Dialogue Grouping to Improve Student Writing in Senior English

Allyson Linn, English Teacher  Rush-Henrietta High School  alinn@rhnet.org

“If the structure does not permit dialogue the structure must be changed”  Paulo Freire

Background

In over twenty years of teaching secondary English in several districts in Monroe County, I have experienced a plethora of teaching strategies, innovations, philosophies, and methodologies. Much of these were gleaned from professional development, professional learning communities, district initiatives, grade-level teams, and my own reading and goal setting. Through those experiences, I strove to improve my own practices as well as put aside those that did not mesh with my beliefs. More recently though, I have come to realize the challenges in education today demand that I fully participate and strive to continuously improve for the benefit of my students. Participation in the Community Center for Excellence in Teaching as a Faculty Fellow seemed like an excellent opportunity to receive support to conduct action research within my classroom while continuously refining my skills.

I have spent most of my career teaching seniors including Advanced Placement Composition and Literature, World Literature, Media Literacy, Creative Writing, and, more recently, Contemporary Literature. I have taught a proscribed curriculum as well as developed and implemented my own. I have worked with the top academic students as well as those assisted by special education teachers and individualized learning plans. Regardless of the course name or the type of student enrolled, my academic goals for my students are to improve their reading, writing, listening and speaking skills all the while being mindful of the senior year as an important transitional year in their lives.

While not all my students are college bound, college readiness encompasses skills and indicators that transcend beyond the college experience. Keeping college readiness foregrounded in my classroom, I believe, will best prepare my students for whatever post-high school plans they might have. One component of college readiness is how well students read and comprehend challenging texts. In the past, I utilized Socratic seminars to allow students to work through a variety of texts in a safe, supportive, collaborative group. Moreover, the process allowed students to discourse about challenging material as they engaged in rigorous critical thought.

I had prior knowledge of Socratic seminars having trained with Paul Rieser and having successfully conducted them in my classrooms for over ten years. While I was adept at establishing procedures, selecting appropriate materials, and meeting outcomes for student participation, I did little beyond an exit ticket or participation rubrics to evaluate student achievement. Once given the opportunity to rethink the potential outcomes for Socratic seminars, I began to look for ways to extend what was discovered during the seminar to other skills such as writing. My intention was to arrive at a better understanding of the writing process and how deep discussion may foster success with that process.

Initially, my plan was to implement Socratic seminars into Contemporary Issues and Media, a half-year senior English course that students may elect for half-credit. The focus of the course is based on the tenets of media literacy and provides a framework to access, analyze, evaluate and create media in a variety of forms. Discussions about timely issues are a mainstay of the course; therefore, I concluded a focused integration of Socratic seminars would likely improve the overall quality of student writing. My premise was that deep discussion about an issue would unearth ideas that all students could then integrate into their written assessments. Through differentiated instruction, I would target concerns about organization, syntax, grammar, and mechanics, but evidence and detail would naturally flow from the seminars into their position papers. Not only was my premise naïve, but my action research was about to change as I was assigned to Contemporary Literature the following year, a course for which I had written curriculum but not previously taught.

Given the new course assignment, clearly I would have to rethink the inquiry brief and objectives for my action research. Moreover, I wanted to remain respectful of the work other teachers put into developing the course, and that I needed to align anything I did, whether with new materials or not, to the previously established required assessments. I decided to closely adhere to the first unit and align everything I did with the teacher currently teaching the course. In fact, as the semester progressed, I was still determining how to create an action research plan that would yield any significant conclusions since I had no former student work from which to draw upon.

Midway through the fall semester, my action research underwent a second major revision when it became clear that pure Socratic seminars were not going to work for the majority of my students. Large class size, room configuration, attendance issues, and cell phone distractions all played a part in my decision to shift away from Socratic seminars to smaller, collaborative grouping. By keeping dialogue in the foreground of my research and my goal of linking it to student writing, I revised my original plan after seeking advice from the school media specialists who suggested Google Drive as a way to foster collaboration during a literature circle unit.

Furthermore, not only did my research focus undergo a revision, the demands of the Common Core for English Language Arts meant an increase in writing from sources using evidence from non-fiction source materials. Evidence-based writing is part of the college readiness emphasis intended to prepare students for college level writing. The shift to informational texts, particularly literary non-fiction, represents a significant change that is better aligned to college and career readiness; yet, this was not fully integrated into the course I was currently teaching nor was it part of my practices in a literature based course. Therefore, it became my goal to increase my students’ success with reading challenging non-fiction and, while going through the writing process, participate in discussion groups to improve the overall quality of their written work.

Inquiry Question

My initial research question: how does participation in the Socratic seminar process inform students’ ability to think critically about an issue and write an effective position paper about the issue?; transformed into: how does participation in dialogue groups inform students’ ability to think critically about an issue and write effective secondary source literary essays?

Inquiry Design

This year, I teach three different courses – Contemporary Literature, Contemporary Issues and Media and Public Speaking, an elective with students from grades 10 through 12. All courses are half year courses and carry a half credit. Contemporary Literature and Contemporary Issues and Media are two of four options from which students may choose for their senior year English. As stated earlier, my intention of conducting action research in Contemporary Issues and Media shifted when I was assigned only one section in the fall. Applying my research question to the three sections of Contemporary Literature seemed more appropriate as I would have a larger pool of students and essays from which to gather data and draw conclusions.

I decided to conduct the action research during a literature circle unit and compare outcomes of written work against written work collected from a previous unit. There were several advantages to this decision. Literature circles form natural groups for student dialogue, and, by their senior year, students would have participated in literature circles numerous times. They would be well acquainted with expectations and procedures as well as have experience with collaboration and group accountability. Yet I was looking for something novel for the unit; something beyond having students meet in small groups and “work their way through a text” as part of a literature circle.

It was then that I sought the advice of our library media specialists who suggested Google drive might provide a collaborative space for students. The students in my class were already well acquainted with Google drive as I required them to use it for word processing and sharing documents with me, but this gave me the novelty I sought. Not only could students participate through shared documents they created, dialogue could be facilitated by a series of activities, and recorded in Google drive. Thus, I created a variety of activities designed to foster deep discussion about the novel they were reading; student responses would be recorded by group members in a shared set of documents. Group members could also incorporate any of their recorded answers into the final written assignment for the unit.

Thus, while there was a significant shift away from whole class Socratic seminars to inform writing, I maintained that dialogue groups might achieve the same results and that I would see an improvement in their written work as a result. At this time, a secondary question became: how would students use small groups to foster discussion in preparation for a literary essay?

It was time to put it all together. At the beginning of the semester, I ask students to write me a letter in which they describe themselves as readers, writers, thinkers, and students in general. The letter is self-diagnostic as well as a tool for me to pre-assess their writing skills and benchmark their needs. Over the years I have found students have complete candor and generally assess their abilities accurately. This semester was no exception. In broadest terms, over half of the students identify themselves as only reading when necessary, more males prefer non-fiction to fiction, and the “serious” readers, in general, were female. Few students identified themselves as writers outside of school-based assignments – keeping journals, writing poetry or songs. Slightly better than half of students identified themselves as “good students” and had plans to attend college in the fall. At least one third identified English as a difficult subject, but most of that third were willing to work hard to graduate.

Additional data consist of the survey conducted by the Center for Governmental Research; teacher observations during class; student responses to my questions about what they were doing in class, and essay scores. Discussion about the data collected is interspersed in this write-up.

Students self-select literature groups based on the shared text selected. As expected, the groups form based on friendships rather than interest in the text. Groups ranged from two to six members, although most groups consisted of five students. Students received a unit packet and elected what to do during the eighty minute block on “work days” which included access to computers. Students knew the final assessment for the unit was a literary essay and that they could collaborate throughout the writing process.

For the purpose of this action research, I limited my data collection to anecdotal observations and informal questioning on work days. I was interested in whether the dialogue groups resulted in a deeper understanding of the text that would be evidenced in the quality of the final essay for the unit. On work days I did frequent checks, asking: “How is your work coming along?” “How do you feel about this process?” “How is your collaboration working?” However when it was apparent that groups were deeply engaged in discussion about the text, I limited my data collection to observation. It is with regard to this data that I drew conclusions about group dynamics, peer interaction, work habits, time-on-task, time management with respect to due dates, completion of individual assignments.

I conducted several mini-lessons on the writing process, structuring arguments through claim / evidence/ interpretation, and integrating quoted material. I emphasized the need to get away from stand-alone quotes and following up with statements like: “This shows…” I continued with instructional strategies I knew some students were given by their junior year English teacher; “use at least five words in a sentence before you can quote.”
I provided exemplary work for model and met with individual students who sought help.

I made on other changes in my instructional practices for the duration of the unit.

Reflections

The following is a running reflection of my observations recorded throughout the unit.

The most time consuming aspect of the process occurs when students have to create a gmail account. They have a resistance to “creating more accounts” and “remembering another password”. I used this as an opportunity to talk about “professional accounts” versus personal accounts. Students will be communicating with many adults regarding their future plans, college reps, coaches, military recruits, etc., so having a professional, easily identifiable address is expected. Once this initial resistance is assuaged, students generally need the block to create an account since district access seems to bog down at this point, and it takes time to create their file sharing groups.

They enjoy “playing around” with the features in Google drive and each other. Students experiment with color and font, even creating text boxes, to identify group members. Most groups elect to use color to distinguish members.

How did the Google Drive experience help with the writing process? Students collaborated throughout the writing process in various ways: reviewing previous class work created through the literature circles, planning, writing, editing, and revision. In this way, students heard multiple perspectives and generally gained confidence in their own writing ability. Several collaborative groups set up appointments and agreed to “meet”. Students especially saw this as a powerful tool and enthusiastically commented about the experience during the next block. “It was so cool to get together with everyone.” “We finally got some work done!” “Everyone in the group contributed.” “This is the most work I’ve ever done for this class.”

Some students indicated they felt “more confident” working in groups because of Google drive and the ability to “write what they wanted to say” if they felt they couldn’t “speak up in the group.” Others were distracted by the level of noise at times or found it “hard to concentrate with so many people talking around them.” Only one student felt “hampered by the process” of having to work in groups.

Students rate the experience overall as high and like the method of grouping and working in Google drive. I can conclude that Google drive is an effective platform for student interaction, it is an effective tool to motivate students, and, as a virtual community of users, it becomes a space where students can meet outside of school. For these reasons, it is akin to social media sites.

The collaborative process resulted in stronger papers for students who were invested in the dialogue groups. Student writing from earlier in the semester was generally weaker on development. But, it was my hope that multiple opportunities for student discussion would bolster their writing in terms of deeper thinking, more clarity when expressing ideas, and more evidence with editing and revision.

Students report more accountability to their group members. It is apparent when one member isn’t contributing to the group. In one instance, a young man withdrew completely from the group because he wasn’t keep up with the other members. This group tackled the problem of inequity among group members, and ultimately he chose to work on his own.

In general, students reported that they “felt better” about their writing after collaborating on their writing through the dialogue groups and working in Google drive.
Class discussions were generally poor with few students participating. In one class, only two to three students participated by offering comments. In their dialogue groups, discussion increased and all members participated.

Negatives about the collaborative writing process included difficulty concentrating and preference for a quiet setting as opposed to classroom with groups talking; preference for a particular writing style as opposed to collaborative; preference for completing tasks in one sitting as opposed to spread over several class blocks. Other students reported feeling hampered by the process although they did rely on the teacher sample

Students struggle with research, narrowing focus and evaluating quality sources from the information they arrive at through searching.

Other research concerns include students’ ability to locate quality sources, their search techniques, and resistance to databases. Generally, students present a lack of commitment when asked to spend time with sources whether print or electronic. Perhaps this stems from their limited research literacy with print sources – utilizing a table of contents, index, appendices, chapter summaries, and so on.

Writing was a concern in general as many students didn’t understand how to integrate sources to support a claim. Even if they identified pertinent information, they generally didn’t know what to do with the information – how to actually write using the secondary source material. Students continued to rely on stand alone quotes and then explain the quote as something that “shows” something. Some students were more proficient integrating source material, and when asked about their writing, students commented that they were told by a previous teacher: “you must write at least five words before you quote a source.” That advice worked for students who understood that source material allows them to communicate their ideas.

Unfortunately, I had several occasions of plagiarism. By the time students are seniors, the argument about “didn’t mean to” or “didn’t understand” they were plagiarizing is unacceptable. Aside from the ready admission of copying to get the work turned in, students still have valid questions about what to site. In general, they recognize a need to site, but are vague about when to site. Students will site material directly quoted but continue to struggle with paraphrased material or information that led to them drawing their own conclusions. They are less likely to site secondary source material that led to their own claims or interpretations. They have a sense of “just knowing” something therefore not needing to site a source.

Students accessed documents through smart phones when computers went down. This showed a sense of commitment to the task and willingness to continue working when, what in the past, would have disrupted class and learning. Yet in some instances, I observed students who will work to complete a task but are reluctant to engage with their peers. This behavior resulted in little meaningful discussion, certainly not the deep dialogue I hoped all groups would experience.

A previous barrier to student success in the past was attendance. Through Google drive, students who were absent could still participate thereby maintaining their status as active members of the group. In several instances, students logged on from home and participated in the activities albeit only through written communication.

What I Learned

I learned that Google drive does indeed provide a space for student dialogue. Through file sharing, it becomes a platform from which students can work collaboratively in class, or at agreed upon times out of class, or asynchronously as their individual schedules permit. Overall, the options seemed quite liberating to the students who noted that: “it was really cool to all meet at 7:00 on Thursday night.” Other students noted that they “got they work done from their phone” when they had time to log on.

Students understood the power of Google drive for future use, especially in college for file sharing, storage, and real time saving. Linking academic expectations with networking and data sharing increases their online presence beyond social communication. Students see themselves as capable producers of knowledge, as participants in a “community of learners” thereby increasing student efficacy. Students draw from and engage readily from peers in an online community. This was noted from the considerable revision of documents before a final copy was submitted for grading. Even if the resulting revisions didn’t lead to more in-depth responses, there was improvement with respect to presentation and organization of content. Not only did students complete the activities leading up to the final essay, but in some instances, portions of their responses to the activities were incorporated into the final essay for the unit.

Students still struggle with research, narrowing a focus, and evaluating quality sources from the information they may arrive at through overly generalized key word searches

It was my hope that multiple opportunities for student dialogue about various topics from the literature circle would bolster student vocabulary. This outcome was not met at all. Students relied on word choice without regard for repetition, inaccuracy in tense, and, at times, even knowledge of meaning.

Barriers to success included working alone on the action research despite the proximity to a social studies teacher who was conducting action research with a similar research question. We simply didn’t have time to interact during the day and discussions at meetings were driven by a pre-determined agenda.

I believe the structure of the dialogue groups held the members accountable resulting in shared success. I gave them the tools, the materials, set expectations and essentially “turned them loose.” Over the duration of the unit, students worked to meet expectations, fostering college readiness skills. Students were autonomous and accountable.

Conclusions

After looking at the dialogue groups I can conclude that the small groups supported by an Internet based platform was successful. Teenagers are adept using social media for informal purposes; classroom experiences allow them to see their future academic and work-related capabilities.

Students rated the experience high overall and liked this method of collaboration. They selected roles within the group and self-selected or assigned each other duties. In this way, collaboration through Google drive allowed all members to participate and monitor themselves as well as others in the group. Some students worked on site management: organization and set-up of materials; others input information; while others edited and revised information. Students began to see their unique place in the process and built on those strengths as well as took on other roles within the group.

Google drive provides storage for student files and is a tool to motivate students. Once they realize its capabilities, they begin to link academic expectations with networking, data sharing, site management, and so on. In general, students felt better about their writing after going through the collaborative process. Whether it was the support they drew from each other or completing the activities leading up to the final essay is unknown, but students reported their writing was “better” after the collaborative experience.

We had problem with Internet access on two occasions. Neither instance presented a problem as the students quickly jumped to smart phones. Those who didn’t have smart phones shifted their attention to the novel and worked from that as opposed to not doing anything. Partnerships quickly formed among students with access to the Internet who recorded information from students who worked from the text. The transition was seamless as students continued to focus on the task and not let the interruption create a debacle. In fact, over the course of the unit, at least a dozen students chose to work from smart phones instead of logging onto school computers. Their choices and the technology issues that occur at school reinforce the power of Google drive for future use, especially in college, for file sharing, storage, real-time saving.

An unexpected outcome of this project was the positive response from students regarding group work. Most reported liking the arrangement and felt capable of contributing to the group. Although some students anecdotally reported that some of the work was “hard,” they felt they could get the “right answer” when they worked with their group. While none of this is a real surprise considering the research supporting collaborative grouping, I am reminded that a teacher’s place shifts when students control their learning and manage their outcomes.

Initially my action research was larger in scope, but for reasons discussed earlier, I needed to scale my expectations back considerably. Comparing the results of student writing from one unit to the next, and determining whether collaborative efforts resulted in better written work is probably not much of an indicator from which to make solid conclusions about student writing. I can conclude with confidence that students prefer small collaborative grouping particularly when allowed to self-select groups. An additional caveat of literature circles is that students prefer to self-select their texts citing personal interest as the reasons for their selection.

Overall, I am pleased with my decision to participate in action research through the Fellows Program. Anytime a teacher closely monitors factors designed to increase student engagement and achievement it can only lead to positive outcomes. I believe this was the case for my students. Their overwhelming positive responses to my informal “dip-sticking” and the quality of their writing are testament to their experience. I will continue to use dialogue groups supported by Google drive this year as I have seen the benefits. An added benefit of the Faculty Fellows experience was seeing my colleagues as researchers and writers, something we seldom seem to learn about each other in our day-to-day interactions. I appreciate working among dedicated teachers who commit to their professional growth knowing that ultimately it is our students who reap the benefits of our labor.

References

In addition to the input I received from Faculty Fellows colleagues and the resources supplied, I used the following references:
Mills, G. (2010). Action Research: A Guide for the Teacher Researcher (4th Ed.) New York, NY: Pearson Publishers.
Raider, P. (2003). Socratic Seminars: Creating a Community of Inquiry. Greece Central School District
Tredway, Linda (September 1995). Socratic Seminars: Engaging Students in Intellectual Discourse. Educational Leadership 53 (1), p.26-29.

Appendix A
In order to improve the Literature Circle Unit for future classes, I am asking you to respond to several questions about the various activities we did throughout the unit. Circle the response with which you most agree.
1. I liked selecting a literature circle novel of my choice. Yes No
2. I read all some none of the book I selected.
3. Reading one book in five weeks was just enough time. Yes No

The following questions have to do with the dialogue groups:

1. I contributed to my group ___________________________________________________________
2. I felt most confident when ___________________________________________________________
3. I was most frustrated by ___________________________________________________________
4. I would have liked ___________________________________________________________

The following question has to do with your final essay. Please comment.
1. I am more / less satisfied with my essay for this unit. Why
___________________________________________________________
___________________________________________________________
___________________________________________________________
The Literature Circle Unit in general
1. This was just enough work for seniors to do. Yes…..No
2. I needed more time to __________________________________________________________
3. Did you ever think of __________________________________________________________