We've all been there. It doesn't matter how great your resources are or how much time and effort you put into creating an engaging unit...if it is a less-desirable text, many students just WILL NOT get into it. What's a teacher to do?? I mean, it's not like your school has tons of money to purchase new class sets of novels...and you certainly don't either.
This is what I did to engage students when they just did not like the text we had to read:
Let me give you a little back story. For 12 years, I read Paula Fox's Slave Dancer. The story is rich in figurative language, imagery, advanced vocabulary, character development and examples of developing mood and tone. It really is a beautifully written text that provides valuable teaching opportunities.
The problem though is this:
I can make learning about figurative language engaging.
I can make learning about mood and tone engaging.
I can make learning about imagery engaging.
What I was struggling to do was to make the story engaging for them. After all, an amazing story is what makes students want to continue reading. They were really struggling to connect with Jessie and the experiences he had. They were very vocal about this.
I had to do something because I was losing them. The promise of a "fun" project choice board at the end just was not cutting it. While they might like acting out a scene from the story or making a movie poster, that still didn't help them make a connection to the story.
Teaching year 13-15, I set out on a mission to make this story more engaging for my students. Here are the three things I did:
1. I helped students identify the social justice issues in the text, and I capitalized on that.
So, it is obvious that slavery is the main social justice issue in this text, but they had trouble connecting with the story in this context. What they COULD make a connection with was the fact that at the time the story takes place, slave trading was illegal. Yet, the crew continued to travel the slave trading route illegally, ultimately causing the climax and major disaster of the story.
From the beginning of the unit, we focused on issues within OUR society that are illegal, yet are still violated on a daily basis: underage drinking, drinking and driving, drug usage, dangerous driving habits, etc. This created a sense of curiosity in the story about what was illegal and the consequences of that illegal action.
2. I used nonfiction paired texts that focused on these topics and their affects on society instead of a text that focused on the historical context of the story.
The articles I chose and wrote focused on conflicts that are comparable to the plot line but were relatable to my students. We were able to practice non-fiction reading skills and genre comparing skills with topics that made the text relatable. The reading response journals the students wrote about focused on these topics and how they related to the text. Students made real connections to Jessie and the story plot and their own life.
3. Students produced projects that allowed them to see how they could TRULY make a difference in their world with the connections they made through the text.
Before I set out to revamp this unit, my go-to favorite project was for students to produce a talk show where they had to interview Jessie about his time on the ship using text examples. While this did serve a purpose, it was basic reading comprehension and using text evidence...both skills we practice daily in class.
The new project my students complete is to produce a podcast (intro., music, graphics and all) where a host interviews an "expert" in the field of ___________ (fill in the blank). These "experts" were from the research they had done all unit about laws that are openly broken in the United States and the consequences of those actions.
This project continued the forward momentum of connection to the story, it assessed non-fiction reading standards, and it allowed students to be exposed to and to create a product that they could ACTUALLY do in their lives to make a difference in their world TODAY.
I didn't know the love a student could have for a project until they completed this one. Seriously. I've had some success with others in the past, but never like the success of this project. Since then, I have transitioned every unit in my classroom to focus on social justice issues and how we can act on those. My students produce PSAs focused on the themes of stories and News broadcasts to highlight major events in our world as they relate to the text. They write legislation to make changes and write letters to their representatives expressing their ideas for change. They create websites to highlight a specific issue, social media posts and content to build an audience around an issue, and their own non-profit organizations to create a movement around their issue. They organize community days, benefits, and drives to bring light to what they find important. They have a voice, they learn how to take action, and they make deep, long-lasting connections to what they read.
It was so worth it to take the time to make this change for my students.
Are you curious about how you can take this step for your students? Download my 5 Steps to making the transition to this project-based learning technique that not only helps students connect with their reading, but shows them how they can make a difference in their world!
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