Carousel Reading: Reading as a Collaborative Experience

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I had a hard time annotating texts as high school student (and I’ve since taught high schoolers).

At the time, I couldn’t see any measurable benefits, and I also didn’t want to “dirty” my book by writing all over it. I’m sure there were likely a host of other reasons, but I think the main issue was that high-school-me didn’t get why annotating was necessary.

I think my lack of understanding at the time represents a common perception: Texts are static, and they never change. Whatever the author had to say has already been said, and nobody is going to change that. My attitude didn’t change much until I got into college and earned my teaching degree. During that time, I learned what we educators all know: Texts are not static, and they change. They build on each other, and they create conversations.

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We know that authors make deliberate allusions to other literary works and build on existing connections and conversations. These conversations are how we understand symbolism, themes, and a host of other facets of literature because they build a common language for talking about texts. And we also know that we can join the conversation. But how do we get our students to believe they can join in as well?

I’ve built on a few activities I’ve picked up during teacher-training sessions and devised an activity to help my students better understand to meaningfully interact with the text. It’s called “Carousel Reading.” The idea revolves around (pun intended) reading as a collaborative experience, in which students can learn from one another as they work with a text.

The premise is simple, but the execution is a little demanding.

“Carousel Reading” Basics

Here are the basic guidelines for teachers:

  • Write up several discussion questions related to a text the class has read.
  • Split your class into several groups.
  • Give each group one question to discuss and answer.
  • Make sure students write down their answer.
  • Move the answered questions to new groups.
  • Tell them to read, discuss, and comment on the other group’s answer.
  • Repeat until all groups have seen all of the questions.
  • Get open class feedback from groups.

The instructions for your students include:

  • Answer your set of questions.
  • Trade papers with another group.
  • Read and write responses to their answers.
  • Repeat until all groups have seen all of the questions.
  • Review all additions to your original question.
  • Compile a full response to your original question and report to the class.

What I like about this activity is that it allows the students to interact with text that other students have produced. I’ve found that students can sometimes focus on their relationships to class readings as singular and dissonant; that is, they don’t see the process as directly relating to their community or to themselves. “Carousel Reading” helps the interaction take place on a level where the stakes matter because the feedback is immediate. Students will view this more as a chat with one another rather than a one-sided conversation with an abstract author.

Other strengths of the activity include allowing students to experience close reading and analysis, allowing readers to work with and learn from each other, and finally, re-enforcing the benefits of peer work to provide a better understanding of how the class reads and interprets a text. “Carousel Reading” is appealing on a pedagogical level: it promotes student-centered work with little interference from the teacher.

However, as is the nature of the classroom, the task does have a few troublesome points: It’s time consuming, difficult for the teacher to monitor all the activity of the peer groups, and challenging to ensure that all students are equally contributing.

One way that we can get around these issues is to extend the conversation beyond the classroom. Let’s look at how we might take this activity to the next level with an online reading tool like Owl Eyes.

Using Owl Eyes for “Carousel Reading”

In addition to letting you read hundreds of texts for free, Owl Eyes also lets you create classrooms and assignments for your students. For example, I might open up Beowulf and assign my class to read the first two books and create several annotations related to a theme, like the tension between the story’s paganism and the narrator’s Christianity. With Owl Eyes, I can use these features to get the most out of this “Carousel Reading” activity.

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On Owl Eyes, students will not only be able to see what’s been highlighted and noted as significant, but they’ll also be able to see how their peers have annotated texts and added to the conversation. As the teacher, you’ll be able to monitor these conversations and easily identify which parts of the text are most troublesome, promote the most discussion, and which are worth spending more time on in class.

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For instance, your students could read through a section of text and annotate whatever they like (or perhaps something specific related to themes or literary devices). Then, you could task them to reply to other students’ annotations—or join in the conversation yourself. Together, as a class, you’ll read and respond to what everyone found valuable or confusing in the text and create a written record of your experiences.

By starting with shared comments and annotations on a text, students will steadily develop the habit of writing down their thoughts and analysis in response to what they read. I hope you find that “Carousel Reading” provides you the flexibility necessary to adapt the task to best suits the needs of their students. Try it out and let me know what you think!

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