Thursday, February 17, 2011

Two-way journals – students writing to each other about what they read

    For years, one of the most popular reading activities in my class has been Two-Way Journals.  Two students read the same book, and write back and forth to each other.  It has succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.  Here’s how it works:

  •  Students get to choose what they want to read, so those who adore science fiction can indulge, and those who want to read Twilight can do that, too.  Research shows that students read more when they get to choose what they read – and my experience totally supports this.  I have a lot of books students can use, but some choose to go out and get their own from bookstores and libraries.
  • Students have to pick an age-appropriate book that neither partner has ever read. “Oh, but I really like Lord of the Rings/Harry Potter/Hatchet…” doesn’t matter.  It needs to be a new book. 
  • Students have to write to their partners about twice a week about what they think about their reading.  They ask each other questions, comment about what characters are doing, predict what they think will happen, compare the book to other books they’ve read, notice literary features.  I read the first entry to make sure they didn’t get sucked into “book report mode,”  since occasionally I need to remind students that their partner doesn’t need to know the plot because the partner is reading the story, too.  Plot summaries take little effort; a real conversation about the book is both more work and more interesting.
     Since they write 4 or 5 times each, students have lots of opportunities to write to interest their audience (their partner), which they clearly enjoy doing.  There are jokes, word-play, good-natured arguments, comparisons of who made the best prediction, even discussion of the next book they plan to read.  They are writing for a real audience, an audience that responds with questions and comments if the writer is not clear.

    In the past, students have mostly used spiral notebooks or fancy diaries they handed back and forth, or emails.  This year, I added a discussion forum in Moodle with a separate thread for each book/pair.  We discovered that this was much easier than using notebooks and diaries because there was no notebook to forget to bring to school (or lose).  Also, logistics were easy for the occasional three-person group; nobody had to wait until the notebook got passed to the next person. The format seemed less frustrating for those pairs where one member didn’t post as consistently, perhaps because I could post, too, giving the single-poster an audience and a conversation to be part of.  Even though I think the Moodle discussion is the best alternative, I will continue to allow variety in format because students gravitate to different formats; girls seem to love those fancy diaries, for example.

   A few things I’ve learned: 
  • Give students some class time to search through your books to find what they’d like to read.  Especially the first time you do this project, kids need to negotiate with teach other, and also find a book neither has read.  After you’ve done this once, you can notify kids the project is coming up again, and some will be choosing partners and books before you even start. 
  • Require students to show you they’ve got the book by a due date, since some students will try to excuse not reading because they still didn’t get that book. 
  • If you think parents might have questions about the book, because of violence, profanity, or mature content, for example, require written approval from both sets of parents.  I’ve had more than one parent thank me for doing this. 
  • If you have a really antisocial student – and we all have those – ask them to write to their dog/cat/goldfish.  I had a student who created fantastic imaginary postings from his dog, as well as his own required postings.  He had a chance to be successful and took it to a new level. 
  • Don’t let “I can’t find a partner” allow a child to opt out.  I give these students the choice of working with the inevitable other student who doesn’t have a partner, joining an existing 2-person group, or working alone and writing to their pet. 
  • Don’t buy “we can’t find a book.”  If they don’t have the book to show you by the due date for having a book, hand them books from your classroom library.  They often will either take that book, or discover there’s another one that they really want to read.  But it has to be in hand right then (to avoid the “I don’t have the book yet” excuses.)  This will save you having to listen to all those excuses down the line.
  • Spot check to make sure students aren’t writing plot summaries, but are really engaging both with the literature and with their partners.  You don’t want or need to check on every single entry – spot check at the start and read it all at the end.
  • Give guidance about staying on target: “You should each have 2 entries done by Friday.”  I give kids a minute to exchange physical diaries/spiral notebooks, but don’t give other class time during the project.
  • Don’t let students use the “my partner didn’t post anything” excuse for not writing themselves; make clear that each person is graded solely on their own work and that if students let you know partners aren’t performing, then you can do something about it.  Non-participants get named quickly in the middle school grapevine, and find it hard to find partners next time, a perfect natural consequence, and one that’s more meaningful to a 12 year old than the grade. 

    Here are the rubric and student directions.  This has been one of my best brainstorms.  How often do you have students ASK to do a reading project? 

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