Necessary Noise: The Importance of Collaborative Learning

An old-fashioned radio broadcast encourages deeper reading.

Connections between students, connections between texts and students, and connections between texts and the real world are vital to student learning. In classrooms, one way to make connections is by linking people, ideas, behaviors, and activities through projects.

My first experience teaching in a classroom was when I substituted for 10 days for a foreign language teacher who taught one English class: a ninth grade basic reading class. She was assigned this class because there were not enough language classes to fill her roster and, frankly, no one else wanted these students. This was a class of “reluctant readers.”

The students were supposed to be reading Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. Most of Ray Bradbury’s works would have been an appropriate choice for this class, but Dandelion Wine was based on his childhood summer with his grandfather in a small American town in 1928.

This was 1988, and the remedial English class was comprised primarily of 15-year-old urban males. Nothing could have been further from their reality.

After a few minutes with the students, even I, brand-new and idealistic as I was, could tell they had no intention of reading the novel. In front of me were the endless lists of vocabulary words, end-of-chapter “discussion” questions, and quizzes I was pretty sure they all would fail—and they wouldn’t care.

I had to find a way to interest them in the book—something social, something active, something that would entice them to read the book and engage them in academic discussions about characters, setting, plot elements, theme, diction, and author’s purpose.

On the Air

I cleared my throat and announced: “We are going to turn this book into a radio news show.”

Now I had their attention. We discussed the components of a 30-minute news show: lead stories, local news, human interest or feature stories (the “kicker”), sports, the economy, lifestyle stories, weather, and commercials. Then, for the next few days, we partitioned the class into two parts: (1) learning about the structure and content of each type of news story, reading newspapers, and listening to broadcasts as “mentor texts”; and (2) reading the novel and looking for the news stories within.

Readers now had a purpose for reading. Even though they did not personally connect to the characters and events in the novel, they had a purpose for learning about them: to report on them. This novel became more of a window than a mirror.

Each day I gave a 15-minute focus-lesson during which we listened to a clip of a radio news show or read a newspaper column as our “mentor texts.” Sometimes we had a mini-lesson on research and reading for details, since they were conducting some light research on the time period.

During the 45-minute workshop time (although this was long before I had heard of reading-writing workshop), students individually caught up with their reading and used sticky notes to jot ideas for news segments.

The students divided themselves into broadcast groups, each planning its specific part of the radio show. Within their groups, they flipped back and forth through the pages of the novel, reading and re-reading; questioning and explaining and arguing over events and dialogue; analyzing details and events and setting.

They searched for newsworthy events, wrote scripts, and played with word choice. They created jingles and ads to advertise dandelion wine and dandelion wine recipe books, green apple pie, and sneakers. They drafted summer weather reports and human interest stories based on events and characters from 1928.

During the development of the program segments, I continued 15-minute focus lessons on skills such as reading for—and writing to include—details, leads, script writing, interviewing or persuasive advertising techniques, which they would be able to apply to reading, writing, and speaking during the year.

The classroom was abuzz with laughter and singing. Students were reading the novel, local newspapers, and research articles and primary sources about the time period of the book—all at an adolescent decibel. Absenteeism was at an all-time low.

Radio Show Day

Radio Show Day arrived. All the students had read most, if not all, of Dandelion Wine, drafted and practiced their scripts, and arrived prepared to perform. The class was loud, boisterous, committed. When I looked around, I saw boys perched on desks arranged in a circle, rather than in neat rows. It was their newscast, and they were ready to go.

The students put on a wonderful news show for each other, filled with facts and creative commercials and easily filled a half hour with content based on the book and the time period. However, it wasn’t the quality—or quantity—of the product that mattered; it was the quality of the process—the reading, analyzing, and synthesizing of information read and application to “real” situations. It also was the quality of the learning community that was built during those two weeks.

Since I was not the teacher of record, I left copious notes for their regular teacher and gave the students feedback on their preparation, content, and delivery. If I were assessing the project, I would make sure that each student was responsible for researching, writing, and presenting a part of his group segment and would have given the students a content and delivery rubric in advance.

As far as reading and comprehending the book, all students demonstrated that they read all or most (or at least more than previously) and were able to analyze and apply what they learned from the book and the informational multimedia texts they “researched” in their synthesis. I must say, they successfully climbed Bloom’s Taxonomy of Thinking, which is what teachers hope for in any classroom lesson.

Reading, Writing, and Collaboration

After 27 years of a lot of reading, research, and writing about best practices in teaching and literacy and engagement strategies, as well as studying male literacy, I can look back and truly analyze the success of the radio news project. It was based on purposeful reading, writing, and speaking in a collaborative workshop format. This single project encompassed at least a dozen best practices:

  • Writing (in narrative, informative, and persuasive modes) for authentic purpose and audience and making reading-writing connections
  • Talking (and singing) and listening that is on-task, purposeful, and academic
  • Reader response, or writing to learn, as readers talk and write about what they read
  • Synthesis of text, taking students back to the book to re-read for deeper meaning and learning
  • Active, experiential, project-based learning
  • Use of supplemental mentor and research materials (newspapers, newscasts, and primary sources) to support learning
  • Higher-order thinking, such as analysis, application, and synthesis
  • Student responsibility, choice, and, therefore, engagement
  • Democratic principles (students decide what, how, and why)
  • Differentiation and individualization; valuation of different strengths and talents
  • Multiple intelligences
  • Interdisciplinary approach to teaching. Even though the project took place within English class, students studied and incorporated elements of history, science, and math. For example, students used math to figure out the timing of the newscast segments, to analyze the percentage of the newscast devoted to different topics, and to perform statistical analyses for their advertisements.

The most apparent best practice was collaboration. As Kathryn Wentzel says in her contributed chapter to The Handbook of Competence and Motivation, “When teachers support [the] need for collaboration by allowing students to share ideas and build knowledge together, a sense of belongingness to the classroom community is established and the extension and elaboration of existing knowledge is facilitated.”

This or similar reading-writing-speaking-listening projects that combine independence with interdependence and collaboration can be used in each content area or across the team as an interdisciplinary unit, incorporating all content areas.

Lessons Learned

Twenty-seven years ago I may not have been able to articulate my rationale in academic terms based on the research of others. But I would have been able to explain why collaboration and noise were necessary to the learning of these adolescents.

Helping Administrators Understand

Recently, I worked with administrators who wanted to know what they should be looking for in a class in any discipline to determine whether reading and writing are being effectively taught. Many of the “look-fors” I suggested were not what they expected to hear—especially those administrators who value quiet students, rows of desks, pacing guides and scripted lessons, and everyone on the same page at the same time.

Some key general look-fors in any content area classroom might be:

  • Direct instruction moving toward release of responsibility with teacher as facilitator.
  • An expressed purpose for reading.
  • Lessons that connect reading and writing standards.
  • A classroom arrangement that is conducive to the particular instruction or lesson.
  • All students actively engaged on task.
  • Talk that is on-task, purposeful, and academic.
  • True differentiation based on students’ needs and strengths, not merely teaching a lesson at different “levels”

However, observing these elements is not enough. To determine effective reading and writing instruction, administrators might ask students questions to determine if they understand what they are doing, why they are doing it, and what they are learning. Administrators might ask teachers to explain what they are doing and what the rationale, objectives, and goals of the lesson are, and initiate a critical self-reflection on their own teaching practices.

Administrators might ask teachers:

  • What am I observing?
  • What teaching methods are you using and what are your objectives and goals? What outcomes are you seeing from this teaching method?
  • What literacy/comprehension strategies are you teaching? Why? On what research or readings do you base this teaching/lesson?
  • How are you delivering this instruction? Why? On what research or readings do you base this method of teaching this lesson?
  • How can you determine on what level your students comprehend the material? How are they responding to text?
  • How are you supporting the reading of text that may be too challenging for or uninteresting to students? How can your students apply it to other text or lessons?
  • What changes have you observed in your readers and their reading? How have you observed these changes?

—Lesley Roessing