Seeing the Big Picture with Theme: Collaborative Work + Learning Stations

In my last two posts, I wrote about some of the learning activities we did in my 8th grade Language Arts classroom to set the stage to do some collaborative work with theme.  Using the structure and materials from this “Discovering Theme” activity with learning stations as my framework, we spent roughly 4.5 days of class working through the stations and then putting our puzzle pieces together.  I did make some modifications for my 8th graders to support my learners, and I’ll share those adjustments in the blog post.

The Prep Work

The basis of our activity was “Thank You Ma’am” which we had been working on together and independently prior to the station work.  I provided a copy of the story to each group, and the copy included our original version of the story from CommonLit with the addition of paragraph numbers for each portion of the story.

I began the station setup by reorganizing my room and bringing in some additional smaller tables to accommodate the number of stations I needed.  I also tweaked the original template for the stations taking out point of view and replacing it with the “Contrasts and Contradictions” fiction signpost we had been practicing in class.  I also added additional instructions and created the station “signs” and instructions using pastel colored file folders that I had laminated by our media clerk.  Finally, for each station I included the appropriate/corresponding supplies.  While it seems deceptively simple, the process was pretty time-consuming and required my coming in early and staying late for a couple of hours after school to get it all together plus some additional work at home:

I also organized groups of 3 and did not go up to groups of 4 unless absolutely necessary; I tried very hard to create groups to bring in a variety of abilities and strengths so that everyone would participate and contribute.

Getting Started

The first day was the most chaotic since we had to get everyone situated, review the procedures, and get our feet wet with what we are doing at our stations.  It was also a little tricky doing timing for each station the first day, and I had to be a little flexible though by the second day we were able to roll with fixed time rotations.  Here is a sampler of our instructions that we reviewed together the first and second days:

I was pleasantly surprised that most groups had no problems and got right to work on the first day; sometimes some classes or students struggle with activities with multiple steps, but they all got the hang of what they were doing very quickly and set to work on their tasks.  Over the course of the next few days, I was fascinated by the group dynamics and found the most valuable part of their work was the depth and richness of conversations happening as students wrestled with their thinking together.  I wish I had found a better way to capture the academic talk they were engaging in because I honestly think that was the biggest benefit for them and more valuable than the final product/outcome they crafted together.

The students had a total of eight stations to work through and most stations took about 12-15 minutes to complete.

Final Steps

The two culminating activities included:

  • Students receiving puzzle pieces with each station element and writing summary statements for each literary element.
  • A culminating activity to help students identify the thematic concept of “Thank You Ma’am” and writing a thematic statement for the short story.  This activity was one I wrote as the original version that came with the activity, while good, did not provide enough scaffolding for younger/less experienced literacy learners.  I also created these sentence frames to help the students write their summary statements in a more complete and coherent way. 

Once students wrote the summary statements, they “put them together” and glued them onto 11×14 sheets of paper we taped together (and later had laminated).  Once they looked at their puzzle pieces again together, they moved onto the final act of writing about the theme using the guided writing handout I provided.

Our final products were then taken the media center for lamination, and now that everything has been cut and trimmed, I am planning on putting our work on display.  I also had their annotation work completed that they did at each station on the chart paper, and that will be part of their display with their final products.  Here is a sneak peek:

As we set up our new literacy portfolios this past week, students completed a self-assessment of their contributions to their group and their participation in their groups.

Final Reflections

Though the activity took a little longer than I anticipated, I think it was worth the investment of time.  I think the experience of working collaboratively and getting the opportunity to wrestle and struggle together with some challenging literary analysis tasks was invaluable for my 8th graders; this kind of learning experience was also a big step up for them academically and socially.  Overall, the students did a great job staying on track and very few needed redirection.  They did a terrific job of asking clarifying questions when needed and staying the course if they hit a rough patch with a more challenging station thinking/learning task.

I did have one class that needed to finish the final part of the activity independently as they were struggling to work together on their final station rotation day, but even this modification turned out to be helpful and meaningful for that particular class and was the best final pathway to learning for them.  The only other challenge I encountered was that some students chose to be destructive with the new Sharpies, and we had to put them away on our final station rotation today and finish with regular pens and pencils though students could bring/use their own supplies if they chose to do so.

While this activity is probably a little better geared toward advanced middle schoolers and all levels of high school students, I feel like my 8th graders rose to the challenge and overall did some outstanding work as teams and individually.  Their thinking skills were pushed, and they gained valuable experience in working with others.  I was especially proud of how many students showed leadership within their groups and did a great job working with their peers.  As I mentioned earlier, the academic talk and the debate about different questions and responses I heard within groups was probably a more valuable measure of their learning than the written work.  In the future, I might have students record their debate or do an audio recording of it and post to Seesaw as a way to capture this aspect of their learning.  The amount of prep work I had to do and some of the modifications I had to create as we moved through the activity was a little more than I expected, but I learned and grew from that as well.  Overall, I definitely recommend this activity to my fellow Language Arts teachers!   This group work was our springboard to individual theme analysis with our independent reading novels, and I will write more about that in my next blog post.

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