THE RESEARCH CONNECTION
Pamela Sissi Carroll, Editor The Florida State University, Tallahassee, FloridaLiterature Reading and Research in a Middle School Classroom
by Pamela Sissi Carroll and Kathy Corder
"I'm stumped. My seventh graders and I are in the middle of a reading and research project. They seem stuck, and I'm not quite sure what to do about it."
Kathy Corder, 11/17/96
With this honest statement of frustration and concern, Kathy Corder, a seventeen-year veteran teacher of middle school language arts, invited me to participate for a semester as a teacher and researcher in her class. Our collaboration began immediately, built around the kind of realistic, significant classroom investigation that we believe is most useful to teachers: Kathy noticed a real problem with her class, and she was seeking answers. She wanted to help her students grow as thinkers, gain social interaction experience and skills, and enjoy themselves as they were learning. She had begun to realize that her assumptions about the way her students deal with academic and social problems were not always accurate, and that she needed to re-examine her own ideas about how students learn and how they get along in groups. Kathy was ready to make changes in her practices and pedagogy, if she found that change was necessary. I was delighted that she asked me to observe and participate in her class.
As a professor of English Education, I was eager to explore the ways that a group of middle school students make sense of literature, to identify the young adult books that most appeal to them, and to observe their social interactions in an extended cooperative learning activity. The article that follows is the story of the classroom literature/research project that Kathy, her 28 gifted seventh graders, and I were involved in during the winter and spring of 1996-1997. Our voices and perspectives alternate in the narrative that follows (the comments spoken by Kathy, the classroom teacher, and by her students, are printed in regular type; the remarks of Sissi, the collaborator from a university English Education program, are indicated with italics). We have prepared this story almost as if co-writing a dialogue journal in which each of us commenting on the same activities and developments, but from our different perspectives. We were forced to reconsider the generalizations we had accepted about how young adolescent students respond to teachers, challenges, and to each other, because this class, like every group, had its own personality and momentum. We knew that by studying the class, together, we would grow as learners and teachers.
We hope that you will use this account of classroom research as an impetus for studying your own practices and effectiveness, and the growth of your students as learners and as human beings.
The Classroom Teacher's Description of the Project: A Focus on Literature for Adolescents
I've always strongly believed that we have an obligation to teach our students how to seek out the answers to their questions, how to solve problems which arise, how to take information and wean it for the vital components, and how to infer what's important about data. Teaching students to be researchers has always been an integral part of my middle school classes. I've also tried to incorporate literature which engages the students in the reading process. I want students to find characters and situations not unlike themselves and their world and to learn from them. I want them to leave each literary experience with new knowledge about their world, human behavior, and life in general. It is these two goals that first turned me on to the idea of combining research and literature into a meaningful project for my students.
The idea for combining the reading and study of literature with research emerged quite accidentally. I always begin the school year by having all of my classes read S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders (1967). It is a book that, year after year, my students love. They can identify with the characters and their feelings. I also use the book as an opportunity to introduce the beginnings of the young adult genre. We talk about the literature for young people that existed prior to The Outsiders, and about characteristics of today's young adult literature as opposed to the junior novels prior to 1967.
After a short introduction to the history of young adult literature, I present to the students a list of literature for young people ranging in dates from 1850 to present, borrowing titles from a book on my professional shelf, Donelson and Nilsen's Literature for Today's Young Adults, 3rd. I asked them to note titles and authors that caught their attention as I briefly described the books. I then asked them to begin thinking about possible questions about the books - or about changes in books for young people - that they would like to explore. I asked them to discuss ideas with parents, their classmates, and me. We spent class time discussing possible investigation ideas. For example, I suggested to them that it might be interesting to look at how historical and social events shaped the changes in literature for young adults. One of the students suggested looking at how themes in the literature had changed. Another suggested looking at how the actual writing style of the authors had evolved.
I then asked students to form groups based on their general literature- research interests. Each group was asked to make a preliminary decision about a literature research project and then to orally present the idea to the class. As groups presented their preliminary ideas, the class audience provided input that allowed for fine-tuning of the research idea. Once groups decided more specifically on what they would investigate, I asked students, as individuals, to select two novels that they would read, using two criteria: the books had to be written in two different time periods, ranging from 1800 to the present; the books had to contribute to the investigation with which the group was beginning to explore. (Please see Works Cited: Students' Book Choices.) At this early stage, I mentioned that each group member would also be required to conduct and document project-related research, but added the research requirement would be discussed later.
For an entire six-weeks grading period, students were reading their two novels outside of class; and I required students to document their independent readings in their journals, a habit we had established while engaged in common readings earlier in the school year. The interest groups met periodically during the six weeks in order to revise their investigation plans, drawing on what individual readers were finding as they read their novels. Following is a list of the groups' investigation questions and the books read by group members:
- Group 1: What happens to books which are made into movies? Novels of study: The Outsiders, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Pelican Brief, The Man Without a Face, Charlotte's Web
- Group 2: The Novels of S. E. Hinton - Why does she write about violence? Novels of study: The Outsiders, That Was Then This is Now, Taming the Star Runner, Rumble Fish, Tex
- Group 3: How has science fiction changed in the past 50 years? Novels of study: Singularity, The Eyes of Kid Midas, The Lost World, Andromeda Strain, Star Hatchling, Norby's Other Secret, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, Enders Game, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
- Group 4: How has the love/romance novel changed in recent decades? Novels of Study: Seventeenth Summer, Winter Love, Winter Wishes, and Jane Eyre
- Group 5: What are the changes in the initiation or growing up novel? Novels of study: Little Women, A Separate Peace, Jane Eyre, Sorority Girl, Robinson Crusoe, To Kill a Mockingbird, Seventeenth Summer, and Drop Out
- Group 6: How has the family dinner hour changed in novels? Novels of study: Little Women, Jane Eyre, Sorority Girl, Huckleberry Finn, Lassie Come Home, and Seventeenth Summer
- Group 7: How is life in New York City presented in books for teenage readers? Novels of study: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Brave, and Monkey Island
As groups began to finalize topics and make decisions about novel selection, it seemed our class research project was getting off of the ground. The students and I were excited about our adventure.
From the Beginning: The Collaborator's Perspective
Although I was not involved in any way with the literature/research project that Kathy had begun to implement with her students at this point, she told me about the topic selections that the students had developed. I was struck by several elements of the literature/research project topics. The first element is the variety of texts that the students had committed to reading. In most groups, students planned to address changes in some aspect of literature over a period of time by reading books from the traditional school canon and works from contemporary young adult literature. I was surprised to find books that I would have predicted that high school readers may have chosen, such as Jane Eyre and Huckleberry Finn, alongside one or two books that I would have expected to see on the list of elementary school readers, including Charlotte's Web and Lassie Come Home. I was reminded of a cardinal rule of teaching English Language Arts: if we ask students to become fully engaged in reading and study of literature, we must not always restrict their reading choices to the books that we think they need to read. Like Kathy, we should provide students with guidance that will enable students to make sound choices. However, we also need to set aside some class time in which we step aside and trust students to make choices that will work for them.
The second element of their choices that caught my attention was the sophistication of the topics themselves. I would not have predicted that seventh graders would be interested in investigating one author's canon, comparing the way several authors present New York City, or how science fiction novels have changed across time. Evidently the time spent in class to brainstorm about topic possibilities, and then the time spent for interest groups to meet and discuss their preliminary ideas, had provided ideas and directions that students were able to incorporate into their thinking and plans.
The third element that intrigued me was the variety within students' topic choices. When I became a participant-observer in the classroom, I asked each group to explain how it arrived at its topic, hoping to gain insight into the thought process that informed their choices. Students' answers were sometimes amusing and often enlightening. Kianna spoke for the group that was studying changes in the way the family dinner hour by stating that everyone in her group shares an interest: eating. Nick spoke for the S. E. Hinton group, explaining, in a slightly confessional tone, that he had never read an entire novel until earlier that year, when the entire class read The Outsiders. This admission reminded me of another important lesson: well- written young adult literature is successful because it speaks to adolescents. Although Kianna was a serious and successful student, she and her group used "fun" as a major criterion when developing a research topic. Although Nick is a gifted student, one with an exceptional I.Q. score and comfortable self-confidence, he is also a young adolescent, one who was drawn to reading by a book about teenagers who had to deal with alienation, tough choices, and questions about the loyalties of family and friends. Young adult literature is an important addition to the classroom library.
The Teacher Sees the Beginning of Problems: Group Confusion and Conflicts
The students' first written task was to track or record significant observations about their novels that related to their particular theme or area of study. For example, the students reading science fiction were instructed to make notations of references to scientific fact or myth and write a reaction to the passage. What did the passage mean to them? What conclusions can they draw from the text? I call this activity "literary tracking." My students had successfully used literary tracking when they read The Outsiders, so it appeared to me that they could easily complete this requirement. Soon, however, they started asking about these notations. They either felt they had too much to record, or nothing at all. Though my instructions were, from my perspective, quite specific, students found that they were either too restrictive or that they gave them too much room.
At this time, I also asked students to make a decision about additional kinds of research they might require in their individual projects. This request seemed to present a problem: they did not understand how to decide what kind of additional information they needed. I thought that I provided guidance for them. I suggested, for example, that the science fiction group might look into technological and scientific advancements prior to and during the writing of the novels they were studying, while the family dinner hour group might investigate family traditions and how they've changed. Despite my help, the groups seemed to lack focus. They wanted me to tell them exactly what to do, where to turn.
I wanted to provide my students with assistance but not the answers. After all, don't we want our students to become more independent as learners and researchers? How much help is too much? Can we help our students too much? These questions plagued me throughout the project. More problems were beginning to brew: cooperation participation was strained in some of the groups. Within one group, two or three students would vie for a leadership position. Another group had neither a leader nor any initiative. As a teacher who has experienced success with previous student research projects, I found these new dilemmas quite frustrating.
It was during this period that I talked about the class project with Dr. Sissi Carroll, a colleague and friend; this was a project I believed in and wanted to work. When Sissi came to my class that first day as a participant- observer, she spent the period asking them questions about the project and their perceptions. I, meanwhile, sat in the back of the room and listened to them. It was an interesting experience for me - to hear them tell someone who was an outsider at this point, what they were doing.
The Collaborator and Students Meet for the First Time
On the first day that I met with Kathy's students (in early December) my goals were to begin to know something about them as a class and as individuals and to try to understand the literature-research project from their points of view. Kathy and I had discussed the fact that the students seemed to have reached a plateau regarding the project and that some were becoming frustrated while others were becoming disenchanted and bored. After a few minutes of friendly conversation during my first visit, I asked students to talk with me about what they thought the literature-research project they had been working on since October was all about; I asked them to help me understand what the assignment and the class looked like from their points of view. Then I asked a few specific questions to guide our discussion.
My first question was simply, "How did you decide which books you would read for this project?" Domenic responded without hesitation, "Ms. Corder gave us a list of books. We had to do a paper on our own book first, then talk about it in groups. [For the paper] everybody had to answer questions about our books; we had the same questions to answer even though we had different books. It was stuff about the main characters and what was the most interesting and if anything was confusing. [See more of the specific questions in the section below.] Ashley added, "While we were reading, we had to keep a log so that we could track some ideas. We read our logs aloud when we met in our groups. Everybody in our group contributed to what we wanted our project to be about after we went around and read our logs." From the simple question much information arose; these students were eager to have Kathy, who was sitting in the back of the room, and me hear their sides of the story.
During the discussion, I also asked what was bothering them about the project at this point. After some encouragement to voice their concerns, they began, several with variations of "We have to do RESEARCH. That'll take FOREVER!" Others chimed in variations of the "I'm tired of READING" refrain. One said, "I don't like the book I have to read," as if Kathy had assigned each student a specific text and would not allow them to change their selections. This statement is a fine example of one of the problems of classroom discourse: miscommunication often results when the teacher or student deviates from normal activities.
Students Pushing toward a Product: The Teacher Sees More Problems It appeared to me that the students had a general idea of what was being asked of them. It was clear, however, that the students were more concerned with finished products of their reading and research than the process. True, a product had been mentioned in the beginning - only briefly - but these students had an obsessions with outcomes, results, and products without even thinking about the heart of the project. I have thought about that a lot. My first reaction was that, because these students are in a highly competitive gifted program in which grades are so important to them and their parents, they were obsessing over what they perceived as being the part that was going to be graded. Since that time, however, I've revised my ideas somewhat: I have begun to believe that they needed more structure than I first supplied for them in order to help them move from reading to reading and studying the texts.
To get my students to re-focus on the task of literary tracking, I asked each student to write a paper, addressing a series of questions about their book as it related to their particular topic. I wrestled over this choice a great deal but in the end decided to have them do this to ensure that the students had thought about the important issues that are inherent in their particular research. For example, I asked the students in the books-into-film groups to answer such questions in their paper as these:
- When you think about turning this book into a movie, what do you consider to be most important?
- How would you depict characters and setting?
- Keeping in mind the time period, what concerns would you have as a movie producer?
- What are the social issues, concerns, and or problems of the time period of your book?
Since the students were making no progress with the original literary- tracking assignment, I modified the task. When students turned in their papers, I was quite pleased with the results. Following is an excerpt from Kira's response to this assignment, as it relates to her reading of Little Women:
This book takes place in the late 1800's. I can tell because of the way they talk aboput the war and the way they describe their dresses... In this book I found only one real problem, and that was the amount of medicine they had. If [Beth] had the medicine we have today, she would have still be alive. Another example is the baby that gave Berth the sickness she had. If the baby had some medicine it wouldn't have passed the disease on to Beth...
After reading their individual book response papers, I felt confident that, although we had abandoned literary tracking as a method for probing into the books, the students were finally looking at their particular novels with new and interested eyes.
Not long after they wrote these papers, Sissi asked the students to design a graphic organizer that would reflect the literary aspects that intrigued them in each of their novels. She suggested that they could then see, graphically, that the books they read have many common features that they can investigate. Involving the students, she modeled the process of creating graphic organizers on an overhead. She used questioning to elicit responses about texts regarding theme, characterization, plot, setting, and so on. Students were then instructed to go home and design a graphic organizer of their own. The students identified meaningful, conventional, and innovative components of novels, in addition to creating aesthetically pleasing art. Please see James' and Helen's organizers in Figure 1 and Figure 2.
The students then met in their groups to share their organizers. Next, we asked them to select the most appropriate organizer and use it to represent the group or to create a new one for the group. We explained that, once a group organizer had been picked or designed, students would add to it some text-specific information about the literary aspects they were interested in investigating. Little did we know that this would become one of the most challenging requests we made of the students. They again had difficulty in making choices about constructing the organizer; they had to work to agree on what to include as common features of their novels, what to throw out as unrelated to their investigation, and what to highlight as most important. Both the tracking assignment and the graphic organizer assignment were difficult for my extremely capable and motivated gifted students. Why was that? In retrospect now, I think it was because I made certain assumptions about what students know how to do and don't know how to do, and about our language arts curriculum. I asked myself questions including these:
- When, in my students' eight year education, would they have been taught about reading a piece of literature, selecting passages that were relevant to their tasks, prioritizing important information, and making some inferences about the experience?
- Although students are often asked to do these things, are they asked to complete such a sequential, all-encompassing, multi-skill task?
- Are they capable of extending isolated skills to situations that required multi-skills?
- How often do our students participate in extensive decision-making and problem solving in individual content areas or integrated study?
The Collaborator Reflects on Students' Mid-Project Products and Progress
Like Kathy, I was surprised that the creation of individual and group graphic organizers was frustrating and difficult for her students. In addition to the thoughtprovoking questions about curricula which she raised, this phase of the project led me to begin thinking about these issues: (1) Students are comfortable when they know precisely what their finished products should look like (thus they frequently ask questions like the ubiquitous, "How LONG should it be?"). The creation of a graphic organizer did not provide students the comfort of that kind of specificity; however, the frustration shoved them into intellectual growth. When we must deal with new information, or with old information in a new way, we begin to feel cognitive disequilibrium. At that point, a thinker has two choices: ignore the challenge to make sense of the new information or work to restore cognitive equilibrium by making sense of the existing and intruding information.
One of the most important lessons we can teach students is that learning requires being intellectually shaken, temporarily; until, as learners, we feel that new information is in conflict with what we already know, we have no need to try to make sense of the new information. However, it is where the old and new information intersect that learning occurs. It seems that some of Kathy's students might have been reluctant to feel intellectually uncomfortable during the time it would take to resolve the cognitive disequilibrium. (2) Students in this seventh-grade class have been experimenting with using spoken and written language in sophisticated ways. It seems possible that they had become so accustomed to using language as the means for expressing themselves that they were unsure of how to use another symbol system - drawings - to represent their ideas. Perhaps we need to include more activities that encourage students to explore their abilities to use a variety of symbol systems, such as music and visual art, as well as words. (3) Teachers have a fine opportunity to learn about their students' thought processes when they attend carefully to what students say about assignments. Often, we dismiss students' complaints about assignments as indications of students' laziness (and many times we are right on target!) but other times, we benefit from seriously considering what gaps in students' understanding can tell us. Through her continuous reflections on what was going on among her students while they were involved in this project, Kathy reminded me of the need for teachers to constantly monitor their assignments and students responses to those assignments and to be willing to make changes when changes are necessary.
Adding a Research Requirement: Continuing to Challenge Students
The next task Sissi presented to the students was to seek out articles and/or resources that related to their projects. Oh my goodness, what a task this turned out to be! We spent a lot of time in the Internet Mac lab at school, and Sissi brought in resources from the Florida State University campus. Most of the students relied on The ALAN Review for assistance, but a few students found some resources by searching on the Internet. The students' assignment was to read and summarize each article and to discuss its application to his or her particular project. Many of the students had difficulty finding articles because they had trouble finding connections between articles and their books when the article and book titles were completely different.
Though the students had no trouble summarizing articles once they located appropriate ones, they did have trouble relating the articles to the study of their novels. They saw novels and articles as two mutually exclusive kinds of writing and sources of material, and felt they were being asked to combine apples and oranges. Domenic, for example, had read and summarized Lawrence Baines' article in a Fall, 1994, issue of The ALAN Review, "Cool Books for Tough Guys." Although he was able to discuss Baines' point that there are many books that interest reluctant readers because of the tough characters portrayed in them, Domenic and his group had difficulty seeing how that article could inform their investigation of Hinton's books. Again, they balked when asked to pick and choose, make connections, prioritize, and decide how to present what they had learned. They didn't know where to begin with a task that required them to find connections between fiction and expository texts.
Finally, we came up with an idea to get the students to think about the articles they had read in relationship to the novels they were reading. I distributed yellow highlighters and asked the students to highlight any part of their article summary which in anyway related to their group's topic and/or their novels. I gave them a few minutes to complete this concrete task and then asked them to share and explain what they highlighted in terms of their area of research and/or the novels they read. This valuable process took two whole class days. As each student tried to articulate the connections and relationships, he or she began to develop an understanding of what the article had to do with the novels being read. For example, after the highlighting activity, Domenic was able to stand up and tell the class that he thought Baines' article was important to his group because Hinton's books appealed to an audience of people who otherwise wouldn't read, since the content and themes of her books dealt with drug usage and violent behavior.
We then asked each group to reconvene and to compile a graphic organizer based strictly on what group members found when they highlighted their articles, and its connection to their novels. For each piece of information they provided from a resource, they had to present at least two examples from the novels they read to illustrate the research. This task was a much easier one, but again, I was giving the students an "out" in a sense, because I had done the problem-solving and decisionmaking for them. Was I right to do this? To this day, I can't answer that question. I guess the answer depends on what my objectives are as a teacher. I do think the students finally were making connections between research and literature, which was my initial goal.
To get students to draw conclusions and make inferences as researchers always do, we came up with the idea of getting each group to present their findings before a team of educators. We referred to this experience as "the oral defense." Each group member was required to prepare an opening statement to a panel of educators (other teachers, Sissi, and an assistant principal). One group member would actually present the opening statement, and then the team of educators would question members of the research team. All of the students were required to prepare an opening statement to insure that regardless of who was absent on defense day, the group would be able to make its presentation. Also, we wanted each student to go through the process of preparing such a statement. We encouraged the students to dress up - boys in ties and nice shirts, girls in dresses - for the oral defense. Some did; some did not. Two class days were involved in this process.
It was through the oral defense that we learned who had been most successful as researchers of literature. Ashley and Brie, who took on the changes in the romance novel, uncovered a lot of interesting information in their search. Note this excerpt from Ashley's statement to the defense team:
Our purpose was to get a picture of how far people went to express romantic feelings felt for other people in diffenrent time periods. Our hypothesis was that the most modern book (out of three different books that we read) would have more dramatic love scenes and more harsh and romantic words. In Jane Eyre, people met in strange ways that we don't do much today. At the same time, though, Jane Eyre wanted for Mr. Rochester to make the first move before really admitting her love for him. This was also the case in the book that Brie read, Winter Love Winter Wishes, the boys that were right for the girls were waiting for the girls to stop chasing the boys... Jane had more mature problems and worries such as if she was actually in love, and if so, was it with the right person. In Seventeenth Summer and Winter Love Winter Wishes, they had more minor problems and worries such as "Will I fit in?" or "Does he like my hair?"
We found that the main characters in the two older books were the most mature. They were concerned not only about their own feelings, but also about the feelings of the ones they loved, and even some people who they didn't really care for, too.
After putting all of this information together, we've learned that the time period doesn't have anything to do with how good or how far into detail a romance novel will go. This has proved our hypothesis wrong because we though that the time period would have a lot to do with it. Really, though, the only thing that time did was take atention off of love from a teenager's point of view.
Ashley has clearly come to some significant conclusion about her readings and her research. I was especially impressed with her observation about the emotional maturity of Jane Eyre versus that of characters in other novels. These kinds of conclusions require significant thought and reflection.
As a Member of the Oral Defense Panel, I was amazed with the students' ability to present themselves and their research agendas with such clarity during the oral defenses. They were able to explain not only the questions they were trying to answer, but also their reasons for wanting those questions answered. I remember leaving the defense with the solid impression that reading literature, for this group of students, had become an intellectual endeavor, not merely the deciphering of printed texts. I was also impressed with the seriousness that they showed in preparing and presenting their statements and their ability to answer questions from the panel of committee members.
Finally - the Final Products
After the oral defense days, I gave students guidelines for completing a literature-research product and the criteria for evaluating that product. Essentially, the students could do whatever they wanted in the way of a product as long as they met the following requirements:
- The research, readings, and findings are presented in a creative and exciting product.
- The quality of the product reflects considerable time, effort, and thought.
- The ideas and information are presented clearly in a logical and organized way.
- The product contains references to literature which support the group's conclusions and/or ideas.
- The product contains references to research from journals, books, the Internet, etc., which support the group's conclusions and/or ideas.
- The product contains a thoughtful conclusion which reflects on the total group process, the readings, and the research.
I allowed about three class days for students to work on the products. In several instances, students had to come in before school to work on computers or devote some additional class days to Web page design. I had to be flexible to ensure that students had adequate computer access, especially those students who were utilizing software programs with which they weren't familiar. Three groups prepared video presentations; two created Web pages; one group designed a Hyperstudio Stack; and another prepared a newspaper. Only one of the students creating a Hyperstudio stack had used the program before. The group that created the Web page on books that were turned into movies had never worked with html language before. Technology, we realized, is exciting and powerful, but it is also at times unpredictable, unreliable, and frustrating.
The unveiling of the products was exciting and rewarding. Students shared their products with the class and other teachers during two class days. We also took a field trip to the Florida State University campus, where the groups presented their products with Sissi's university students, all of whom are prospective teachers of English Language Arts.
It was a course highlight in our Teaching English Language Arts in the Middle School class to have Kathy's seventh graders come present their literature-research project products for us. The university students were amazed to see that the younger students had constructed Web pages, written and performed skits, prepared a newspaper complete with photographs, and other creative vehicles for combining the literature they had read with information that answered their questions about particular authors, textual elements, themes, and changes in the literature across time. The experience confirmed for many a desire to work with students at the middle school level.
When the students presented their products and began to talk about what they learned, it became clear to me that they had learned quite a bit in their investigation. As a teacher, I had high hopes for what they would gain; and, although I would have liked to have seen more gains, I was still pleased with the students' presentations.
The Hyperstudio stack and the two Web pages can be accessed directly at the Raa Middle School home page. The address at which the student products are housed is http://m85.raa.leon.k12.fl.us/Projects/projects.html. I would like to share with you some of the findings from several of the groups' research. The science fiction group had this to say about their work:
One of the things we found consistent in all of our books was an element that held the story together, an element that the story could not exist without. In Max's book, Singularity, the story depended upon the existence of a singularity, or black hole. In Star Hatching, the story relied on the existence of othe life and almost instanteneous travel.
Many of the books contained a lot of action, and the story often started with an action-filled scene. In all but two of our books, we found the setting was far into the future and contained futuristic devices used by the characters to help get themselves out of dangerous situations. Lance had an idea that schi-fi books could serve as an inspiration to great scientists and could one day be reality. Max thought that might be one of the reasons sci-fi is written.
Our conclusion is that older books tend to stay away from plots containing aliens and space/time travel. The newer books, however, tend to use more advanced plots and technology. They almost always used plots centering on space and time traveling...
My initial reaction to this group's conclusion was lukewarm. I had wanted them to dig in deeper, to seek out more scientific basis and theory in their research, to ponder ethical and moral issues of the time, discuss the reaction of the literary community. There was so much they could have done with this subject, but they had come to some conclusions that were significant and noteworthy. They had read a number of science fiction books and discussed issues in all of them. And after all, I was dealing with highly intelligent adolescent males.
Listen to what Domenic, Martin, and Nick had to say about their study of the novels of S. E. Hinton:
When we first started out on this project, we wanted to know why S. E. Hinton,wrote her books and if they were similar. We found out ... that five of her books ... had violence, fighting, drugs, troubled teenagers, and troubled families; this made the books similar in content but with diffferent subjects.
By just reading Hinton's books, we couldn't figure out why she wrote them. We found articles and books that helped us some, but the main help was an article about S.E. Hinton off the Internet that Martin found and summarized. We found that she grew up around soem violence and that inspired her writing.
From an article that Dominic read about tough guys that think they are too cool to read, he found that all of Hinton's books may jump start a tough guy's reading because of all the violence. Also, Nick did an article on how in real life and novels, a major problem is to the transition from dependence on parents to independence from parents.
Overall, we found that S. E. Hiton writes very good books. We think male readers that like violence or fights would like her her books the best. Her books also have a good story and plot, so almost everyone can enjoy her books. We suggest these books to anyone who enjoys reading or action and fights.
The initial goal set by this group was to determine why Hinton includes violence; in the meantime, they discovered good stories at the heart of her books. The three of them were fully immersed in this project, coming in every morning for two weeks to create their Hyperstudio project, selecting just the right theme song to open their first card, seeking out the research to help them understand Hinton's works. They learned a great deal and enjoyed every minute of the project.
Students Speak Out on the Success of the Project
At the conclusion of the project, I asked the students to evaluate honestly what we had done. I asked them to answer questions including these:
- What are some of the problems your group faced in making your product?
- List all of the skills you learned as a result of this project.
- What did you enjoy/not enjoy about the project?
When I asked the students what they learned from the project, they responded in these ways most frequently:
I learned how to...use the Internet for research; deal with giving and taking; not always take control; be organized, take responsibility, and research a topic thoroughly; organize information; improve my patience skills; script- making, directing, getting along; combine everyone's ideas together; make a graphic organizer; create a Web page.
WHAT WE LEARNED The Classroom Teacher's Perspective
The experience has made me reflect a great deal on the organization of highly intelligent students into an exclusive learning environment. The homogeneity of the groups, I believe, was a deterrent in the learning process. I am convinced it would have operated more smoothly in a heterogeneous classroom with students of varied abilities and interests. The successful science fiction group provides an example of the problem: when I allowed students' interest to define the groups early on in the project, all of my scientifically-oriented males with interests in technology and literature came together. Their similar commitment to their ideas about science fiction became a major obstacle in their progress. I remember one day specifically when they were working on the group graphic organizer, they debated for fifteen minutes on whether or not the most prominent space ship in the picture should be triangular or round in shape and where it should be located. It was frustrating for me to stand back idly and watch these boys spend twenty minutes discussing such a minor detail in the project.
When I attempted to intervene in their discussion, I only made matters worse. All my leaders were in a group together; all my science fanatics were in a group together; and all my driven and ambitious students had found each other. Gifted classes tend to be very homogenous by definition. When the students in these already-homogeneous classes are put into groups according to their interests, the focus of the group becomes quite narrow; varying viewpoints are rare; and those that arise are poorly tolerated. As a result, the progress of these interest-based groups is, at times, excruciatingly slow. I was surprised that I did not see the potential for this problem in the beginning. I have successfully used groups in my classroom for years, but I just did not see this situation coming.
I also believe that our students need more opportunities for independent and group research that requires extensive problem-solving and decision-making. They need to learn to seek out the answers to their questions. I honestly believe my students will never forget this project. It was more than a school assignment for them. It tested the relationships the students shared with their friends and with me. In many cases, students had to look closely at their own values in dealing with their classmates.
Their olerances and predisposition s were tested regularly, and often, the results were painful.
I ask myself what it was about this project that seemed to tap into the emotions of all of us so deeply. What is it about this that made the experience such an intense one? I think part of the answer lies in the length of the project and the aspects of our characters that were challenged from working so closely together on a project that demanded a lot of each of us. The experience made me reflect on my own values about what learning should and shouldn't be and the gaps that exist in the education of our students. I am a better teacher as a result of this process of discovery, challenge, and self- reflection. It is a journey I would encourage all teachers to take.
The Collaborator's Perspective
I was reminded, each time I met with Kathy and her students, that the best teachers are those who never stop raising questions. Kathy is a teacher who reflects on every aspect of her classroom instruction, using her students' growth as her constant measure. Other aspects of the experience which I would like to continue to explore - and encourage others to explore - can be summarized as follows:
1. Collaborative Groups: Students benefit from taking time to discuss and explore group dynamics during extended cooperative learning activities. Kathy's realization - that when the gifted students gathered into interest groups, they created homogenous groups in which minority opinions were not tolerated, sends an important message to teachers. We need to pay careful attention not only to the progress and products of group but also to their processes: when a free exchange of ideas is prevented by a group leader or by the solidarity of a group's core, the teacher may have to intercede and lead the members toward more open-minded participation.
2. Young Adult "Classics": Now that the genre of contemporary young adult literature has been established for thirty years, we ought to examine carefully the texts that we hold in awe because of their ability to speak so strongly to young readers across generations, cultures, genders, and intellectual predispositions. For example, despite its clean language, dated setting, and violence that is, for the most part, mild by today's media standards, The Outsiders continues to catch the imagination of young adolescent readers. Teachers and researchers need to continue to explore questions such as these: What other texts do adolescents embrace almost without exception, and what makes these books so enduring? What is the magic within these books? Which of those being published today will also last?
3. Adolescents as Thinkers: The students in Kathy's class surprised me with the kinds of research questions they generated and worked to answer. Although their difficulties in incorporating research questions into the study of literary texts was frustrating for all of us, this problem has implications for the kinds of challenges we present to students in classrooms. They often have sophisticated questions; perhaps we need to spend more time helping them learn ways to articulate their questions and helping them search for their own answers. How often do we underestimate our students' abilities as thinkers because we assume cognitive limitations that either do not exist or that we reinforce through our instructional methods? It is easier for teachers to provide students with both questions and answers. Nevertheless, we must consider how much damage we do to the potential for student growth when we provide too much for them. As their teachers, we need to develop lessons that encourage students to be researchers; and, while students conduct their research, we must continually study those students and ourselves within the contexts of our classrooms. Middle school language arts classrooms are energized and energizing; they are rife with opportunities for research.
Works Cited: Students' Book Choices
Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. Simon & Schuster, 1994.
Asimov, Janet and Isaac. Norby's Other Secret. Walker, 1986.
Bechard, Margaret. Star Hatchling. Viking, 1995.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Bantam Books, 1987.
Card, Orson Scott. Ender's Game. T. Doherty Associates, 1985.
Crichton, Michael. Andromeda Strain. Ballantine Books, 1993.
--------. The Lost World. Ballantine Books, 1995.
Daly, Maureen. Seventeenth Summer. Dodd, 1942.
Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. Noble & Noble, 1959.
Emery, Anne. Sorority Girl. Westminster Press, 1952.
Everly, Jeannette. Dropout. Lippincott, 1963.
Fox, Paula. Monkey Island. Orchard Books, 1995.
Grisham, John. The Pelican Brief. Dell, 1993.
Hinton, S. E. The Outsiders. Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1967.
--------. Rumble Fish. Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1975.
--------. Taming the Star Runner. Dell, 1988.
--------. Tex. Dell, 1979.
--------. That was Then, This is Now. Dell. 1971.
Holland, Isabelle. The Man Without a Face. Lippincott, 1972.
Knight, Eric Mowbray. Lassie Come Home. Winston, 1940.
Knowles, John. A Separate Peace. Macmillan, 1960.
Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper & Row, 1960.
Lipsyte, Robert. The Brave. HarperCollins, 1991.
Miner, Jane Claypool. Winter Love Winter Wishes, Hippo Books, 1991.
O'Brien, Robert. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh. Atheneum, 1971.
Shusterman, Neal. The Eyes of Kid Midas. Little, Brown, 1992.
Sleator, William.M Singularity. E. P. Dutton, 1985.
Smith, Betty. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Buccaneer Books, 1976.
Twain, Mark. Huckleberry Finn. Harper, 1923.
Verne, Jules. Journey to the Center of the Earth. Pendulum Press, 1974.
--------. Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. Pendulum, 1973.
Other Works Cited
Baines, L. "Cool Books for Tough Guys," The ALAN Review. Fall, 1994. pp. 43-46.
Donelson, K., and A. P. Nilsen. Literature for Today's Young Adults, 3rd edition. Scott Foresman, 1989.
Pamela Sissi Carroll is Associate Professor of English Education at Florida State University. Kathy Corder is a teacher of language arts and social studies at Augusta Raa Middle School, Tallahassee, Florida.