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November 30, 2011 Handing My Students the Reins With Gary Paulsen’s Mudshark By Alycia Zimmerman
Grades 3–5

    Since I started teaching, I’ve wanted to reach a point where my students would have whole-class discussions about books without an adult (me!) moderating the conversation. Working towards this goal over the year, I’ve had glimmers of success with productive student-led book groups and Socratic seminars based on discussion prompts that I provided. However, my goal of an entirely student-led “Grand Conversation” was still elusive until this fall. Read on to find out how, armed with a class set of Gary Paulsen’s Mudshark and a basket of Snap Cubes, I became a happy spectator in this book study. 


    A student takes margin notes to prepare for a Grand Conversation.



    What Is a Grand Conversation?

    In my interpretation, a Grand Conversation is a student-led book discussion held by an entire class. During a Grand Conversation, students ask questions, discuss their thoughts and feelings about a text, and make meaning as they talk about a shared reading experience. They critique, question, and build upon each other’s ideas using evidence from the text. To my thinking, a Grand Conversation is a somewhat less formal version of a Socratic Seminar. Grand Conversations can either be planned or occur spontaneously, and once the students are experienced with Grand Conversations, the teacher does not speak during the conversation.

    For more information about Grand Conversation’s “sister” dialogue format, read Scholastic blogger Angela Bunyi’s fantastic, comprehensive blog post about Socratic Seminars.



    Why Hold a Grand Conversation?



    An anchor chart to support our Grand Conversations.


    All too often, I find that I am doing more thinking during my reading workshop lessons than my students. I pose the thought-provoking questions, I initiate turn-and-talks, and I follow up on students’ responses. Uh oh, isn’t this backwards?

    I want my students to decide which conversation topics are important, to respond to each other, and to explore multiple meanings. During a Grand Conversation, the responsibility shifts to the students as they collaborate on a quest for deeper comprehension.

    In their classic book, Grand Conversations: Literature Groups in Action, authors Ralph Peterson and Maryann Eeds explain the rationale for student-led book talks. They write:

    We believe that the dialogue model is the best system for students to use in text interpretation. Why dialogue? Because it is a natural way for people to learn to construct meaning. The lecture model places knowledge outside the students, treating them as passive recipients; dialogue recognizes that knowledge is something that students actively construct. . . .

    Participants in dialogue experience in a dramatic way what it means to construct meaning. For the most part, our individually constructed meaning happens unnoticed. But in a group we can take note of the shifts in thinking that occur as the interpretation of a text evolves. Group members also learn about the feelings and experiences of others as they interact. Members seek to know ideas on other people’s terms as they collaborate in the construction of meaning. (p. 26)


    What Does a Grand Conversation Look Like?

    During a Grand Conversation, the students sit in a circle so that they can make eye contact with each other. In my classroom, the students sit around the edge of the rug in our classroom library. Students all have a copy of the shared reading text in their hands, and they probably have some notes they took as well.

    In my class, I ask for a volunteer to start a Grand Conversation, after which I literally leave the circle. I sit about a foot outside of the circle with a clipboard, paper, and pen. While the students talk, I transcribe the conversation or take other notes. This is a VERY important part! I find that if I look up from my clipboard at all, the students immediately begin looking at me for visual cues about when to speak and for validation of their dialogue. It is only when I disciplined myself to keep my eyes glued to my clipboard that I truly ceded control of the conversation. (As you know, a teacher’s eyes are a powerful tool.)



    Students do not raise their hands, which took my students a little while to get used to. Instead, the conversation freely bounces from one student to another. In practice, this means that there will be awkward moments of silence at some points, and that at other times several students will begin to speak at once. I let my students know that this is OK, and we brainstorm strategies for how to handle these situations together.

    After a Grand Conversation ends, I often project the conversation transcription (e.g., my notes), and I share some observations about the conversation. By naming the strategies I observed, I help the students reflect on their thinking. I hope to have the students lead this post-conversation reflection soon. (This is a work in progress for me — I have plenty of “next steps”!)


    My Success Story — Margin Notes and Mudshark

    As I mentioned at the beginning, I’ve been working at Grand Conversations for several years — holding successful Grand Conversations is one of my “big, hairy, audacious goals.” This is a journey rather than a destination. Here’s what has worked so far this year.


    A Class Set of Mudshark



     A student writes margin notes in his copy of Mudshark.


    I have never taught with a class set of books before. In my school, teachers usually read aloud from a book while students listen. We don’t “teach books,” we teach with books. Students only read along with their own copy for shared readings of short texts. In the past, I’ve photocopied chapters from our read-aloud book for the students to use during Grand Conversations. This worked, but was hardly ideal. I’d spend forever in the copy room, only to return to my classroom with blurry, clunky packets.

    This time, I gave each of my students a copy of Mudshark to keep. This meant that they could — in fact, were required to — write in their books. There was some initial pushback. Some students were appalled at the suggestion that they write in their books — this has been forbidden since they were crayon-scribbling toddlers. After I shared my margin notes from the first chapter — “a peek inside my reading brain” — my students were excited to try margin notes themselves. (It didn’t hurt that I explained that taking margin notes was practically college-level work.)



    Why Mudshark?

    The truth is, you can choose any excellent literature that fits your curriculum. I chose Mudshark for several reasons. First of all, Gary Paulsen places an enormous amount of trust in his young readers. He doesn’t “write down"; his books are sophisticated and thought provoking, and use the most sublime vocabulary. If I was going to trust my students to conduct their own Grand Conversations, I wanted an author who trusts my students at least as much as I do.

    Secondly, I knew Mudshark would be a great introduction to Gary Paulsen’s books. I have sixteen boys and four girls in my class this year, so I am constantly on the lookout for books that will speak to my horde of boys. Gary Paulsen is a sure bet, and Mudshark is the best entry point. Mudshark is a hilarious school mystery about a brilliant young sleuth who is temporarily dethroned by a “psychic” parrot. It is relatable without being juvenile, and has enough bathroom humor to hook my most reluctant readers and plenty of “big" ideas to spin into conversations.

    Lastly, I was able to get Mudshark for a bargain. Scholastic Book Clubs is selling packs of ten copies of Mudshark for ten dollars. This time, I used some of my Book Club bonus points to buy copies for my students. Going forward, I am going to trawl the “dollar books” section and ask my students to each bring in a dollar to purchase other books to allow for more margin notes and Grand Conversations.


    All About Margin Notes

    I really think having my students take margin notes made all the difference in the success of their Grand Conversations. (I’ve included scans of some of my students' margin notes at the end of this post.) For the first five chapters of the novel, the focus of my lessons was on taking quality margin notes. (Margin notes are simply pencil notations on the pages of the book. For more about the rationale behind margin notes, check out the blog post "How Margin Notes Are Better Than the Yellow Highlighter.") Here’s a quick rundown of my lessons:

    Lesson 1: Introduction to Margin Notes — I shared my margin notes with the document camera and demonstrated how they let me “talk back” to the text and capture my thinking.

    Lesson 2: Charting Types of Margin Notes — The students tried taking their own margin notes for the second chapter. We used their notes to create a chart listing the different types of margin notes they were taking. (Insert photo: Margin Notes Chart)

    Lesson 3: Analyzing Your Margin Notes — The students took margin notes on the third chapter, and then tallied up their totals for each type of margin note. Then the students reflected on what they tend to do most as a reader. This really helped the students think about their reading.











    Click on thumbnails for larger photos.


    Lesson 4: “Thick and Thin” Margin Notes, Teacher Modeling — Together, we all looked at my margin notes for chapter four. I explained that thin margin notes lead to a single point of view or a simple response. Thick margin notes could lead to an entire conversation. The thick margin note is either controversial, reflects an evidence-based opinion, or asks an open-ended question. We color-coded my margin notes with colored pencils to visually show thick versus thin notes.

    Lesson 5: “Thick and Thin” Margin Notes, Student Try — For chapter five, the students took their usual margin notes. Then I asked the students to color code their margin notes according to our thick and thin classifications. Finally, the students each added a margin note to a class chart.

    Now that my students were pulling out “thick” margin notes, I knew that they were ready to launch some Grand Conversations!


    From Margin Notes to a Grand Conversation

    I continued to have my students code their margin notes, and for the first Grand Conversation, I had each student write a thick margin note on a slip of paper and tuck it into a bag. One student reached in, pulled out a thick margin note, and this was the beginning of their very first Grand Conversation.

    Their first conversation lasted four minutes. I cut them off before the conversation could switch topics or derail. I wanted my students to “feel” a successful Grand Conversation, even on a small scale.

    For the following Grand Conversations, I asked for a student volunteer to initiate the conversation using one of his margin notes. I reminded my students to stick with thick margin notes only, and to try to stay on a single topic for as long as possible.

    By the third Grand Conversation, many of the students were becoming comfortable jumping in to speak, and supporting their discussion with direct quotes and evidence from the book. I still had several students who had not yet joined a conversation, though. This is when I had my Snap Cube breakthrough.


    Snap Cubes to the Rescue!

    You probably have Snap Cubes in your classroom with the math manipulatives. They are those brightly colored plastic blocks that snap together to form towers. This would have worked with LEGOs, too, but I had Snap Cubes on hand.

    Before our next Grand Conversation, I handed each student a Snap Cube. I explained that today’s conversation would be a little different. Each student could only speak once, and he had to toss his cube into the basket in the center of the circle after he spoke. The challenge was to see how many students could add their cubes to the basket while discussing a single topic. After the conversation ended, we would connect the cubes in the basket to make a tower.

    My competitive and math-minded students — many of whom were boys who had yet to join a conversation — suddenly perked up. On our first try, we built a tower eight blocks high. By the third try, twelve of my students joined a conversation and stuck with a single topic, including all of the students who had previously been silent. My students proudly taped their “connected-conversation towers” to the wall of the classroom, sharing their progress as conversationalists with one and all.

    As we reached the last chapter of Mudshark, I challenged my students to have a final Grand Conversation, this time without the Snap Cubes. As I sat outside of the students’ circle, I listened as every student spoke during the eighteen-minute conversation. The conversation was focused, with three different topics discussed in turn. There were two protracted silences, a couple of students who spoke more than their fair share, and a student who heatedly huffed, “Well, I disagree!” perhaps with too much fervor. And I felt like dancing a jig.

    My students have caught Gary Paulsen fever. The basket of his books in my classroom library is perpetually empty, as students trade one Paulsen book for another. My students are also obsessed with margin notes now. They’ve been bringing in personal books from home with densely notated margins, and they are asking when we can read our next “class margin-note book.” Thank you, Gary Paulsen, Scholastic Book Clubs, and Snap Cubes!


    Here are some scans of my students’ margin notes to give you an idea of how they were actively “talking back” to the book. Click on the photos to enlarge.






    Other Ideas for Teaching With Mudshark:

    * Gary Paulsen is most well known for his survival-adventure stories; however, he has written books in practically every genre, from rib-tickling comedies to historical war novels. Have your students read Gary Paulsen novels from several genres. The differences will be obvious, so instead ask your students to find similarities between the books. Right now, several of my students are comparing Mudshark and Hatchet, and they are making some surprising discoveries in the process.


    * What’s the next best thing to an author visit? In my opinion, it’s sharing an author video. I found some excellent videos with Gary Paulsen. In this six-minute Scholastic Book Clubs interview, a child reporter asks Paulsen questions sent in by other children. If you want even more information, here is a three-minute video featuring Paulsen. In it he talks about how he became an author, his multiple career paths, his outdoor adventures, and his love of writing. (Hint: If you’re like me and can’t show YouTube videos at school, there are plenty of instructions available online about how to download videos from YouTube. Download the movie at home, save it on a flash drive, and then play it headache-free at school.)




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