“Letting Glow” Part Two: An Update on Our Independent Study

With one month left in the school year and just a few weeks remaining before my IB seniors take their exam, we are nearing the end of our independent studies, and I am excited by the results of this experiment!

Earlier this week, students gathered in small discussion groups to talk about their independent study works. Some groups consisted of students who had read the same work; other groups were organized by genre or theme. Each student submitted a question that was added to a list of prompts that groups could use to guide their discussion. Once their discussion finished, students completed an exit ticket reflection about the highlights of the discussion. Here is what some students had to say about their discussions and the texts they selected:

  • I did not enjoy this book alone, but after discussion and greater understanding, I have a contextual understanding and appreciation for the story..
  • I would absolutely recommend this work. I loved it so, so much. I am starting to read more by my author but it’s inspired me to just read more poetry (and write more!) in general. I wish there had been someone else to read the same work as me rather than just the same kind of work, is the only thing. I had moments where I really wanted to talk about the specific poems but I didn’t have the chance to (though admittedly, I’m a little more excited about poetry than the regular person).
  • I went into this book a bit blind and I didn’t do my research. I wish I knew a bit more about this book before selecting it because I probably would have chosen something else.
  • I think I would recommend this story to someone who likes to be challenged by what they read; it’s a super confusing collection and it frustrates me because there is no easy answer to the meaning behind a story. I still have questions about nearly every story in the book except for the first story, so that’s annoying as well.
  • I recommended it to [a coworker] because he loves learning about California in the 60s and 70s and always talks about wanting to move out there one day. 
  • The question that yielded the most interesting discussion was “What was the most memorable part of your work?” This was because I learned SO much [my classmate’s] works, and of course they were most excited to speak about those parts of their works because those parts were what stuck to them the most. I heard about how the author of [one classmate’s]book gave “explanations, not excuses” for how characters treated others throughout the book. In [another group member’s] book there was an interesting passage where a girl was learning English, and thought that the snow she saw, was a nuclear bomb. I think both of these situations brought up really good discussion points and gave a lot of insight into the themes present in their books.
  • The question asking us to match our independent study book to a snack was the most entertaining question. Hearing why someone chose a certain food was funny. I personally chose popcorn so you can handle the short stories as a binge tv session. 
  • Something I learned/noticed as a result of today’s discussion is the intentional structure of Marie Howe’s poetry. All of the poems I read were organized into stanzas that each shared the same number of lines. Many of these were couplets and stanzas with four lines. This is a detail that I didn’t notice at first yet it was so obvious. I was prompted to ask this question because [a classmate] made a similar observation about her own work, so this caused me to look at my poems for structural patterns. 
  • The liberty to choose exactly what I wanted to read was gratifying and enabled me to delve into interests that I don’t often have the time or place to do so. 

Today, seniors responded to exam prompts crafted by their peers. To create these prompts, students selected a key passage from the independent study text and paired the passage with a guiding question. Completing this assignment was an opportunity to think like an IB examiner and anticipate the sorts of passages and questions that might appear on their exam in three weeks. As I printed exams last night, I was SO IMPRESSED by students’ ability to select passages that, as their classmates affirmed after they took their tests today, yielded plenty of material to analyze and interpret. In the future, I will ask students to reflect briefly on their reasons for selecting their passages before I give their prompts to other students. This year, because of our time crunch, those reasons will (hopefully) be implied when they evaluate their peers’ responses to the exam prompts they created. 

To conclude our study, seniors will write like their independent study author or write a personal analysis that focuses on their experience of reading the text, something akin to this piece on reading Morrison in Russia or this one on developing a queer reading of Pride and Prejudice.

I kept the expectations and activities of this independent study unit simple. In the moments when I wonder whether students have honestly completed their reading, I regret not creating more checkpoints or small assessments, but, most of the time–as I listen to them laugh about a particularly wild short story, debate an interpretation of a poem, excitedly tell me about finding a signed copy of a second poetry collection by their writer, or pick up the next novel by their author from my bookshelf–I think that simple is best. Together, we read Szymborska, Heaney, Adichie, Allende, Shakespeare, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Zadie Smith. But thanks to our independent study, students also read Toni Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Kendrick Lamar, Julia Alvarez, Aimee Bender, George Orwell, Yoko Ogawa, Margaret Atwood, Joan Didion, Nikki Giovanni, and a host of other great writers, and more than one student found a new voice who really spoke to them. And that’s the feeling that brought us to this work in the first place, isn’t it? 

What are your independent study or independent reading success stories? Is there a new text in your classroom that is setting students’ hearts and minds on fire? I’d love to hear about it below or on Twitter @MsJochman.

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