Here in the homestretch of the school year, I’m working with my students to continue learning while also effectively reviewing and integrating previous learning. Lately, I’ve been emphasizing some informal interleaving strategies as my senior students continue to read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in our final quarter of the year. These strategies can work well with a wide variety of texts and topics.
Each school day, I lead my students in structured discussions about our reading that move from summary and analysis to more philosophical connections for personal, social, and academic applications. I use spreadsheets or Jamboards with students so that they can show their work for immediate feedback about correctness, style, content, and comprehension. Before starting that structured work and the ensuing discussions, I will often include a brief Quizizz as an initial check for understanding.
My high school classroom approach has elements of recitation and seminar college courses with occasional, intentional interludes of direct instruction and guided practice. I’ve lost track of the numerous studies and recommendations that stress the need for students to participate frequently in thoughtful discussions at school. Along with this discussion emphasis, I aim to frequently assess how students are progressing in understanding the textual learning for our course. As much as possible, I want to give them affirmation and supportive correction or just invite them to muse with me about additional connections. Likewise, I’m taking notes as I go on what changes I might need to make in my own approach with specific students or classes.
Lately, I’ve been increasing my focus on having students do interleaving work in the opening moments of the class, even before the Quizziz segment. (In simplified terms, interleaving is making increasingly complex and varied connections to prior learning.)
As students start on their second day of discussing Things Fall Apart, I set up partners in anticipation of the discussion segment. My reach-back connection questions are sometimes as simple as, “What is an important thing to remember from the first reading that we’ve already discussed?” and “What makes it important?” One student asserts that the main character Okonkwo is showing some “weak sauce,” and students chuckle at the phrasing but see the relevance. I ask the student to unpack the meaning of “weak sauce,” and I ask whether the sauce is made from yams, and the class enjoys the connection with more laughter and a little groaning. (In case you haven’t read the book, yams are a big part of the Nigerian setting for Okonkwo and the Umuofia clan.)
Chinua Achebe’s novel also invites longer reaching connections of the interleaving sort. I ask students questions such as, “How do father-son relationships in Things Fall Apart compare to those in Death of a Salesman from our 1st quarter reading?” Students struggle for a moment to remember the names of Willy, Biff, and Happy, and then they warm up to insights about how shame and pride play similar roles in both stories but somewhat reversed.
The exercise of reaching back to previous reading is good for students who are taking the AP Lit exam in helping them to reconnect and strengthen their memory of previous readings so that the various details can be recalled and used for the open question on the exam. Even more so, the exercise is good for all students and for me as we explore differences and similarities with such disparate times, places, and peoples.
Basically, the homestretch of a course is a time to stretch our connections, questions, and knowledge in order to finish well. Coming together to read and connect with great books helps promote the kind of learning I want my students to remember and to pursue further in their futures.