Desks grouped in quads. Chart papers labeled and posted around the room. Clear directions both posted and orally presented as well as a clear objective for why students would be traveling to different areas of the room.
As I walked into an 11th grade classroom to watch students engage in collaborative conversations about the American Dream, I was overwhelmed by the depth of their discussions and ideas about the topics as they approached the theme from different perspectives.
In preparation for this lesson and study of the upcoming text, students were asked to interview a family member about the American Dream to add some depth of understanding and context before exploring the texts. The questions they asked in their interviews were:
“What does the American Dream mean to you?”
“In your opinion, is the American Dream attainable?”
“Do you think ‘class’ has anything to do with whether or not a person can attain his/her dream?”
It’s with this context that West Hempstead High School English teacher, Jeannette Casto decided to do this lesson. “Since we will be starting Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, I constructed this lesson as a pre-reading, motivating activity where students had to consider the concept of the American Dream and the possible barriers one may encounter when trying to achieve his/her American Dream. In addition, I wanted them to question the idea of “class"—whether or not class plays a role in achieving one’s American Dream and if class influences our destiny? These questions will be further discussed and examined while students are reading the novel.”
The lesson did an excellent job of getting students to critically examine and consider various kinds of texts to internalize what the American Dream is preparation for The Great Gatsby.
Coupled with carefully planned texts, the lesson incorporated movement and music to ease transitions. And it was evident that the students were enjoying the activity.
Each station asked students to consider the theme from a different perspective. As the students went to each chart paper station, they used a unique color to show their group’s thinking. The students, who had done a similar activity with Poe earlier in the year, already knew that they weren’t supposed to repeat the same answers as other groups, but could elaborate or question what was already there.
Station 1: Poem analysis: “As I Grow Older” by Langston Hughes - Students had to read and annotate the poem doing a text on text read looking at five different elements associated with theme, tone and diction. Directions were placed at the top of the station so that students could ensure they were on the right track.
Station 2: Historical document: “The Declaration of Independence” - The interdisciplinary connection here worked really well as students discussed what America stood for when they claimed their independence. 11th graders in New York also study U.S. history, so the students were familiar with the document. However, this opportunity to see it through this lens in class, added considerable depth to their understanding of the ideas. Students spent a good amount of time considering the statement “All men are created equal,” and the implications as during that time period, “all men” is not as inclusive as it may seem.
Station 3: Reflection questions: Students were given four statements that they had to strongly agree, agree, disagree or strongly disagree with and provide a rationale for why. The questions centered around the ideas of “class” and social status.
Station 4: Painting: “The American Dream” by Salvadore Dali - This station really opened up the most analysis. Students stood together looking at each of the images trying to determine what Dali was trying to say about America.
Station 5: Non-Fiction article from the New York Times - Students were given the article ahead of time to read and annotate and then discuss ideas that were interesting, surprising or confusing.
Station 6: Creative Writing and Vocabulary - Students were able to write or draw something about the American Dream. Students drew pictures as well as wrote poems using their new vocabulary.
Each group got four minutes to spend at each station, getting through four in one lesson. Mrs. Casto played jazz music to help with transitions between each station and allowed a few extra seconds for groups to finish thoughts before they were asked to move to the next station.
As the class was coming to a close, she asked the group if they wanted to go to another station or start working on their reflections for the day. The decided to reflect and on the reflection sheets provided they were able to choose what they wanted to think about. Selecting either A or B:
A: “What is one new or interesting idea that you took away from today’s lesson?”
B: “Which station do you feel generated the most discussion with your peers? Why?
Selecting either C or D:
C: “How would you improve this lesson to make it better for another class?”
D: “Which station do you think was the least thought provoking? How would you change it?”
Some student thoughts on the lesson were:
A: “That Langston Hughes didn’t only incorporate racism in his poem but incorporated sounds of New York City which added a new dimension to his poem.”
“That racial issues still exist today and it plays a role to attain the American Dream.”
B: “The station that generated the most discussion was the painting because it could be interpreted in many ways.”
C: “I would have made more opinion questions.”
D: “The creative station because we mainly just looked at how good people’s creations were. Go into depth about the meaning of each of the creations.”
One student wrote “Station 6 was the least thought provoking because it didn’t really make you think about the American Dream. It made you think more about the vocabulary. If I changed it, I would’ve made it more about the American dream and made that the focus.” The feedback the comment received was “Can thinking about the vocabulary of the American dream be thought-provoking in any way?”
Overall, Mrs. Casto thought the lesson was thought provoking and accomplished her intended goal. “Through the exit-tickets and class discussions during and after the station activity, I believe that the students enjoyed the activity and were successful with the goals I had in mind. I will use student feedback to further my instruction.”
The more we offer students learning experiences that ask them to collaborate, consider multiple texts and genres of text and then provide them opportunity to think deeply about the learning, the more connected and meaningful their learning will be.
How do you incorporate learning stations into your classes or what kinds of strategies do you use to get students moving around and collaborating? Please share.
The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.