My students and I have been co-constructing a lot of our writing lately. Essentially, I act as a facilitator, and the students brainstorm out loud and tell me what to type on the whiteboard. So far, we’ve co-constructed multiple reading response paragraphs, an essay arguing for later school start times, and as of this week, a narrative. Up to this point, we’ve been embarking upon our co-construction as a whole group. For the most part, it’s been a success. Sure, only about half the kids in each class offer up ideas and sentences for me to type, but I know that the others are benefiting from hearing their peers and seeing how their thoughts transform into written words.
This week, however, I wanted to put more of the onus of the co-construction on my students. On Thursday, we read “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe. For anyone who’s never read it, here’s the basic plot: a man kills the old man he is taking care of, hides the body in the floorboards and eventually confesses to the police when he becomes so overridden with a combination of paranoia and guilt that he “hears” the dead man’s heart in his head.
The prompt I gave my kids: Rewrite the ending of the story from the point of view of one of the police officers.
As a class, we broke this section of the story down into three main events:
- The police arrive at the house of the victim.
- The suspect shows them around the house.
- The suspect confesses to the police.
Then I split the students up into groups, and each group was assigned a portion of the story to write. This was my first time letting go of the reigns in regards to the co-construction process. Was I nervous? Sure. My biggest fear was that students wouldn’t agree on how to move the narrative along since this task did require a certain level of creativity on their part. I thought that some groups would struggle to produce.
I was completely wrong. Not only were the kids highly-engaged in the assignment, but they did an amazing idea of working together and sharing ideas. The narratives that they produced contained descriptive language, sensory details and small amounts of dialogue. At the end of the class, a member from each group came to the front of the room to read their portion, and sequentially we heard the entire story that my students had created. This could not have gone better.
Co-construction in regards to writing is something that I have just started doing with my students this year. To be clear, co-constructive writing is not something that I came up with on my own; I learned of it during a professional learning day at my school. The key, however, is that this tool did not stay in our training room. I took the concept and tried it in the classroom, despite my fears of whether it would work or not with my students.
As teachers, we must be willing to try new things in our classrooms even if it takes us out of our comfort zones. Our students are dynamic, and we must be, too. We regularly ask our students to try new things: genres of books, writing styles and educational apps. We put them in groups with people they may not know that well and expect them to discuss concepts from our class. When our cafeteria serves hummus, I encourage my students to try it. If I’m going to ask them to try all these new things, then I have to be willing to take risks as well when it comes to planning lessons and activities for our classroom.
Will trying new things always work out well? Of course not. Sometimes, lessons are going to flop. The first time I had my students read in pairs 6 years ago, it was a disaster. I didn’t group them strategically. I didn’t model what I expected paired reading to look like, so my students had no idea for how long they were supposed to read before they switched; they also didn’t know what their role was while their partner was reading.
When my students read in pairs now, it runs smoothly and the kids have engaging discussions with their partners while they read. This transformation did not occur magically. I reflected on why my initial attempts at pair reading failed, and I researched ways to improve. But none of these changes would have ever occurred if I hadn’t taken a gamble and attempted to do something in my class in a new way.
Teachers owe it to their students to continuously find ways to keep the content fresh, and we must be willing to take risks in our classrooms from time to time for the kids’ benefit.