Every year I have students like Sonia. She has a well-cultivated look, is rail thin, well-known if not popular, and says she wants to be a model. Whenever she is bored, she pulls out a phone with a cracked screen and jabs at Instagram photos. For teachers she is a bit of a behavior problem and has a prickly personality reserved for us adults. At the start of the year, she eyed me warily whenever I worked with her one-on-one.
Every year I have countless conversations with the frustrated parents and counselors of students like Sonia. Everyone wants to help the Sonias of our school get better grades, but few have found a way to help these struggling readers. This year I’m trying a few new things in my classroom and am having some limited success.
The teacher’s manual I grew up with says teachers can help struggling readers in activities in which heterogeneous groups do close reading together and then “report out,” where these small groups present what they’ve learned from the text to the whole class. The idea is that skilled readers support those who struggle when students work as a team to answer guiding questions.
Through my years of teaching, I have been frustrated with this method for a few reasons.
- Students like Sonia hide during small group work, presumably because they don’t want their problems with reading to be known.
- No matter how I structure the whole class “report out,” I rarely see the entire class engaged in listening and learning together. In other words, the traditional method lacks student engagement.
This year, I’m trying three things intended to increase the engagement of all students:
- Groups of 3. When students are in groups of three, there is better overall engagement. I’ve seen Sonia playing a leadership role in her group of three, which never happens in larger teams.
- Opinions matter. Close reading questions that call for opinions increase engagement. I see more disagreement and deeper conversations when I use opinion questions. Sonia rarely attempts the type of question that requires a right answer. However, she constantly answers questions that call for her opinion.
- Students in circles for discussions increases engagement. After a few tries of circle discussions, students begin to talk to each other (not just the teacher), they listen more closely to each other, and I can see them building knowledge together. As for Sonia, she struggles to participate, but I see her paying attention the entire time and really trying to find a way to get into the conversation.
Sonia doesn’t look at me as warily as she used to. She still doesn’t understand much of what she reads, but I’m content with her progress in baby steps right now.
However, I’m left wondering whether baby steps are enough. I don’t think it is, so next I’ll change the way I am supporting Sonia’s reading of the textbook.
Ed. Note: Dave Keller (@dkeller101) has been teaching Social Studies for 17 years, consistently looking for new curriculum and methods of instruction. While experimenting with technology in education, Dave focuses on teaching the reading and writing skills required for studying our social universe. He has taught classes throughout the Social Studies discipline in a variety of high schools, including a large comprehensive inner-city school, a charter school, and a competitive independent school. He currently lives in Oakland and teaches at Piedmont High.