The Write Combination
Paula Y. Main
Something strange was going on in Mrs. Main's class. The students noticed it. The principal noticed it. Even the science teacher noticed it. Most of all Mrs. Main noticed it, and she was thrilled.
Motivating the students of the small rural 7-12 school where I teach has always been one of my greatest challenges. For several reasons, including lack of social maturity and parents' low expectations, our students simply are very difficult to motivate. For example, any typical assignment I make for my ninth graders usually results in about forty percent participation if I am lucky. It is a very frustrating situation. Therefore, when a graduate school professor suggested we work towards solving a problem in our research for the semester, I immediately knew what my focus would be -- motivating students who are not only reluctant readers but also unwilling writers.
After determining my focus, I eagerly began searching for "the perfect idea." Much of the information I found promoted the use of young adult novels. In Response and Analysis: Teaching Literature in Junior and Senior High School, Robert Probst discusses the importance of adolescent novels. He wrote that motivating students to read and write without "literary works that provoke responses, stimulating students to think, feel and talk" is tough (p. 113.) These suggestions made me think back to previous years in the spring when I had taught Robert Lipsyte's The Contender, a great novel about a young boy coming of age in Harlem. The few students that I convinced to read beyond the third page actually enjoyed it. Yet, these students were rare, since most would not even give the book a fair chance. Therefore, I knew I would have to do far more than simply choose a novel about a teenager in order to get my students to read, think, and write.
I continued to search. I found articles that promoted student ownership. Some promoted journal writing and reader response, while some promoted cooperative learning. Absorbing all of this information, I tried to think of a way to combined all of these ideas that were successful for other educators into a creative way to get my ninth graders motivated. It didn't take too long to develop a plan. I decided I would allow my students to choose a young adult novel (from a restricted list) and participate in a partnership to write a journal.
The first thing I did was to compare a list of recommended novels from Nancy Atwell's In the Middle: Writing, Reading, and Learning with Adolescents with the novel list for ninth graders in my county. I thought about my findings, and I chose three novels from which my students could choose to read. They included The Contender by Robert Lipsyte, The Pigman by Paul Zindel, and The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells. I was hoping to be able to offer a variety of topics and interests for my students. The next step was to put together several colorful clasp folders with thirty pieces of notebook paper in each. Armed with these materials, I looked forward to the next day.
When classes began the next day, I began by giving a brief explanation of the three novels I had chosen. I then passed the three books around giving the students a chance to flip through them, look at the descriptions on the backs, and discuss with their peers which looked more interesting. Before each student chose the book to read, I explained the second part of this "experiment." I showed the students the folders I had put together and explained that they would be pairing up with another student to write about whichever book they chose. Both partners would have to agree on which book to read, and they would have to keep one journal. I have a hand-out describing buddy journals, but I purposely limited the amount of guidance. After all, one of the goals I was working towards was student ownership. My guide only stated that I required at least seven journal entries per student, and that each entry should aim to be at least one-half page.
Throughout the entire twenty minutes that I was explaining everything, I already noticed a change. Typically in my classroom, whenever I introduce a new unit I hear an overwhelming "Why do we have to do this junk?" That was not the case this day. My students were eager to get started on this project. They asked for clarity on my expectations of their journals. I only told them to write about the book and to try to challenge their buddies.
The next step was to pair the students. I have four ninth-grade classes, one of which is an honors class. I decided to see what would happen if I paired up students at the honors level with those who were not. So the honors class was paired by random selection with students from one of the other classes. The other two regular classes were allowed to choose their partners from within their class. In both situations, I was amazed at how smoothly the process went. Furthermore, I was thrilled to see that I had some very unconventional pairings. The most unbelievable part was that absolutely no students (even the "leftovers") complained about who they were paired with. Finally, we arranged for them to obtain books and journals. We would begin our project the following Tuesday and would have just under three weeks to complete it.
When Tuesday arrived, I came to class loaded down with bags of paperbacks and colorful journals. The students eagerly picked through the materials. I told the students that they could decorate their own journals, so a few chose to do that right away. Most jumped right into reading their novels.
The most amazing things started happening at that point. First of all, it was extremely quiet for the entire period. Every single student, even those who typically tried really hard NOT to do what I asked of them, was either reading or writing. One student who was repeating the ninth grade and had never turned in any writing of significant length to me, had completed his first journal entry -- a page and a half! That very day I heard several comments about the books they were reading. Students said they were surprised at how good their books actually were, and that they would read more that night at home. I thought this might be a stroke of luck that would surely end as time passed, but I was proven wrong. Every day in the thirteen-day period that my classes were working on these, my students eagerly rushed in, went straight for the boxes where the journals were kept, and began flipping wildly to see what their partners had written during their own class period. At that point, some students would chuckle, others would want to share a part of the entry with someone else, and still others would rush to their seats to argue or support something that was written. They were all participating, and they were liking it. These actions even carried over to other classes. On the fourth day after starting this project, the science teacher came to me to express his delight in the fact that, upon finishing a test in his class, students in my classes immediately took out a book or a journal without being asked. He simply could not believe what was going on. I knew how he felt.
As the days slipped by, even more amazing things transpired. I began to flip casually through some of the journals, and I noticed the entries getting longer and more detailed (without my guidance). My students, who usually complained, whined, and refused to read (much less write) were challenging their buddies, asking for clarification in their entries, encouraging their partners, connecting with the characters, discussing plot, and thinking critically. It was delightful!
The things my students were writing were surprisingly meaningful as well. Many students expressed their dislike for characters; others expressed pity. One student wrote, "I feel so sorry for Mr. Marvel . . . He doesn't want to help the invisible man but he doesn't want to be killed either." Another wrote, "He [Mr. Pignati] must have been so sad when the attendent said Bobo dies. I felt so sorry for Mr. Pignati." Some students tried to guess what would happen next, while others commented on how they would have changed the story. I noticed students challenging each other with questions such as "If the stranger [the invisible man] was cut and started bleeding, could you see the blood?" and "Do you think Alfred is more scared of Major or the consequences of what Major is asking him to do?" Students encouraged their buddies with statements such as, "You are a very good buddy . . . Keep up the good work!" They proved they were thinking critically about their novels with such statements as "It seems that the Invisible Man thought only of the advantages of being invisible" and "In Alfred's last fight he lost but won. Alfred lost the actual fight by alot. He won the respect of other people and also proved something to him and Mr. Donatelli." I think the best comments of all were their expressions of approval of both the novels and the buddy journals. These comments were numerous.
Many of the pairs finished their assigned novels within the first six days of this project and asked if I would let them do another. Would I LET them? I began digging up any young adult novel that I could get my hands on and handing them out. The students eagerly went through them, and several students read four or more in the three week time period. A few asked if they could keep borrowing my books to read when we went back to "normal class." I was thrilled to assent.
I must admit that, although I was getting so much positive feedback from students, other teachers, and even the principal, I was a little apprehensive when the due date for journals was nearing. As I mentioned before, I typically have only about forty percent of my students to turn in any work representing their participation in the assignment at hand. Therefore, I was prepared to receive a limited number of journals when the date arrived. To my amazement, ninety-four of my ninety-six students turned journals in. I was so ecstatic that I had to tell others. Even students who had done very little all year and knew they had no chance of passing for the year at this point turned in journals that more than met my minimum expectations. Students who had never written even a paragraph throughout the entire year were turning in entries that were more than a page each. Many of the folders had every single page filled with writing, and some even stapled in some extra pages!
While looking over the completed journals, I remembered that I had intended to note the effect of having honors level students paired with average students. Before the project, I predicted that my honors students would either intimidate or encourage the others, while those students who were paired with their "equals" would either be more comfortable or less challenged. I found that neither was true. Since all of my students (except for the two who refused) were so involved in the project at hand, there was no evidence that tracking (or cross-tracking) had any effect on this activity."This is one of the best books I have ever read . . . I can't wait to read the sequel.""I loved this book! There is so much I want to say about it!""I have finished the book. I couldn't help it, I just couldn't put the book down.""Even though reading required books seems boring I do not mind as much in this one."
Each of these quotes and many others resoundingly prove that this project was a great success. At a time of great frustration, this success was just what I needed to remind me why I am here in the first place. I look forward to using this project again next year.
A ninth-grade teacher at Greene Central High School in Greene County, South Carolina, Paula Main was a graduate student at East Carolina University when she developed the strategies described in this article for her classes at Rosewood High School in Goldsboro, North Carolina.