Friday, November 14, 2008

Teaching with easels

Last year I bought four wooden, self-assemble easels from Joann Fabrics to use in my classroom. I had recently gone to a conference of The New England Association of Teachers of English, where one of the presenters - a former Massachusetts Teacher of the Year - used easel posters to engage a group of English teachers during a seminar.

Once the easels came in the mail, I went to my local hardware store and picked up four pieces of plywood. I set a piece of plywood on each easel, clipped easel paper onto the plywood, and voila! - I had four classroom easels for under $60.

The past two days I've used the easels to help structure discussions of To Kill a Mockingbird. In the first two photographs, students initially wrote quotes and drew images before going back to the easels for "round two" to explain the quotes and write down insights gleaned from the images. In a "final round," students used yellow reporters notebooks to write down the main idea they extracted from each easel, along with something they felt wasn't sufficiently explained and needed to be discussed in class.

In the third image, students wrote quotes and questions. They then analyzed their quotes in the reporters notebooks, and answered questions on the easels.

The fourth image contains some of the instructions I wrote on my front blackboard. The students are to be commended for both tolerating and actually reading my handwriting.


Use of the easels allow students to work collaboratively in groups, share their thoughts and insights with each other, and receive immediate feedback on their ideas from peers. It also gets them up and moving around the room. Both yesterday and today, students said "This period goes by so fast." It doesn't always, but when everyone is engaged, time is a rare commodity that I just don't have enough of.

For the easel activity to work, students need to have done the reading, done their homework (in this case, one of four literature circle jobs), understand exactly what they are supposed to do and in what order, and evenly delegate each of the tasks within their groups. My students have been working in literature circle groups of four, so we ended up having five groups in each class. At times a couple of the easels were "busy" when two groups were at the same one, but overall students did a good job working with and around each other.

In the past I've done other activities where there are four groups, so each easel is occupied by only one student mass.


I find if I don't offer students an alternative structure for class discussions, (lit circles, easel activities, Socratic seminar) I can end up dominating the conversation. That's not what I want. I'm not here to tell the kids what I know about To Kill a Mockingbird. I'm here to see what they're coming to know about it as they read it. I want to help shed light on ambiguities and clear up misconceptions. I don't want to recount plot or show them how brilliant I am at literary analysis. I can certainly model these things for them, but if they begin to get the idea that I'm going to tell them about the book and explain what things mean, they won't be inclined to read. Why should they if I'm going to give it to them in class?


I've found that groupwork can be a great motivator. If students in a group are responsible for different tasks or roles, and they know that each task is vital for the group to function cohesively in class, they're more inclined to do the assignment. I always check homework at the start of class on the day it's due, and I usually try to use homework as the basis for some kind of discussion, or to lead into new territory.

I'd be curious to hear of your experiences using easels in the classroom. I'd also be happy to provide more info on how I structure some of the activities.



Anonymous said...

This is great!

I loved TKAM in high school, but we certainly didn't do anything fun and engaging like this when reading it.

Mr. B-G said...

Thanks Browneyed. Mockingbird is probably the best and most challenging book in our 9th grade curriculum. Many of my past students say it's their favorite book from freshmen year. Others never "got it" because the vocabulary is difficult and the ideas are deep and nuanced.

It's my hope that the easels will allow those who know to help those who don't by selecting main points and key ideas for everyone to focus on and discuss.

KStar said...

I was at the conference... I didn't go to a session that used an easel but it sounds like great tool to be using in the classroom. Thanks for this post!

Mr. B-G said...

Hi Kstar,

The conference I was referencing was the 2007 NEATE gathering. And when I mentioned that the presenter used easels, I suppose I am using that term liberally, as he had four large pieces of easel poster paper taped to each of the four walls in the conference room.

He then had us get in groups and add various content to each of the papers. His activity was similar to mine, sans the actual wooden easel.

I suppose my use of easels are an improvement over his tape-the-poster-to-the-wall strategy, as I am able to save all the students' work on the easel pad. There's no taping and no need to put up new pieces of poster paper for each class.

I was at this year's conference too, but only for the Friday session.

It sounds like your first year is going well. Enjoy the Thanksgiving respite!

smalmeida said...

I love the idea of having easels in the classroom! I recently went to a professional development conference for our school district in which easels were used for a "Write Chat." After the conference, I tried a "Write Chat" in my classroom based on our study of The Giver by Lois Lowry. Here are the steps for a Write Chat. I hope someone finds it helpful!

1. On a large piece of paper, ask students to write a question related to the topic being discussed. For example, we were discussing the use of euphemisms in The Giver. Each group of students wrote a different question about euphemsism on their paper. Ex: "How is the term release used as a euphemism in The Giver?"
2. Give students a few minutes to respond to the question they have been given. Students must remain quiet and can respond using a question or statement. They create a web on their poster with the questions/comments they add. At this time, they respond only to their group's prompt.
3. Give students a few minutes to respond to the comments their group mates included. Once again, this must be done silently and they can respond with questions or comments. At this time, they are extending the web.
4. Now, students walk around the room responding to other groups. This must be done silently, too, and they can respond with questions or comments. I encourage students to respond to at least 3 other groups.
5. Now, students go back to their own groups and see what other groups have written. They discuss any points they thought were especially important and any questions they still have.
6. Discuss the results of the "Write Chat" as a class.

I found this to be a very effective form of formative assessment. I plan to use this when we study To Kill a Mockingbird as a way to discuss themes.

Mr. B-G said...

Smalmeida - Thanks for the comment. I like your idea for using easels.

I'd be curious to know what the "web" you mention looks like. Also, how do the students do with transitioning from working silently in groups to being vocal? What is your rationale for having the students be silent?

Thanks again for the ideas. I'd love to see what a final product looks like, as I'm curious about how I might implement your strategy in my classroom.

Anonymous said...

I really like the idea of easels! I have an 84 min. block period and getting the kids moving around is so very important. I am not quite clear on the directions for this activity and I would really like to use it. Can you outline it step by step for me?

Mr. B-G said...

Hi Anonymous,

In a nutshell, the easels are just a way of visualizing the students' conversations. You can decide what you want to them to focus on... questions... quotes... connections... illustrations... literary devices... it can be almost anything.

Groups of students will write down what you want them to... they may need to discuss and reach consensus first. Once the ideas are there, students can present verbally to the class... other groups can go around to the easels and take notes on the material... other times some easels will contain questions or quotes that other student groups need to answer or respond to.

What you do would depend on your goals for the lesson. The "sharing out" component can be just that, or there can be an interactive element among the easels, with the sharing out coming later. Or you as the teacher could go around and comment on what you see.

Let me know what you end up doing and how it goes!

H said...

Using easels is really teaching method. It seems really engaging and it's always a lot of fun to make little doodles xD For visually-oriented students this would be especially useful for helping them to be motivated about subjects they may not otherwise be too interested in. I will certainly be borrowing this method for teaching classes in the future :D