Friday, May 15, 2020

My Favorite Classroom Routine

A million years ago, when school was something that happened in person, and not through our screens, I never started class on Tuesdays through Fridays.  Instead, as the bell rang, I would sit quietly at my desk as a student called their classmates to attention.  The student would present for a minute or so on a current event or news story, summarizing the story for their classmates, before posing a provocative statement, asking their classmates to agree or disagree with the statement, then discuss why they agreed or disagreed.  15-20 minutes later, the student would move to wind down the discussion, and yield the floor to me, at which point I would introduce whatever plans I had for class that day.

What I've just described is my favorite classroom routine, News Circles.

News Circles were born out of a conversation I had with my principal three years ago in my capacity as Social Studies Department Chair.  We were discussing ways to increase student awareness of--and engagement with--current events, particularly global issues, before their Senior year, at which time we ask them to do a major research project on a global issue of their choice.  

What we came up with was a classroom routine in which students would share news stories each day, low-stakes to the extent that even if a student forgot and did not bring a news story to class, it wouldn't matter in the long-run because they and their classmates would at least be exposed to other news stories.  

I decided I wanted to pilot this idea with my Humanities class the following year.  

News Circles have morphed and evolved with trial and error over the past three school-years.  I realized early on that I needed to give my students ownership of the routine, and so formed a voluntary News Circle committee who would decide what, exactly, News Circles would look like, and then oversee it on a day-to-day basis.  

This year, the News Circle Committee took the ownership I'd been looking for.  Whereas the previous two Humanities classes had run News Circles as a 5-10 minute routine in which four or five students would briefly share news stories each day, this year's committee decided that the quality of engagement with a news story was more important than the quantity of news stories their classmates would hear each day.  So, they decided to assign one student to present each day, with the majority of the time going toward facilitating a discussion on their news story.  The committee asked me if they could have 15-20 minutes rather than 5-10, and I was happy to oblige if they genuinely felt they needed the time.  

Under the leadership of the current News Circle Committee, News Circles have become my favorite classroom routine.  Here are a few reasons why News Circles have been such a rich part of our Humanities class:

1. Student Leadership
The News Circle Committee has emerged as a respected leadership group this year, to the extent that all of them ran either for Student Council or Senior Council for next year, all citing News Circle Committee as relevant leadership experience, with most being elected in the end.  In addition to heavily changing the format of News Circles to introduce a discussion focus, the News Circle Committee members in both sections have worked to design a master schedule, assigning classmates to come prepared to share a news story and lead a discussion each day.  They have been dutiful in reminding their classmates when their assigned day is coming up, and in the rare event that a classmate has forgotten, they have been prepared to step in and present, themselves.  They have coached their classmates on how to effectively facilitate discussions, introducing a routine that I now use, myself, the Four-Corner Discussion (in which students must physically go to a designated corner of the room based on whether they Strongly Agree-Agree-Disagree-Strongly Disagree with a given statement or proposition).  In January, my committee in one of the Humanities sections even took a day to share other types of discussion formats they had researched, and talked the class briefly through how each could work.  And if all of that had not been enough, the committees in both of my Humanities sections have voluntarily kept News Circles going during our 45 minute GoogleMeet check-ins each day since we returned to online learning after Spring Break.  I have seen these students emerge as leaders in ways that would not have been quite as clear or dramatic were it not for News Circles.

2. Student Choice, Engagement, and Ownership
Obviously, this is a classroom routine designed by students, for students.  That alone increases buy-in.  But within the structure of News Circles, the committee has given their classmates a high degree of choice in what they bring to the table when they present and lead a discussion.  We have had stories on sports, on politics, on business, on entertainment, on fashion, on health, on human rights, on science and technology... students find what interests them, and it often shows in the way they tell their classmates about their news item.

3. Critical Reading and Media Literacy
This does not come up all of the time, but occasionally, the student leading will ask their classmates to read the article, or a pair of articles themselves to highlight contradictions or biases within the article. Sometimes, the discussions have ended up being less about the issue at hand in the article, and more about the way in which it was reported.

4. Presentation and Facilitation Skills
Although it is an informal, low-stakes routine, it provides every student with an additional opportunity to practice their presentation skills and become more comfortable speaking in front of their classmates beyond our more formal class speeches and presentation assignments.  Perhaps even more beneficial is the challenge of facilitating a discussion--figuring out how to rephrase questions if necessary, or break big questions down into smaller, more manageable parts.

5. Critical Thinking
Coming up with discussion questions themselves is a worthwhile activity.  Something the students started to do without prompting from me, but which I plan to make an expectation in future years was to ask bigger-picture essential questions that pick up on the implications of a specific news story.  In other words, most students are not asking simple or factual discussion questions based specifically on the story they shared, but rather larger, more foundational or philosophical questions raised by their news story.  For instance, today a student shared an article about how some anti-vaxxers have changed their minds about vaccines in light of the COVID outbreak.  Rather than asking questions about her article specifically, she instead posed the following questions to her classmates in a discussion that lasted about half an hour: 1) Should vaccinations be mandatory?; and 2) Is communal good more important than individual freedom?  I love it when my students are able to see the forest through the trees.  In fact, my fellow high school social studies colleagues and I have been reading a book on essential questions by Wiggins and McTighe (the same duo who wrote Understanding by Design), and although this book is designed to help teachers create better essential questions to drive their units in class, we realized that we can and should be teaching similar skills to our students, and encouraging them when they do ask good essential questions.

6. Debate Skills
So far, I haven't even mentioned the discussions themselves.  Because of the nature of the Four-Corners discussion, which has been by far the most popular discussion format this year, students cannot hide and must decide where they stand on an issue--literally.  Few statements this year have yielded unanimous results, and even in the rare cases where every student is on the agree side of the room, or on the disagree side of the room, there is disagreement about degree with some students standing in the "strongly" corner, and some not.  After students have gone to the corner that represents their stance on the issue, discussion and disagreement are inevitable.  Not every student speaks up, but everyone is a part of the back-and-forth by virtue of having taken a stand.  Students will question one another's faulty logic or point out a lack of evidence, or qualified sources as they rebut one another's positions, and it's not uncommon to see the "bystanders" in these discussions physically change their minds as they listen to the debate, walking to a different corner to show that a particular argument had convinced them. Sometimes, the different sides concede or compromise, and on several occasions, they have even recommended rewording or qualifying the statement/question at hand to reach common ground and agreement.  Sadly, this school-year will end without a formal debate in Humanities class, an unfortunate but necessary casualty of COVID-19 and the limitations of emergency online learning.  However, I believe that this class is in many ways more advanced in their debate skills than previous classes because they participate in debate informally each day through News Circles.

7. Awareness of Current Events
It's funny to me that this original purpose for News Circles was the very last thing that I thought of as I listed out the benefits for this blog-post.  This does not mean it's an after-thought, by any means.  The students are coming away with a broader and deeper awareness of what is happening around the world, why it's happening, what the implications are on a smaller more immediate scale, and a wider long-term scale, and what they, themselves, think about what is happening.  Inevitably, they are learning about history, sociology, psychology, politics, economics, culture, geography and so much more as they lead and participate in News Circles.  None of this is formal, and it's hard to quantify, but it's exciting!

Nobody would have wished to spend the final three months of the school-year doing emergency distance learning instead of regular schooling.  On my end, I have assigned the students work that they are to do independently, and the vast majority are keeping up with our end-of-year assignments.  Using our 45-minute Google Meets to lecture seems to me an ineffective use of both my time and my students' time, and initially I was skeptical of having set, required GoogleMeet times each day, but when it became clear to me that my News Circle committees were not only willing, but genuinely eager to use that time to continue News Circles, I knew that important learning would continue to happen in my classes.  This was not what I would have expected or chosen for my students, but in this difficult time, News Circles have given my students a way to show initiative and rise to meet such unique challenges.  I'm glad that I have this as a classroom routine, and grateful for a group of students who have shown me just how good News Circles can be.  I won't soon forget.