Three Henley Middle School 8th grade Language Arts teachers have revamped the traditional content of their annual Literature Circles activities, aiming to engage students with stories that more deeply resonate with their experiences.
“We noticed that many of our books were written by ‘dead white guys,’ as people often say about our literature canon,” said lead teacher Elizabeth Sweatman. “We wanted to incorporate more modern characters, more contemporary authors, and more diversity in both protagonists and authors.”
Sweatman, a 17-year veteran teacher, said this is the first year she has not taught Dickens, whose A Christmas Carol has been the standard “classic” that the eighth-graders tackle. “The kids simply didn’t enjoy it—the story seemed irrelevant to them,” she said. “Also, the story’s language and syntax structure is really tortured.” Though the class will still see the Dickens production at Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, this year they are diving into The Pearl by John Steinbeck.
Steinbeck’s story is about a pearl diver and his family in Mexico, and explores human nature and themes of greed, societal structure, and good and evil. While all of the classes will read The Pearl, each student will also choose from among a half-dozen contemporary middle grade or young adult novels with a diversity of viewpoints, such as The Hate U Give, Monster, I Am Malala, and The Sun Is Also a Star. The teachers felt that the collection of books would work well together.
“Our thinking was, with all of The Pearl’s themes of justice, power, discrimination, and prejudice, the themes of many of these contemporary books would dovetail with that classic,” said Sweatman. “We’d like the students to try to address bigger questions covering broad ideas, such as what does justice mean, who has the power, and what grants people power in different situations.”
The teachers provided book reviews and summaries to parents and required signed notes from home to approve each student’s book selection. “We had amazing support from parents,” said teacher Jenna Magistro. “We heard more of, ‘I’m so glad you’re reading these,’ and ‘I want my child to read all of them,’ than anything else.”
Groups of no more than five students requested which optional book they’ll be reading, and the discussions are student-led, with gentle guidance from the teachers. “The autonomy of having them develop their own reading schedule and decide how group discussions are going to go has been really awesome to watch,” said Magistro.
Reinforcing the lessons of exercising their autonomy and recognizing opportunities to affect change, eighth graders also participate in the Change Project, which is coordinated by the Language Arts teachers as well. “The students choose groups and figure out something they are passionate about changing in our community, something that they think they can impact,” said Sweatman, and then develop a plan for making it happen. “One student last year organized a concert at the Southern and raised $3,000 for a mental illness association, another did a coat drive in multiple venues, and one did a sports equipment drive where the equipment ended up at schools in Haiti and Guatemala.”
For the students, sometimes thinking of their passion is the easy part. “We use the project to help them learn to frame formal communications, to plan and promote their idea,” said teacher Andrew West, “and the communication piece is often the biggest impediment. A 13-year-old kid trying to deal with a municipal bureaucracy is something we can help them learn to do.”
West thinks that the small-group format of the literature circles gives students greater opportunities for self-expression. “No matter how well you run a large class discussion, you can’t get everyone participating all the time, so these small peer groups are much more rewarding,” he said, “and to hear some of the quieter students give complex responses in their groups is so great.”
The Henley team hopes that bringing more accessible texts to their classes will allow students to better absorb their relevance. “When we ask, ‘how do you view that character,’ students sometimes will turn the focus on themselves and ask, ‘well, how do others view me?’” said Sweatman. “We can see that growing self-awareness.”
“They are constantly grappling with questions about their own identity,” said West, “even as people often say to them, ‘be who you are.’ So giving them space to talk about it is a really valuable thing.”
It’s a Gift
Meriwether Lewis Elementary’s Gifted Resource teacher Steve Gissendanner didn’t start his teaching career until he was 40, after running a small landscaping business in the area for many years. Now, with 23 years of teaching experience under his belt, he’s cultivating young minds.
“I call it ‘gifted instruction and talent development,’” said Gissendanner, who goes by “Mr. G” to many of his students. “My job is to work with children who are different enough that their needs are unlikely to be met in the classroom on a routine basis.” His job structure varies each year, depending on the needs of every teacher’s class schedule and on the distribution of gifted kids around the school.
Gissendanner stresses that there are lots of kinds of giftedness. “We always have two or three ‘light-year kids’ who could do college-level work at 12 or 14 years old,” he said. “And then we have very strong kids who are hitting benchmarks two years ahead of their peers, so it’s challenging to accommodate them.”
He strikes a balance through a combination of “pushing in” the classrooms with group lessons and “pulling out” certain students for enrichment activities. “Gifted kids need time with academic peers, and they also need to learn to get along with everybody,” he said.
Gissendanner said that giftedness often manifests most obviously in mathematical ability, and those students can outstrip available resources quickly. “Some kids need four or five days to understand a concept, but others get it the first time you present it, so there’s a huge need for math extension. In fifth grade I do an advanced math class because by that time the students could be three to four years ahead in math.”
But Gissendanner is quick to note the many other kinds of gifted students he interacts with. “We have first graders who are reading fifth grade material with understanding, so I look for content that’s meaningful to them and yet still challenging and appropriate.” For instance, he’ll choose a science fiction book that has deeper themes, to delve into abstract thinking that typical kids might not be ready for. Differentiated writing assignments and project-based learning also help keep advanced students engaged.
Gissendanner particularly likes to introduce his students to origami as a tool to help them extend their skills. “It’s amazing to watch—I see them use sequencing, spatial reasoning, decoding, problem-solving, and teamwork—and it’s really about how I can use it to understand kids instructionally.” Beyond the hands-on work, he’s noticed that origami can appeal to even the most attention-challenged students, and can teach the power of sustained focus and revision, like backing up to find an error and try again.
Over his teaching career, Gissendanner has observed the rising wave of technology as it infiltrates all parts of the educational experience, and sees it as a mixed bag. “Revision is easier to do with computers so their writing is better, but spelling is generally worse,” he said. “We have a lot of fifth graders who cannot write the letters of the alphabet by hand in both upper case and lower case, because they simply don’t have to these days.” Email can be an impediment to more valuable face-to-face discussions with both parents and colleagues, he says, but he feels that kids are aware of the addicting power of tech even as they are tempted to play games on their school computers.
“We adapt to the changes and find a good balance,” said Gissendanner, “and we as teachers are doing things very differently these days by design. Projects can be less efficient in terms of time spent than traditional instruction, but much more engaging for the students. We give them more freedom and social interaction than ever, and if that helps them encode the concepts at a deeper level, then it’s worthwhile.”
All seven Brownsville Elementary first grade classes take part in an annual gingerbread house construction project in December each year, though teacher Tricia Spradlin said she’s not quite as bold as her colleagues. “Some teachers have the students glue the walls together [with icing] and decorate the houses the same day, but I’m not brave enough for that,” she said with a laugh.
Spradlin uses a two-day process to first let the icing set, and on the second day families join their students for the messy and delicious process of decorating the house and grounds with candy. “The project has got some STEM elements to it,” she said. “The students do a bit of planning to make sure the structure will stand and support the roof. But mostly it’s just fun!”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article referred to Elizabeth Sweatman as a 23-year veteran teacher. She has been teaching 17 years. Updated 1/8/19.