Is the solution to my problem more worksheets?

Image by Carl Glover. Used under creative commons license.

There’s a line I use quite a bit when I’m frustrated (probably too much, actually):  “I feel like I’m re-training Pavlov’s Dogs.”

One of the problems I have encountered repeatedly while teaching 10th grade English is that students are so incredibly used to the task-response-assessment-reward method of doing things that when they are given a significant amount of independence on a task or even a project, they falter and sometimes fail even though they clearly have a decent grasp of the concept being used.

Take student-led discussions, for example.  In my advanced English class, I go pretty heavy on these, taking maybe one day out of a unit to do some introductory notes, post guiding questions, hit the major highlights, and assign the paper that they will be writing when all of our discussion is finished.  I even strongly suggest that the guiding questions and the paper questions (which are often the same) be what is focused on during our discussions of the literature; however, since it’s “their show” for however many days we’re discussing, I don’t make it a requirement.  The result is a lot of “What would you do in this situation?”-type questions and also a lot of dead air.

After a class observation where the student-led discussion didn’t go as well as I had hoped, my administrator, who loved the concept, suggested that I tweak things by having student groups submit their questions beforehand and then conference with me–a due diligence strategy, if you will.  It’s a good idea and I might do it if I can come up with a way for it to be constructive and helpful to those groups.

Because I personally love student-led discussions.  I love how they take my classes out of their comfort zones and how I can sit back and participate instead of standing up and leading.  But the lack of tasks does seem to be a hindrance.  The class doesn’t always do the reading and therefore they don’t always participate in the discussion; even when the works of literature read have been student-chosen, things have been lackluster.

So the question is:  should I have a specific task for everyone to do when it comes to our reading of literature.  I don’t hand out study guides with every large work, and there are only a few times here and there that I hand out questions to go along with an article or short story, or film (and most of the time, that’s sub work).  But the result has been a complete lack of engagement even when students have said they liked what they’ve been reading and I think it comes from a lack of a concrete task to do.  I’ve even had parents complain about my class:  “Why aren’t there more grades in the gradebook?”  “How can one paper carry so much weight?”  “He/she says all your class does is talk.”

Going cold turkey doesn’t seem to be helping a number of my students.  Or maybe it is and I just can’t see the forest for the trees.  So should I be putting more points in the gradebook through worksheets?  Should I be collecting notebooks or doing notebook quizzes? Should I ring more bells to make them salivate more?