As a student teacher, I am always looking for creative and engaging ways to help my middle school students connect to the literature in English class without reverting to the overdone personal reflection journal entry. Of course, there will always be times when students just don’t particularly enjoy a text in the curriculum, but I still want them to be able to understand what they are reading by making personal connections and viewing literature through a wider lens.
While reading The Outsiders and facilitating discussion this school year, I learned very quickly that the question, “How can you relate to this?” often produced silent stares rather than eager hands shooting into the air, but that asking, “Have you seen a TV show or movie that reminds you of this story? Or a song?” initiated much more frequent responses. That was the moment I realized I had to start doing things a little bit differently.
I devised an ongoing extension activity about making personal connections in an effort to tie their individual preferences, prior knowledge, and cultural backgrounds to the literature being read in class. The question, “What does this remind you of?” turned out to be one they would actually think about, so I started from there.
The extension activity simply asked students to bring in anything that reminded them of something in the book; this could be song lyrics, a film clip and a few paragraphs describing a movie or TV show, original artwork, a poem, quotes from other books, a news article, or anything else they could think of. As this was relatively new territory to them, I had to provide multiple examples before they really latched onto the idea. I read a poem, a comic strip, and a children’s book and introduced each one by saying, “This reminds me of . . . from the story.”
Suddenly, they began to see the themes in the novel as applicable to other areas of interest in their lives, and the creative genius of my students started overflowing. Because this activity offered them the freedom to tap into what they knew best and to be as creative or as analytical as they desired, they obliged. As an ongoing activity for the year, it also provided consistency and supported long-term planning and thinking in an educational system that often produces disconnected lessons and activities.
While I will continue to seek out activities that implicitly allow for differentiation to engage students in their own personal learning process, I think this was a good place to start.
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