We Are Westridge
A community blog featuring Head of School Elizabeth J. McGregor, the Westridge Leadership Team, our esteemed faculty members and occasional special guests
Lessons from Crashing 7th Grade English
by Director of Marketing & Communications Kim Kerscher
I am reading Animal Farm for the first time and when I heard that the 7th grade English classes were holding in-class discussions on the text, I asked if I could sit in as a silent observer. Boy, I am glad I did―in addition to being impressed by the students’ insights into the book they (we) are reading (as it turns out, I am on the same chapter as the class – Chapter 6 with Napoleon showing his colors and conformity still the farm norm), it was fascinating to see the girls learning how to hold a meaningful book discussion.
The discussion was structured as a “fishbowl,” with the class broken into two groups, each of which took a turn as discussion participants and observers. English Teacher Mr. Cross gave tips on how to contribute substantively to a discussion (building on past points to move the discussion forward, citing textual evidence, upside down thinking, returning to strong ideas that had been introduced but left to die when the conversation veered another direction, and the like) and set out the rubric for observer feedback. He let the students start the discussion without a specific prompt. The girls were unfazed, jumping into conversation without a beat and only pausing very occasionally for guidance from Mr. Cross (e.g."What is that an example of? Good point—is there textual evidence of that foreshadowing?") and to switch groups. When a student questioned the motivation of a lead character, others pointed to passage that shed light on the topic. They talked about specific actions of the animals―use of fear and brainwashing to control others, for instance―and how these behaviors and the farm evolved over time. One student made a link to something she had studied in history. Another suggested a theory on how a main character might evolve by the end of the book.
The brief classroom visit was a delightful mental jolt for this adult who is a few decades away from any classroom, let alone 7th grade. It reminded me:
- how much close reading and conversation adds to the experience of reading (must join a book club),
- that the depth of analytical thinking in the Westridge curriculum starts early (actually in Lower School but it was on full display here),
- of the excitement and power of student voices,
- and, that I need to get out of my office more often!
I also learned some things about Animal Farm that I missed in my own reading. Thank you, Mr. Cross and my comrades in 7th grade B Block English. I am curious to see if your theories on what will happen in future chapters come to fruition.
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