Expect Unexpected Engagement When you try Hexagonal Thinking in ELA


308: Build an Easy Careers Unit
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137: 7 Creative Activities to Pair with Any Novel

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Looking for some solid go-tos for your novel units? I’m happy to have teamed up with six wonderful creative educators to provide you with some easy and flexible wins this week! In today’s episode of the podcast, you’ll discover ways to creatively integrate other texts (poetry, nonfiction, choice reading) with your novel units, and try out new and creative forms of discussion and character analysis as you read. You can listen in below (or on your podcast player of choice), or read on for all the details.

#1 Try Hexagonal Thinking (from Betsy at Spark Creativity)

Hexagonal thinking is like a Chipotle burrito – stuffed with possibility! There are so many ways to use hexagonal thinking as you approach a novel unit. You can use it as a pre-reading strategy to help students prepare for the novel, to make connections between topics that will come up and themes your students are already familiar with. You can use it as a pre-writing strategy, having kids create and connect decks related to their thesis statements, thinking deeply about the text they want to use and how it relates to their main ideas. You can use it as a whole class discussion during a novel, helping students make connections to current events and other works. Or you can use it as a final assessment, inviting students to show what they’ve learned through their connections and their writing.

Not sure what hexagonal thinking is? No problem! Hexagonal thinking is a discussion strategy in which the main ideas of the discussion – quotes, characters, style elements, connections to modern life, and more – get placed individually on hexagon-shaped cards. Then students (alone, in partners, or in groups) move those cards around to show what connects most powerfully. Each card has six sides, so can connect to up to six others. Students must debate and defend their connections as they go, leading to in-depth discussion and critical thinking. Finally, students present or write about some of their key connections.

You can dive (way) deeper with hexagonal thinking in this post, The Ultimate Guide to Hexagonal Thinking in ELA.

#2 Pair it with Poetry (from Amanda at Mud & Ink Teaching)

This might not come as a surprise to you, but Amanda from Mud and Ink Teaching swears by integrating poetry within bigger units rather than saving it for its own stand alone unit.  Poetry paired with characters, genre, setting, or theme can offer powerfully impactful conversations that give students a new perspective and lens to use when looking at the central class novel.

In her ebook Teaching Poetry:  Pedagogy and Best Practices, Amanda offers specific suggestions for pairing and how to carry out these lessons.  Here are just a few of her favorites:

By pairing poetry with novels, we can use small mini-lessons that add texture, perspective, diversity, and a new energy to a unit that needs a little sparkle.  

#3 Combine Choice Reading with Whole Class Novels (from Amanda at Amanda Write Now)

Teaching a whole class novel unit has many benefits but if your unit goes over four weeks, it can become time consuming and an infringement upon student reading choice.

But, there is a way to allow students to continue their independent reading lives while also reading a whole class novel. Amanda from amandawritenow.com calls this method Whole Class Novels Reading Workshop Style. Here’s how to make this happen… 

Begin class with having students independently read books/texts students have chosen for themselves.

After about 10-15  minutes, teach a ten minute reading mini lesson about the whole class novel. You could teach about theme, character development, setting, plot, note-taking strategies, mood, tone or literary devices. You could also analyze excerpts from the novel together as a class. 

The largest chunk of the period should be dedicated to giving students time to read the whole class novel independently, in pairs, via audio or as a whole class.

Finally, have students write about choice books/free write/write next to a mentor text, article or poem. If time permits, allow students to share their writing. 

This is how you can teach a whole class novel, allow students to continue their independent reading lives as well as integrate writing!

#4 Design an App (from Krista at Whimsy and Rigor)

“Time to visit the app store!” Krista from @whimsyandrigor says to her students when they finish a novel. When their perplexed looks are at their peak, she explains that they are going to create an app that would have helped the protagonist during their journey. 

The requirements are:

The app cannot already exist.

The app can be totally unrealistic/not probable.

The app developer must be able to explain how its features would benefit the character.

The developer must also create an icon for the App Store.

Here is a print-and-go handout students use to get designing. After introducing the idea, Krista guides students in the brainstorm process by having them identify some of the protagonist’s biggest challenges. Students then choose one obstacle they want to address and start listing ideas that would have helped the character. From there, they create an app that would enable the character to better manage or avoid their conflict. For example, to help Will from Jason Reynolds’s Long Way Down, maybe an app that predicts his future would help him decide what to do once he steps off the elevator. Or maybe Romeo from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet would have benefited from a life-detection app that would accurately determine whether or not someone was actually dead.

When students sette on the conflict they want to address and the app that would help, they write a Spill the TEA paragraph, as explained by Krista in this YouTube video.  Using this paragraph organization strategy, students will introduce their app, use evidence to explain how it is necessary for the character, and explain how the app would have benefited or changed the protagonist’s journey.

Now they get to be a graphic designer as they design the app’s icon. Students may want to peruse the actual App Store to get ideas about how an icon is designed, what elements must be present, and how to create something that is eye-catching.

If space allows, Krista encourages you to display the icons and Spill the TEA paragraphs in the hallway for other students to see the in-depth critical thinking and character analysis your students did after finishing a novel. 

Who says technology is only a distraction for our students?! This activity proves technology can help students dive deep into a text and its characters!

#5 Try a Character Map (from Molly at The Littlest Teacher)

For novel studies on books (or plays) with a number of characters, Molly at The Littlest Teacher loves using character maps.

Providing a character map will serve your students in a couple of ways: they show relationships between characters to provide clarity as students read and eliminate the frustration of “wait, who is this dude again?”; and they create a framework for text analysis.

Having students build a character map along with you throughout the novel study deepens their comprehension; aids their tracking of the plot/ sub-plot; can provide an opportunity to be creative; and more.

There are lots of ways to approach character mapping. Choose the method that best fits the needs of the particular work you are teaching. 

Sometimes providing most, if not all, of the character map before students begin reading is the most helpful approach, especially for texts that introduce multiple consequential characters right away.

If you don’t need a particularly complex character map, simply drawing one on the board as you teach and asking students to include it in their notes can suffice.

Sometimes providing a template for students to add to as they read is the most meaningful option.

Other times, you may want to assign a character map as part of a summative assessment for the novel study.

Molly found an excellent example on one English teacher’s class blog (a Mr. Dueck). This is a great character map for many reasons: it shows what group characters are part of (Athenians, Acting Troupe, or Supernatural Characters); it uses colorful illustrations of the characters for extra clarity and visual interest; and it shows relationships and connections between characters with arrows and succinct labels.

#6 Pair it with Nonfiction (from Samantha at Samantha in Secondary)

Guiding students through the study of a novel can be a daunting task for many reasons, but Samantha from Samantha in Secondary has a tip to make at least one aspect easier—making the text relevant. Pairing nonfiction text on important themes throughout a novel is an easy way to show students how literature connects to life. Discussing censorship during a study of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury or cancel culture during “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller can really enliven a text for many students who have trouble connecting fictional themes to real life.

In order to get the most out of your nonfiction study, Samantha suggests modeling the close reading process for your students. Helping your students annotate a rich, engaging text will deepen understanding of the central themes and ideas.

Finding strong informational text that is written with your students in mind can be difficult. Resources like Newsela, Common Lit, or ReadWorks can be helpful in your search. Samantha also has a plethora of nonfiction close reading activities available here.

What text are you currently teaching? Think of the relevant themes and then venture to find a high-interest informational text that will help your students realize that fiction often imitates real life. 

#7 Try a Silent Discussion (from Elizabeth at Sam and Scout)

Elizabeth, from Teaching Sam & Scout, loves to end novel units with Socratic Seminars, but “Silent Discussions” in the middle of a whole-class novel read are a great way to check on reading comprehension, get EVERY student participating in discussion, and scaffold some deeper critical thinking skills. 

The activity is super simple to implement and leads to great student engagement every time. Elizabeth simply writes a few discussion questions on blank chart paper, posts them around the room, and gives everyone one Post-it note per question. Students anonymously answer each question (independently and silently) on their Post-it and stick them on the appropriate poster. When everyone is finished answering, she breaks the class into smaller groups and assigns each one a question. With their group, students read all the Post-it responses, sort and categorize them, and prepare to synthesize and share them with the class. 

The whole exercise only takes about 30 – 45 minutes depending on how many questions you use, but you really get to hear from EVERY voice in your classroom; plus, students seem to appreciate the opportunity to think about and articulate their ideas in a low-stakes way,  move around the room sticking their answers on the wall, and collaborate with peers. Win. Win. Win.

I hope you’ve found an activity (or seven) to love here!

Looking for even more? Be sure to check out the free resources page right here!

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I'm Betsy

I’ll help you find the creative ELA strategies that will light up your classroom. Get ready for joyful teaching!







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