A Teacher’s Journey Into Project-based Learning: Part Three

Oct 23 · 10 min read

How to Incorporate Underrepresented Voices into an English Class

By Shelby Denhof, Teacher in Grand Rapids, Michigan

This project sprang up simply to address the fact that my school’s established English curriculum doesn’t honor the richness of American literature and the variety of perspectives that contribute to our American identity, both past and present. Shamefully, our curriculum pays no respect to the often underrepresented voices in our country, the tenuous reason being the lack of time under the constraint of trimesters. This reasoning, too, led to cutting novels from the curriculum. To address both this lack of diversity and reading stamina, I created a supplementary unit titled “Voices of America.” This project began in a traditional English class, but incorporates many project-based learning (PBL) principles and can be adapted for many grade levels.

A Quick Overview

Here’s the skinny: I put together a list of books that I determined represent the breadth of American voices and experiences. Each book, too, is one I’ve read or am familiar with. The list ranges from classics to contemporary literature, includes various genres, and provides young adult options. The goal is to create a list that illustrates the richness of perspectives in our country and exemplify the literary talent of American authors. Creating this list is time-consuming, but necessary.

I provide the students with the list (mine includes about forty options) and give them time to choose a few they are interested in. From there, I form student groups of two to four students based on similar preferences. The groups then are required to acquire a copy of their chosen book, establish a reading schedule for themselves within a provided time frame, and meet to discuss the reading during designated class periods. For example, I give my students four weeks and they have to determine themselves how much reading to complete each night to be on track for finishing in time. Finally, the groups work out how to teach this book’s plot, themes, and its relevance to contemporary issues to the class.

Why I Like This Project

  • Every step of it emphasizes student choice, something sorely missing from most classes.
  • It gets kids reading and talking about literature in a (mostly) organic way. I don’t micromanage student discussions by providing certain questions to answer. I allow them to talk about what they themselves found compelling, confusing, and so on, all while I monitor discussion for participation.
  • This project is highly collaborative, as team members hold each other accountable for the reading, participating in discussions, and contributing to the presentation. It’s a true PBL winner in that way.
  • The style of how they present the book on how it relates to the world today is new to most students, one that is more participatory for both presenters and audience members, making the time dedicated to presentations more worthwhile.
  • Bonus: It can get kids into bookstores. My school is lucky enough to have a locally-owned bookstore just a few miles away. We partner for this project: they offer a 10% discount to my students, and I provide a few points of extra credit for those who choose to shop locally. Ultimately, neither incentive particularly adds up to much for the kids, but it gets many kids stopping into a bookstore when they otherwise wouldn’t. Others shop online, borrow a copy from a library, etc. All options are acceptable, of course, but this project does provide an opportunity to connect with the local community.

Before Starting

Teachers need to create a list of book options. The list should vary in genre, topic, reading levels, and perspectives represented. Keep in mind that what’s appropriate for one student may not be to another, which is why allowing student choice is so essential.

The book options, too, should be familiar to the teacher. The books I chose are ones I’ve read. That made it easy for me to ask poignant questions during book discussions and know who’s actually reading and comprehending their book. A teacher can get by without having read every book option, but at least should be familiar with the plot.

Teachers then need to establish a timeline. My classes run this project in conjunction with the established curriculum and it does not dominate class time.

Some questions to consider:

By which date should students have their books?

Which days will groups be meeting in class, and for how long?

When is the last possible day for them to be done with their books? Will you (the teacher) give them time to read in class?

Will time be given to students to work on their presentations in class? If so, when?

Lastly, when will each group present?

Regarding presentations, I found it works well to give them a two-week time frame, allowing groups to choose their own day with no more than two groups presenting per day. This gives time to allow for general curriculum instruction around presentations. After all, this project is, again, supplementary.

Choosing the Books

Students should have time in class to explore the book options at their own pace. I provide students with fifteen minutes or so to read synopses and reviews online of the book options provided. They keep lists of their potential picks, ultimately narrowing it down to their top three choices. They don’t have to commit until the following day, giving them time to research further at home.

Here is a sample of the list I give students. I provide the brief description to help students navigate all of the options.

The next day, I provide each kid with an index card, on which they include their name and rank their top three book choices. Later, I review the class’s choices as a whole, sorting cards into groups based on their ranked preferences. Most get their first choice; others may get their second or third choice books. I limit groups to four students and try not to have students work alone. For any outliers with different books listed than their peers, I speak to them personally: would they like to join one of the established groups (explaining a bit about each book) or would they like to work alone (knowing this a big undertaking solo)? Most choose to join another group. Some may still lone-wolf it.

After I reveal the finalized groups to the class, they then have a week to obtain a copy of their book.

To keep things simple, I write up all the groups in a Google Doc and show this to my students so they know what they are reading and who they’re with.

How the Groups Work

The book groups are in charge of creating their own reading schedules. Once (at least most) students have their books, I give them time to get together and discuss group expectations. This is something they write out for me.

  • What is their reading schedule?
  • How will they manage their group discussions so everyone is participating?
  • How will they hold each other accountable for the reading?
  • Which day would they like to present? Again, in my class, the presentations begin four weeks out, so they have to choose a date near then.

The students have to complete their books within the time you determine (I give them four weeks). During those weeks, I have designated book club meeting days. The first two weeks, they meet on Fridays during the first twenty minutes of class. As presentations near, they additionally meet on Wednesdays (again, for twenty minutes). This gives them time to both discuss the book and begin developing materials and conducting research for their presentation.

When groups meet, I walk around with a clipboard and listen to the conversations. Who is participating? Who isn’t? Students receive participation points on book club days. Even students who were confused by the reading can earn their points by asking teammates thoughtful questions. For particularly quiet students, I don’t shy away from briefly intervening and asking students questions directly. They know I do this to see if they did their reading, giving them an opportunity to earn their points. I do provide groups with a list of generic book club questions to help conversation flow easier when needed. Most groups don’t need to refer to the sheet, while others rely on it like a lifeline. It’s a good idea to model asking open-ended questions if it’s clear groups are struggling with holding sustained discussions.

When groups are about halfway through their books, I have them complete self- and group-evaluations so I can address any major concerns within groups (for example, if one member is consistently not reading).

The Presentations

Once most groups have made it near the end of their books, I reveal more about the presentations. I give them few parameters and requirements:

  • They should be at least twenty minutes long.
  • Every group member must participate in both creating and presenting the information.
  • Presentations must include a brief overview of the book (spoilers are okay in my room).
  • Groups must also focus in on one way this book connects to a contemporary social issue and provide insight into that topic. This means groups generally have to do additional research on the chosen subject to help educate the audience. For example, a group may be reading Wintergirls and want to not just focus on the prevalence of eating disorders for both men and women, but on warning signs and who to reach out to if they think someone they know is struggling. For students to do this topic justice, they need to do additional research before presenting to the class.
  • There needs to be a participatory element to the presentation. The audience needs to be taken through an activity to help them dive deeper into understanding the societal issue and how it connects to the book. This is the most creative element of the project, as groups have total autonomy of what they’d like to do with the audience. I’ve seen groups lead their audiences through journal activities, Kahoot games, true-false questionnaires, surveys via Google Forms, agree-disagree debates, privilege walks, etc. to get students really thinking about their topic.
  • Outside of the presentation time, there is an obligatory Q&A session where presenters field questions from their classmates.

As groups present, I complete a rubric and provide feedback for each element of the presentation. Each group member is provided a final self- and group-evaluation to complete regarding the presentation preparation specifically.

Here is a screenshot of the rubric I use for presentations. I leave ample comments on the presentation as a whole and on each presenter specifically.

What I’ve Noticed

This book club experience has been a treat. I look forward to it each year, as my students really come alive. They’re excited to have ownership over their own learning and many thoroughly enjoy their reading, which is something that can’t always be said about whole-class reads. Their discussions in their groups are authentic. The presentations have energy, both from the presenters and the audience, and the participatory activities broaden the questions students ask each other and themselves. What’s great is this project involves all the principles of project-based learning, but can be easily integrated into any English curriculum, for it easily can be extended or modified. As much or as little time can be spent on this project as a teacher wishes, but this is for sure: it sets the precedent that this is an environment in which we are all readers and engaged members of both our classroom and communities at large.

To acquire my created materials for this project, please visit my Teachers By Teachers store here.

Shelby Denhof is a writer and teacher living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Embedded in her teaching is her passion for travel, storytelling, and service. Her reflections on teaching can be found on websites such as Cult of Pedagogy, McGraw-Hill, Edutopia, and Refinery29. Shelby is a National Writing Project fellow, a National Geographic Certified Educator, and a two-time participant in National Endowment for the Humanities institutes at both Stanford University and the University of Utah. You can contact Shelby at shelby.denhof@gmail.com

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Inspired Ideas

Resources, ideas, and stories for K-12 educators. We focus on learning science, educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.


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Inspired Ideas

Resources, ideas, and stories for K-12 educators. We focus on learning science, educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.

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