires that the library have classroom sets of multiple titles, which for most schools is not going to happen. (Most of us are thankful that we even have a library!)
I continued with the theme of student agency throughout all of the assigned tasks. Once students were placed in their groups, I instructed them to develop a reading schedule based on the number of “meetings” we would be having in our literature circles. Even though they may not be reading the same book, using simple fractions (i.e. five meetings means you need to read ? of your book before each meeting) made this process easier. They were given task cards for their assigned role inside their literature circle. We watched a video clip of a successful student-led literature circle. We established norms for the literature circle meetings. Student buy-in was high at this point because they had so much say in the process.
Now the fun could begin. In order to make this all work, I had to provide anchor texts that we could all read and discuss that would then fuel their discussions inside of their heterogeneous literature circles. While planning the unit, I decided on which concepts I wanted the students to learn. (Theme, Importance of Setting, Tone & Mood, Characteristics of the Dystopian Genre) Our first anchor text was “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury. We read it together in class and analyzed it for the importance of setting in dystopian fiction. From that point, students used the techniques and skills learned via that anchor text in their own discussions with their literature circles.
The benefit of using anchor texts is that once the text has been taught whole-class, the text can be used as a common example throughout the unit. I found myself constantly referring to the anchor texts as a way to connect concepts for students.
My dystopian unit culminated with a Socratic Seminar where all students came together to discuss their novels and the learned concepts.
Overall, this was easily one of the most engaging units I’ve ever facilitated as a classroom teacher. If you’re looking to increase student engagement, you’ve got to consider giving students more voice and choice in your classroom. It requires thinking outside of the box, but your students will thank you with their enthusiasm.