Education Opinion

Apples and Fish

By Emmet Rosenfeld — November 02, 2007 7 min read
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or, Spinning Plates II

Recently, my tenth graders finished reading novels in small groups, and this is the second of what will probably be three posts in which I share ideas for managing the class when every kid is not reading the same book at the same time. Last week, I described how kids chose books and what they did as they read. This week, I will continue talking about what they did as they read and tell about one of the assessments, called a “fishbowl.” You’ll have to wait until next week to hear you about the grand finale, “The Epic X”, featuring meditating marauders and knights with noodles.

First, an aside on pacing. Instead of the scaffolded community conversation that a one book approach allows (“Read Chapter 3 for next class,”) I encouraged kids to read at their own pace… but fast. In part this was to fit the time available before the end of the quarter, but I also sometimes like to encourage a pace close to, if not quite the same as, one might use for pleasure reading. When I pick up a good book, I read it fairly continually over the course of a week or two. What I don’t do is slow down to a crawl while completing a lot of study questions or lengthy journal responses.

There’s something about the fast lonely gate one adopts while traveling through a book, like a brisk walk in the countryside, that I intuitively sense, as a reader and as a teacher, has value. One covers ground quickly while absorbed in the world of the story and is able to retain significant memories of the trip quite well. Minute details afforded by close reading fall by the wayside, but the big picture, the feel of the book as a whole, is retained. Sometimes I regret that in moving as slowly as we tend to do through a text with students, we lose that sense of dipping into another world.

What they did as they read (part II): Golden Apples
Back to earth. They had to marshall some of those memories, so I asked them to gather six “golden apples,” or conversation starters, each a sentence to a paragraph in length. They could be Big Questions, or just things that jumped out as they read. At least one of the apples was to relate to the author’s use of language. Three were to include quotes from or specific references to the text with cites. I asked them to avoid harvesting apples only after they were done; they could gather some apples as they read without slowing down much by using sticky notes.

Assessment (part I): Triple Fishbowls
This is not something I’ve taken from Cat in the Hat, although maybe his balancing act involving a cake, an umbrella, and a nervous fish in a bowl is a better metaphor for what happened then spinning plates.

A fishbowl is a variation on the Socratic Seminar that I define as an observed conversation. Some kids sit in the middle talking about their book: these are the fish. The rest of the class sits at their desks in a circle that surrounds the inner group: these observers constitute the bowl. The trick with a fishbowl is to define clearly for both fish and bowl what they should do during the process.

Because I had five books but didn’t want to sit through five fishbowls, I decided to do three fishbowls at once (the book that had the most kids reading it was divided into two groups). Since my students are math wizards, I was able to draw a diagram on the board that looked like three donuts with square holes and they set up the desks accordingly.

The fish had the easy job. They were asked to talk about their book for twenty minutes, using Golden Apples to keep the conversation going. (Fortunately the metaphor police didn’t show up as I switched back and forth between apples and fish while introducing the process.) We talked briefly about different things to do with apples, ie, different ways one could participate in a conversation, including: give an apple (initiate, ask questions); bite an apple (answer); and pass an apple (draw others into the conversation).

The bowl had a harder job. Each kid on the outside had to watch one kid on the inside in particular, and while trying to follow the content of the conversation as a whole, focus on their partner’s apple behaviors. I gave them a handout to help that included a checklist and a place for notes. I also let the fish and the bowl talk for five minutes before the fishbowl started so the bowl could get some basics of character and plot about the book they were going to hear talked about.

The fishbowls, once underway, were a success. Kids inside had a ton to say. The bowl was a bit confused, at times, but was able to observe behaviors and give feedback to their partners. At the end, I asked the fish to write for five minutes about the best thing their group talked about, and the bowl to write about how the book they’d heard observed compared with their own. After that, we switched places. The bowl became the fish and the fish became the bowl (try that, Dr. Seuss).

Overall, this was very successful at several levels. Kids enjoyed their talks and got a deeper understanding of the book. They became aware of and practiced communication skills. And, with the evaluation at the end (see below), most of the grading was taken care of. I even got feedback from kids to make it better next time: make sure the bowl sits close enough to the fish to hear easily, give more background info to the bowl, leave more time for the discussion, and consider doing this as a prep activity to write a paper.

If it all sounds rather complicated, that’s because it was. Don’t try it at home. If you’re going to do a fishbowl, do just one at a time. And the bowl will be more engaged if you start with a book that everyone’s read together (I know, I know…just do what I say, not what I do). An easy way to modify this activity for a whole class reading the same book, for example, might be to have one fishbowl a week with each group focusing on that week’s chapters.

Fortunately, my kids are used to the odd things I make them do in class now. So none of the plates fell and broke, thankfully avoiding the unpleasant scene of fish flopping on the floor gasping for water. Following are materials for before apple-picking (planning notes), during apple-picking (handout for students, pp 1-2), and after apple-picking (evaluation).

Before apple-picking (planning notes)
1. Process: Discuss behaviors in a conversation...
Give an apple (initiate)
Take a bite of an apple (answer)
Pass an apple (draw in others)
Take a bite of a passed apple (extend)
Chuck an apple (discard)
Watch apples (listen)
Sick of apples (non participatory)

2. Content: Partners from two different books discuss...
Get a quick plot summary
Briefly compare structure, narrative strategy, elephants (RR 1 share)
Check out their apples
Ask them about their typical behaviors in apple talks

During apple-picking (handout for students, page 1)
Directions: Observer (bowl) follows conversation and notes apple behaviors on the chart below, also taking notes on the conversation. Participant (fish) engages actively in conversation.

Title/Author ___________________________________________________
Partner ________________________________
T/A __________________________________________________________

1. Note how many times the fish does each behavior.
_____ Give an apple (initiate, ask ?s)
_____ Bite an apple (answer)
_____ Pass an apple (draw in others)
_____ Bite a passed apple (extend)
_____ Chuck an apple (discard)
_____ Watch apples (listen)
_____ Sick of apples (non participatory)

2. Take notes on what is talked about in the circle.

During apple-picking (handout for students, page 2)
Comparing Epic X Novels

Directions: Compare your book and your partner’s book...
Use of language
Narrative strategy
Big ideas: themes/ meaning

After apple-picking (evaluation)

_____Apples (25)
6 Golden Apples, one sentence to one paragraph in length, spanning the book.
At least three must include quotes from or specific references to the text with cites.
Big Questions, observations, and at least one that relates to the author’s use of language.

_____Fish (50)
What was the most interesting thread in the conversation? How did this change your thinking about the book?
Comment on your behaviors in the circle, based on data and feedback from your partner. Rate your participation in the circle as high/middle/low and explain.

_____Bowl (25)
What was interesting to you in the conversation?
What aspect of the book you “bowled” was most similar to your own? What aspect was most different?

_____ TOTAL (100)

Bonus questions: Did you like this activity? What worked well or didn’t? How could it be improved?

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