Have you ever toyed with the idea of letting your students select the articles for Kelly Gallagher's article of the week assignment? Stephanie Roederer, a teacher from Kentucky, has done a lot more than ponder it! Below, you'll read an email Stephanie sent me a month or so ago. Her thought process, strategies, and results are so well-explained and insightful that I'm sharing them in full. Afterward, I'll provide some commentary on Stephanie's great work and how it may affect my AoW practice next school year.
Stephanie's Experiment with Choice-Based Articles of the Week
I found out about Kelly Gallagher’s AoW strategy last summer through your blog and I decided to try it in my 7th grade classroom in a public Title I all-girls school. Your blog broke down the process so well and made it so easy for me to implement in my class. I just finished reading reflection letters from several of my AP and comprehensive students, and so many of them mentioned the Articles of the Week that I felt I had to share my experience with you.
I started out the year choosing the articles for them, and homework completion rates were between 50-70%. I modeled annotating, but due to our short class periods I did not have time every week to annotate or read the article with them. In the first few weeks, we spent a decent amount of class time discussing the articles, breaking them down to determine the meaning and understand the details. I modeled as frequently as I could, especially when I wanted them to try a new strategy. Initially I found that the girls were utterly lost on the reflections, so I broke down the process for a while. Instead of writing a whole page essay, I asked the girls to choose two quotes they found notable and explain why they were notable. They also wrote a paragraph explaining what they thought about the topic. My “theme” this year was focused on social justice so a lot of the articles centered on those issues.
At the beginning of the second semester (January), I had some type of teacher-epiphany and began alternating teacher-choice articles with student-choice AoWs. I had access to a computer lab, so I would ask the girls to choose and print out an article that interested them, then to follow the same process that we had used together. Homework completion rates skyrocketed to somewhere around 80-90% in the first week, which was a strong indication that engagement is a factor in homework completion, too! (Funny what kids will remember to do when they’re excited about it.) At the end of the week when articles were due, the girls would get into small groups and discuss the articles they had read and what they had found interesting.
Occasionally I incorporated an article I wanted them all to read, but a majority of the second semester consisted of those student-selected articles. I gradually increased the expectations, adding the requirement that their annotations include identifying text structures, author's purpose, and central idea. I was so impressed with the work the girls did. The variety of articles they chose was so fun because not only did they learn about a topic or issue that was important to them, but it was much more interesting to grade the work and learn more about my students. I felt that I built better relationships this way while increasing engagement, close reading, and critical thinking. The most impressive part was that they usually chose articles that were above their reading level, and demonstrated comprehension and critical thinking about those challenging articles. The final AoW assignment this year was to go back to what we had tried at the start of the year and to write the reflection essay. I required them to briefly review the article by identifying the author's purpose and text structure, then to come up with their own claim and to support their claim with evidence from the text. The work I received was light years ahead of what they did at the beginning of the year.
Throughout the year, I did not give an AoW every week due to a variety of scheduling issues, or because other assignments or projects were bogging them down, so we only completed a total of 14 AoWs. When I would tell my students, “We have an AoW this week,” many of them would groan (unless it was student-selected), but I was amazed after reading the end-of-year reflections at how many of them very clearly and specifically identified AoWs as helping them tremendously with learning to understand informational texts, decode unfamiliar words, and annotate the text to help them comprehend better. Some said that they really thought it helped even though it was challenging AND because it was. Several very specifically said that I need to continue with the strategy next year with my incoming 7th graders. I had initially tried it with my comprehensive students but stopped when I realized how much they were struggling, and two of those students even said I need to bring it back for next year's students.
So often as educators we can become bogged down with standardized test data, but nothing informs us of our effectiveness more than getting feedback straight from students. Well, as one of your “students” I wanted you to know how much the AoW strategy has impacted my teaching and clearly my students' reading skills. Thank you so much for sharing it!
PS The caveat tends to be use of ink which is why I didn't do student choice every week–but even doing it once a month can really make a difference in engagement and the kids get excited.
My thoughts on Stephanie's choice-based modifications to article of the week
First, Stephanie is using numbers to sharpen her thinking. Data has become such an over-used word in education that I almost hate writing about it, but the right numbers are irreplaceable if we're going to improve the opportunities available to our students. Stephanie kept track of how many articles of the week her students read and how many of her students were completing the assignment.
Second, Stephanie's experimental approach to teaching is a theme through the work of all great practitioners. Stephanie saw a problem in homework completion rates, she developed a hypothesis for remedying it, and she tested the hypothesis and found that it worked. Good teaching that improves over time follows that pattern, again and again. Teaching that grows stale over time ignores data and sticks to philosophy.
Finally, what we do with article of the week must be driven by our purpose(s) for it. Stephanie's choice-based experiment with article of the week can make a great deal of sense in your or my classrooms, depending on your goal(s) for the assignment. I use AoW for three things only, in order of priority:
- Knowledge-building (in Gallagher's words, to help “my kids get smarter about the world”)
- Increased reading volume (1-2 pages per week with this assignment)
- Increased writing volume (250 words per week with this assignment)
That knowledge-building bit is the only thing that gives me pause with a choice-based approach. Most weeks, I want all of my students to read the same article and write on the same topic because I feel they all need to work with that particular bit of knowledge. But I am inspired to experiment even with once or twice allowing students to select their own articles on a given topic. The challenge would be in keeping article of the week time down to 15 minutes every Monday; I feel this time constraint is important because I don't want article of the week to consume so much time that it ends up reducing reading and writing volume, thereby defeating two of its three purposes in my classroom.
I'll close with the words of Kelly Gallagher from more than a year ago when he commented on my journey with articles of the week:
[Stephanie] has done what all good teachers do: take an idea and make it better for [her] kids.
Well done, Stephanie — and thank you for sharing!