5 engaging, student-centered ELA strategies to try this year

I once had a professor who said, “If you’re doing more work than the students, then you’re doing too much. The students should always be working harder than you.” At first, I didn’t really believe her. I thought this was one of those pieces of advice that sounded too good to be true, because I had already resigned to a life of working too hard and caring too much (because that’s what teachers do, right?). But once I stepped foot in the classroom and gained more experience, I recognized the value in her advice. Good teaching is working harder than your students, but great teaching is working a little less so that they can work more. Great teaching is orchestrating an engaging, student-centered learning experience. In other words, it’s giving the work back to the students and forcing them to take ownership in their learning. If this kind of philosophy sounds appealing, then here are 5 engaging, student-centered ELA strategies to try this year.

SOCRATIC SEMINARS

The Socratic Seminar is named after Greek philosopher Socrates, who believed in the power of social learning and deliberate discussion. Socrates believed that humans learned best from questioning and discussion. He believed discussion helped individuals critically think through complex ideas and learn better than they could on their own.

Socratic seminars, a student-led discussion that allows students to take ownership of their learning

My previous classroom, set up for a Socratic Seminar

You can think of a Socratic Seminar as an “intellectual discussion,” but you can also see it as a conversation where you “think out loud” and “talk it out.” Essentially, it is a student-led discussion over a text or big idea. Instead of you facilitating the discussion by asking questions, students take charge of their own learning in this activity by creating and asking the questions. A Socratic Seminar is truly a student-centered and social approach to learning. For you, this means it is less prep work. It’s one of those lessons that nearly teaches itself. For the students, it is more work and ownership of the lesson, but isn’t that how it should be anyways?!

If you love the idea of implementing Socratic Seminars, but don’t know where to start, my Socratic Seminar Bundle may help you out. It contains teacher instructions, pacing information, expectations, question types and examples, all student handouts, and rubrics.

MOCK TRIALS

Mock trial, an authentic, student-centered strategy that will engage all learners

I transformed into “Judge G” for our insanity plea mock trial on Poe’s “The Black Cat.”

A mock trial is an authentic way to practice close reading, citing strong and thorough textual evidence, analyzing evidence, persuasion and argument skills, debate, writing, and speaking/listening. It is more than a lesson; it is a learning experience that engages every single student. A mock trial works for nearly any crime in literature or history (so, basically any book or time period). It also works for any debate; you can focus more on the structure and less on the legal proceedings. 

I facilitate an insanity plea mock trial for Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat,” but it also works for “The Tell Tale Heart,” “The Crucible,” The Great Gatsby, “Romeo and Juliet,” Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, A Separate Peace, and more!

To structure a mock trial, you will need to divide your class into groups: Prosecution, Defense, and Jury, and then assign different tasks/roles for each group. This is the best part of the trial: Every student is engaged, collaborating, and learning, no matter their role. The students are doing all of the work, and the teacher is simply providing the structure and scaffolding.

If you need some help structuring your mock trial or want to save yourself some time creating everything, then my Mock Trial for Any Text Bundle may help. It contains everything you need to successfully implement a mock trial: instructions, outlines, templates, tasks, rubrics, and more.

QUESTION TRAILS

A question trail is an engaging, kinesthetic activity that gets students up and moving around the room on a “trail” of multiple choice questions. It’s one of the few strategies I have for making dreaded multiple choice practice engaging. At each station on the trail, students answer a multiple choice question that sends them to the next station on the trail. If students answer each question correctly, they will travel to all stations and complete a full circuit with the correct sequence of stations. If students answer a question incorrectly, they will eventually end up at a station they’ve already completed, which signals that they need to backtrack to determine their mistake. This gives the students (and the teacher) clear, immediate feedback. You can quickly see the trailblazers (who are “getting it”) and the students who are lost in the woods (who are struggling).

Question trail, a unique student-centered activity that gets students engaged and moving

Harlem Renaissance Poetic Devices Question Trail

To create a question trail, you will need 10-15 multiple choice questions. Each of these should be on its own piece of paper, because each question will be posted around the room as a different “station” or “spot” on the trail. Written beside each answer (A, B, C, and D) should be a direction to go to a different station. For example:

Question

  1. Answer (go to #3)
  2. Answer (go to #7)
  3. Answer (go to #14)
  4. Answer (go to #12)

When you are creating the questions and the answer directions, you will need to determine the correct sequence of stations. For example, #1 might send the students to #7, which might send the students to #12. Make sure all questions are covered and that the correct answers send the students to the right questions. It does not matter where the incorrect answers direct the students.

Because I usually create around 15 questions, I have my students work in pairs for question trails.

I facilitate question trails to practice identifying rhetorical devices in songs, using context clues to identify vocabulary words, and identifying poetic devices in Harlem Renaissance poetry. The possibilities are endless!

SPEED “DATING”/DEBATING/DISCUSSIONS

Speed Debating, a creative, student-centered lesson

One of the debate topics from my all-time favorite lesson, “Speed Debating.”

“Speed dating” is a student-centered lesson structure that you can implement in various ways, and it’s perfect for engaging all students at the same time, a rare feat in the high school setting. Essentially, you create different questions, discussion starters, or tasks for mini-discussions between students, who rotate through different partners and topics.

I facilitate “Speed Debating” to practice ethos, pathos, and logos and other rhetorical strategies during my Persuasion/Argumentation/Debate unit, and it’s always a hit among students. For this lesson, I use a variety of topics, ranging from silly to serious, so that the debates spark some friendly controversy. I always see my most shy, reluctant students come alive during this lesson, and I just get to float around the room and “watch the magic happen.” Speed Debating is great way to incorporate a lot of practice to familiarize students with the strategies and structure of debate.

I’ve also used a form of speed debating, “speed discussions,” so that my students could discuss essential questions during the pre-writing phase of the writing process. It’s another way to expose students to different ideas and perspectives in preparation for writing an essay. We did this in my American literature course before writing essays on the American dream in today’s society.

I’ve even used “speed presentations” in lieu of whole-class presentations, because they are much more interactive and engaging. We’ve done this in Journalism when students each researched a current or historical journalist and created a digital poster. These speed presentations were like a more lively version of a gallery walk, and they encouraged students to really “sell” their journalists to their peers.

I know others have used forms of speed dating for literary or historical characters, and I plan on doing something similar during my unit on “The Crucible,” so stay tuned for updates on that!

LEARNING STATIONS

Learning stations, an engaging, student-centered strategy to empower learners

My goal-setting station in my “Back-to-School Learning Stations”

Learning stations, or “centers,” are different sets of tasks or activities that small groups of students rotate through. Instead of a teacher delivering a whole-class lesson, stations put the students in charge of their own learning and allow the teacher to circulate around the room to provide support. This student-centered structure is engaging, collaborative, kinesthetic, and accessible for all students. 

I’ve found success transforming boring PowerPoint lectures into engaging learning stations. I now use learning stations to introduce historical context for literary movements and preview authors, texts, and themes. Some of my favorites include Puritanism Introduction Learning Stations, Transcendentalism Learning Stations, and The Roaring 20s Learning Stations. I also use Back-to-School Learning Stations to cover the syllabus, expectations, goal-setting, and get-to-know-you activities.

If you’re interested in learning more about stations, you’re in luck, because I’ve blogged about them a LOT! You can check out my series of posts here:

I hope these ideas help you plan ahead for your most engaging, student-centered year yet! What other strategies do you have for putting the work back on the students and engaging them in creative ways? I would love to hear about other ideas in the comments below.

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