A Book Correspondence Project with University Methods Students
"Let's go for it," Twee announced.
"Are you sure?" I asked. "It will mean some changes in the class."
"We don't care. I just want a girl pen pal," Dwayne blurted.
"Is it OK with everyone?" They all nodded. "Well then, let's go for it."
This conversation transpired last spring in my Learning Strategies class. Learning Strategies is made up of high school students 2+ years behind their grade level in reading. In addition, most students taking the class have failed a year of school and have very negative feelings about reading and writing. These negative feelings often translate into severe apathy and class disruptions. However, by the time Kathleen Carico approached me about working with her Virginia Tech methods students in a young adult literature correspondence project (see Kathleen's article), my class had come a long way.
Earlier in the year I had implemented a new approach to the curriculum. Traditionally, classrooms operate under the transfer method. According to Shor (1992), the model of instruction "with the passive role for students, the transfer method ... sends a disempowerment message to students: knowledge and power are fixed from above, not negotiated or discovered from below." As a way to avoid this scenario, I sought an alternative, the co-creative class (Stern, 1995). In other words, the students and I designed the units we studied. The students selected the unit, made with me decisions about what we would do that week, and were expected to bring materials that would contribute to the unit. I also brought in materials I thought would be helpful. I started this approach last fall and got enough positive feedback in the first few months that I knew I was on to something. Viewing the students as possessors of valuable knowledge and capable of designing the activities for the class encouraged the students to build their literacy skills.
As a result of this alternative philosophy, I felt obligated to get the class's approval before committing to the correspondence project. I was concerned, in particular, that one of the modifications - a return to direct instruction - might signal to the class that I was taking charge again and that they were once more relegated to a more passive role. I explained to the students this change would be temporary and was necessary to start the project, making it clear that they could express doubts and make suggestions along the way. I also explained that I would eventually return the class to them once the project was underway. On the other hand, I also knew the project provided several new opportunities, some of which included an authentic audience for my students' writing, opportunities for genuine enjoyment of reading and writing activities, and ample positive feedback these students craved. My students not only went for it, they went beyond my expectations. I saw enthusiastic individuals comfortably expressing their feelings about literature. I saw students applying to their lives themes and experiences they read in books. More importantly, I saw all my students come away from the project feeling good about themselves as readers and writers.
From my perspective as their teacher, the correspondence project provided me with assistance in what is perhaps the most important aspect of working with discouraged students - giving them personal attention. Often when doing writing workshop, I would get weary responding to the journals. My responses, at times, were not the most thoughtful, and - I hate to admit it - I often opted for generalizations just so that I would have something to write. I often felt overwhelmed with the amount of teacher work the journals required, especially when considering the numbers of students writing them. I, however, knew how well the journals worked when done more authentically, how reinforcing they could be to discouraged tenth graders. The correspondence project would provide ten helpers to work one on one with my students, giving feedback, showing interest.
As I look back on the project, I see that many of the possibilities I had hoped for actually occurred. I saw the students, many of whom showed very little interest in reading and wrote what seemed to be as little as possible to get by, become enthusiastic about reading and writing. I believe that this dramatic increase in motivation was because of the correspondence relationship between the Tech students and my students. Unfortunately, most of the reading and writing done in school is not for communicating, is not "a way of sharing observations, information, thoughts, or ideas." Instead, much of the work is "all outside of a communicative context" (Cohen & Reil, 1989). For example, a typical reading class requires students to break down words into phonics, give the antonyms of words, or read paragraphs and books for the sole purpose of answering comprehension questions. Teachers heap this type of work on students to give them practice in teacher-defined areas in hopes of acquisition of individual competence (Cohen & Reil, 1989). The results are a "decontextualized" approach where students barely acquire the targeted skill, but not the literacy to be successful in life. Students frequently reject the activities because they cannot see the meaningfulness in the task.
In addition, lack of an audience or only a teacher audience decreases student motivation to engage in literacy activities. The Tech students provided a real audience my students admired. On several occasions I heard my students refer to the Tech students as "smart college kids." Moreover, the attention the Tech students gave my students created an incredible desire to please. Both factors produced a commitment and desire to do well I had never seen before.
The motivation in this project was so strong that it enabled students previously cloaked in the veil of underachievement to emerge. Over the course of the year, I had watched my students half-heartedly attempt assignments. The hasty responses on most items (if attempted at all) showed little reflection, and I had come to assume that the students were incapable of doing more. I might have continued under this assumption if it had not been for the correspondence project. For example, Edwin rarely wrote more than three sentences for any assignment. His exam reflection paper consisted of one skimpy paragraph. Again, I thought this was the extent of his ability. He, however, surprised me when he wrote his introductory letter to his partner: two pages full of information. It became clear to me that Edwin had become accustomed to working at a certain level and no more - he had learned how to play the game of avoidance and underachieving. However, the desire to express himself favorably and make a good impression on his pen pal compelled him to read and write, thus showing me abilities I had not seen before. My students wanted to write good letters to the Tech students. My students soon realized that to write good letters they needed to read the books. Once my students found a book to read and had a personal connection with the book, they were able to extend and refine these connections through their relationship with their partners. This cycle helped change some of my students' opinions about reading. I saw students read entire novels for the first time, do homework for the first time, ask questions about how to improve writing, reading, and take more responsibility for their learning.
Along with being more inquisitive and conscientious, my students showed me in other ways how willing they were to please their partners. Dwayne, after reading 250 pages of Four Past Midnight (and liking it) decided to switch to another Stephen King novel, The Stand. Through a series of miscommunications with his partner, Dwayne briefly returned to the first novel and finally ended up reading The Stand. I asked why he switched so much, and he said he wanted to read what his partner, Dan liked. Although Dwayne and I had what I considered a pleasant relationship, I had never observed this degree of flexibility and desire to please when I tried to encourage his reading. His actions amazed me.
My students were also very proud of their relationship with the Tech students. On the day Kathleen delivered the first letters, I saw two of my students, Buddy and Edwin, reading their letters for the third and fourth time in other classes. This type of enthusiasm is rarely seen in high school students and especially not in remedial reading classes. Nor did the enthusiasm about the letters wane as the year progressed. In fact, I was able to use the letters as a bargaining chip when I wanted the students to complete another, not so favorable, task.
In addition to their roles as motivators, the Tech students also served as models of perseverance. At times, my students did not have the maturity to see beyond their immediate situation and strive for a recognizable, yet deferred goal. In the past they often gave up because of this attitude. Fortunately, my students saw the Tech students struggle with reading and writing too. For example, Ahmad's partner Darlene did not like the first book she selected for this project. She honestly wrote about her negative reaction to the book and her desire to read something else. In her second letter, she wrote about a new novel she selected and how much she liked it. Ahmad saw someone honestly admit dislike for a book, yet, go on to read another. This was encouraging for him.
Looking at the Tech student's work also served as an avenue to point out skills I wanted my students to use or avoid. For example, the identification of differences between summary and response was a major objective in my class, as it was in Kathleen's; and an examination of the Tech students' letters provided an alternative medium to their work. Therefore, I asked the students to locate and underline a section of their letter where their partner did not summarize the plot. My students soon began to observe that many of their partners had difficulty getting beyond factual summaries and applying higher level thinking skills. One day my student, Jack said, "She's doing it again."
"What?" I asked.
"She is just telling me the story. She spends one entire page on the story. Only in the last line she relates the story to her life."
This observation, like the previous one, is important. The students see people they perceive as good readers and writers struggle, make mistakes, yet go on. When my students saw people they thought of as "smart" struggle, yet continue, it sent a powerful message they wanted to emulate.
One of the most gratifying aspects of the correspondence project for me was to observe my students working on the mini lessons and projects. The students designed these as an extension of the correspondence project. Their work came about as a result of the promise I had made at the outset that agreeing to do the project would not mean that, they would step aside from their roles as teachers and co-creators of the curriculum. Therefore, once we developed a workable rhythm to the project, it was time to make good on that promise. I was ready to do so, believing, along with Atwell (1988), that in some cases, students place more value on the opinion of their classmates than on the teacher's opinion.
Making students co-creators meant offering them authentic participation in discussing and negotiating how and when the work would be accomplished; in short, designing and sharing the agenda. The needs of the correspondence project settled some of the agenda items. Since the letters had to be in the mail by Tuesday, the entire class on that day was devoted to writing the letters. Fridays had to be set aside for getting the letters and fixing any problems that might have occurred earlier in the week. The remaining days, however, the students suggested the activities. We used a calendar to select days we would discuss the book and days we would have mini lessons and reading. All the students agreed to teach a mini lesson on what they were doing well in the project: teaching each other how to successfully write a response, directing the class in a dramatic interpretation of a scene from a novel, coaching another student on how to use e-mail, or merely recommending a book to a classmate. The students also elected to set aside a week for their projects.
The mini lessons were informal in nature. They were a way to teach the class a skill and celebrate areas the individual students were doing well. Ideas for the mini lessons came from the students or my observations and suggestions. For example, one day I asked Tammy if she liked her novel. She replied that she did and she thought her teacher in middle school had read the class another book by the same author, Lois Lowry. I asked Tammy if she would be willing to investigate her hypothesis and do an author study on Lowis Lowry. She consented, went to the library, collected all the available books by Lois Lowry, and got some autobiographical information from the Internet. Two days later, after reviewing the information she collected, Tammy presented Lois Lowry to the class.
Similarly, after struggling with the kids in the beginning to move beyond plot summaries, I noticed Ahmad had begun to write more reflectively. Since he was the first to evaluate the plot of his novel and compose mental pictures, I asked him to share how he did it with the class. I made copies of the following letter, distributed these to the class, and sat down. Ahmad went through each sentence with the class:Dear Darlene,
Hey how's things going? Good I hope. How was your spring break... I just finished Both Sides of Time. I liked the book but I hated the ending because it just left me there to figure out my own ending. What did you think about the ending? (If you're done with the book yet?) Some parts I really did like. Towards the end when Annie was saying her last words to him. I could picture her in black and white on one side of the line and her in color on the other. Are there any parts of the book that you can picture? (Ahmad)
Ahmad explained that he really liked the book until the ending. He explained how he thought harder about what it was he didn't like and put it into his response. Again the class was very receptive to the lesson. I could tell Ahmad liked having the attention of class and the recognition of doing well. Furthermore, the other students got a lot out of the lesson. Not only did the students learn that they could dislike or disagree with a book, but they "borrowed" Ahmad's strategy and began using it in their letters.
Not all the mini lessons came from my suggestions. One of the more sophisticated lessons happened out of the blue. One day Twee announced what day she wanted to do her mini lesson and gave a vague description of what she wanted to do. After reading The Giver, Maus, and Fallen Angels, Twee saw a common theme. She wanted to weave a thread of similarity through three very dissimilar books. I consented but was unsure of her ability to tie the three together. She started her lesson by having the students who read the books (approximately two per book) talk about the things the characters lost. After the class discussion Twee pointed out that all three books dealt with physical "things" and emotional "feelings" of loss. At the end of the lesson the class clapped and I almost wept. Twee beamed because she knew she had done well. If I had provided only teacher-oriented lessons on the above subjects, these students would not likely have made the connections or assimilated the information to the degree they had in concert with their pen pals and with their peers.
Some of the most creative and insightful moments came when the students finished their books and designed projects as a way to react to the books. The projects tended to be in video or audio form often as a talk show interviewing the characters or a recreation of a scene. When Fred finished Malcolm X, he decided to recreate the assassination scene. He wrote a screen play of the event and then selected peers to play the parts. It took several days of practice to get the five-minute piece to play out as he wanted. During those rehearsals, Fred told his actors the plot of the story, the difference between fiction and nonfiction, his amazement that Malcom X's assassin was black, and the importance of showing grief at such a tragedy. The students also helped Fred by suggesting ways to capture the tragedy of the situation. Twee suggested they wiggle the camera around while filming to look more like a reporter at the actual event.
There have been a number of other instances in which my students helped each other and me informally as a result of this project. For example, when Edwin finished his novel and was looking for another, Twee said, "Hey, Edwin, read this. It's something you would like." Edwin took the book on her recommendation and started reading it. Edwin benefited because he liked the book. Twee benefited because someone respected her opinion about a novel. I benefited because the problem was solved quickly and I could concentrate on other matters.
Even more surprising, on any given day I could hear the students talking informally about the books. Many times I overheard students asking questions about the plot or making comments about their favorite part in the book. Every time a student finished The Giver, he or she would come to class with a question about the ending. Before I could respond to help clarify the confusion, other students who had read the novel gave their take on the story.
My students preferred this less conventional way of discussing a book. They were more animated about their response and candid about their reactions to the story. Another example occurred after two students read Fallen Angels. I found the students sharing a comical passage, a fight between the soldiers, with four other students. As a result of this informal sharing, the book was in constant demand. I could not have structured a better book chat than the one I witnessed.
This type of dialogue and sense making was exactly what I desired for my students. Their input in this project ranged from very formal decision making on the structure of the class to informal recommendations about novels. Through the book correspondence project, my students had become a vibrant and collaborative community of learners.
Wendy Laughton was teaching at Blacksburg, High School in Blacksburg, Virginia, when she and her students participated in the pen-pal project. She is currently teaching sixth-grade language arts at West Ridge Middle School in Austin, Texas.
Copyright 1997, The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN # 0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Laughton, Wendy. (1997). A book correspondence project with university methods students. The ALAN Review, Volume 24, Number 2, 42-45.