This is one of my favorite lessons of the year in American Literature. Here goes:
1. I have everyone pull out a single sheet of paper and a pen or pencil and then pull up the screen revealing the question “What is an American?” The students then take the next five minutes in silence to formulate their own definitions of an American. These will range from the simple (“a citizen of America”) to the complex (one including beliefs, values, and constitutional quotes) to the potentially controversial (“one who got here legally” or “one who lives here” or “a white person who…”). This is ok. It will work itself out.
2. Next, I put the students in groups of 4-5 and instruct them to look over their definitions one last time and make any needed alterations. Then the students must pass them to the left (or right), and the students underline the portions of the definition with which they agree. Once everyone finishes, they pass again and repeat the process. If they agree with a part of the definition which is already underlined, they underline it again. This continues until everyone gets their definitions back.
3. The students now write down the phrases which have been underlined at least twice beneath the definition. They make a short list.
4. Next, the students get a piece of butcher paper and a marker. I instruct them to compose a group definition based on the lists they created beneath their definitions. The kids must agree, at least in principle, to the new definition they compose. This takes some time and forces cooperation. I definitely walk around and help facilitate at times, asking questions or helping to answer some. Once they agree, they write the definition on the paper and hang it on the front wall.
5. Once every group’s definition is displayed, I read each aloud to make sure it sounds the way each group wants it. I make minor edits if the group asks me to change anything, which is not a common occurrence.
6. Now I give every student two sticker dots. I tell the students to vote for the two definitions they like the best or to put both dots on the same definition; it’s their choice.
7. Once the voting ends, I tally the votes and read the top two vote getters and take down the rest. Now we discuss the reasons why these two definitions work the best and what shortcomings they may have. With a show of hands this time, we vote on the stronger of the two. We then discuss whether or not we can live with the definition and decide what changes should be made, if any. I do call on individuals at times and allow hands to be raised for suggestions.
8. The most popular and edited definition is now the class definition, and I save it. At the end of the class the students will complete a project where they define an American using the literature we read in class. I will then reveal their initial class definition, and we can discuss the differences and similarities.
Everyone has spoken, read, written, critically thought, participated, and helped to create the class definition. There were no wrong answers, just rough drafts of the eventual finished product. Anxiety and pressure are low. Students switch activities often and are able to move about the room. The students see how long the editing process is for a single sentence and still view the final definition as a work in progress. Editing is good writing.
All in all, a positive and collaborative tone is set; it’s a great start!