Teaching with Book Drum: a reflection



Completing a Collaborative Profile on Book Drum

by Adam Watson

June 5, 2011

About the Author

Adam Watson has been an English high school teacher since 2005. Currently, he is at South Oldham High School in Crestwood, Kentucky, where he was voted Teacher of the Year 2009-2010 by the faculty and staff. Watson's accomplishments in teaching -- in particular, a student literature circle podcasting site called Dragon Booktalk (http://mrwatsonsohs.podbean.com) -- has earned him several published accolades, including the cover story of Kentucky Teacher (April 2009) and a mention in the National Council of Teachers of English's international e-newsletter INBOX (February 2009). He has also written educational articles for publications such as Classroom Notes Plus. Watson has a particular passion for educational technology, incorporating a wiki (https://mrwatsonsohs.wikispaces.com/) and a Twitter page (http://twitter.com/APlitcomp) into his teaching; recently, he has become a leader in a new technology initiative for his district. When not teaching, he also writes poems, short stories, and plays.



I first learned about Book Drum from a short column in the "Double Take" section of Educational Leadership's February 2011 issue (p.9). It described Book Drum as an "interactive website" and "a resource to get media-oriented screenagers interested in classic literature." In particular, it described the profile for Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, a book my AP Literature and Composition classes were just finishing. Intrigued, I checked out the site and began to brainstorm how I could have my classes complete a profile for their next book, The Poisonwood Bible. A quick email to the website's editor, Hector Macdonald, confirmed the title was still available for assignment. However, I inquired if a profile had ever been done collaboratively with several people -- specifically, a class of students. Hector replied it had not, and was as curious as I was how it would work. To know we were treading new ground was both daunting and motivational, and I began planning the logistics for an activity that would span three senior AP Literature and Composition classes (73 students total) over the course of a month, based on a seven period schedule of fifty minute classes.

What follows is the narrative journey of what happened as we put together our profile. Since the collaborative nature of the profile creation was unique, the purpose of what follows is mainly to inform and educate others who wish to do the same. Although our experience was in a high school and the information obviously retains that instructional focus, I believe other groups of individuals (such as book clubs) can benefit from hearing about our trials and tribulations as well. In addition, since this is part of Book Drum's website, I assume the reader has at least a casual familiarity with it and what a typical profile contains and looks like. If you don't, I first recommend browsing through the site (www.bookdrum.com) and reading its excellent FAQ (http://www.bookdrum.com/help/help.html).

Pre-planning the Logistics (Before the Students Began)

First, I visited Book Drum and created a user name for my class (MrWatsonStudents) and officially requested The Poisonwood Bible. (You can do this under "My Account," then "Choose Book.")

Next, I tested my computer resources. After signing up for three computer lab days -- one period per class, once a week, over the course of three weeks -- I checked to make sure I could log in to the website through my district firewall server by using the account of a student aide. (I learned a long time ago not to find out at the last second that your beloved website is blocked.) The next hurdle was making sure two different computers/users could be logged in at the same time. Remember, Book Drum allows only one user name per profile during the editing phase. I was able to not only log in, but edit with two computers simultaneously. (Sections are updated in real time, so clicking or "refreshing" a part of the profile will reveal any new edits.) However, there was an occasional editing glitch I discovered during the process of students working, which I will detail in the next section below.

I then turned from computer logistics to organizing the students' work. I created a reading schedule with two due dates a week, with approximately 75 pages of reading per due date. (Pages were due on Mondays and Thursdays, with longer passages over weekends and smaller chunks during the week.) For each due date, I expected students to complete a special diary entry analyzing the latest reading pages consisting of the following sections:

Glossary (find three unusual/difficult words from text; list page number and find definition)

Footnote Research (any general allusion that would benefit from expansion; text quote, page number, explain)

Biblical Allusions (text quote, page number, explain)

Character Analysis (pick one character and describe their arc for this section)

Summary (concisely summarize this reading section)

Note that while several of the sections above would eventually be directly helpful for the profile (for example, the Footnote Research and Biblical Allusions content could be used for profile Bookmarks), not all would be, and that was fine with me; as AP students, there were some areas of literary analysis I needed them to practice beyond what was necessary for the Book Drum project.    Also, I encouraged them to type the entries up and have the electronic documents handy (via school email or a thumb drive), since I knew this would save typing time when adding content to Book Drum later. I handed out the reading schedule, diary entry directions, and copies of the book, and the students began the project.

Managing the Workflow (During the Project)

After one reading/entry was completed, I did a group activity on malapropisms and palindromes (a frequent occurrence with the book characters Rachel and Adah, respectively). I let students form six groups of no more than six students each. Each group was assigned a number for them to remember for later use.    I made it clear this group would meet several times for an activity linked to the book, with details to come in a few days.
We used the first diary entry as a starting point for conversation (both in pairs and whole class); students also handed them in and I gave them feedback so they can better focus, improve, and go deeper for subsequent entries.

As you probably have noticed, in the beginning I purposely avoided telling them about the website. Instead, I waited one week (with two diary entries under the belt) before I spent some class time introducing the Book Drum website, previewing its appearance and what it looked like to add and edit entries. I also explained that before each library visit, each group (numbered and determined from the earlier activity) would be responsible for different aspects of the profile to edit and add content.    I pitched the site as a publishing opportunity for their analysis to inform thousands of readers in the future, and from class conversation afterward I could tell there was a palpable increase of interest and "upping their game" for the sake of their authentic audience.

One potential negative of waiting to introduce Book Drum is not giving students the motivation of an authentic audience from the beginning, which I concede. However, I felt there were several benefits with this approach. Firstly, the students concentrated on getting a good start of reading and analyzing the book (while getting some early feedback and clarifications for their efforts) before adding the profile editing element. Second, students could see Book Drum as a "final draft" of their ongoing work and discussions on The Poisonwood Bible, as opposed to the only activity for the book. Lastly, although I had faith the students would quickly learn the technical knowledge to edit and add information to the profile, I didn't want to overwhelm them with a perception of too much or too complex of a project on day one.

Before their first trip to the library lab, I previewed an instruction packet to help them when editing the profile. Book Drum has excellent and succinct directions on their site that would be extremely useful for students; however, my packet attempted to highlight, augment, and compact certain instructions, particularly in light of the collaborative aspect of our project. (For example, on the Author, Setting, Review and Summary sections, I recommended only one member of the group logged into Book Drum to be the "typist" while other members verbally gave input or looked up information on their own computers.)

On our library days (usually after two diary entries had been completed), I would first let the groups know their assignment before heading to the lab. I did this via a PowerPoint. I planned ahead to make sure that a group had a different section each week; since each visit had three groups collaborate on Bookmarks (and with three classes, that actually meant nine groups), I also made sure that particular section of the profile would have plenty of content. (For example, Group #1 worked on the Glossary on the first visit, the Author on the second, and Research Footnotes [Bookmarks] on the third.)    Before we left, I reminded students not to forget their diary entries! Once we got there, I handed out the instruction packets to each student and spent the remainder of class walking through the rows, assisting and facilitating the students. At the end of the day, I would collect the instruction packets to reuse on the next trip.

One of the things I highlighted both verbally and in the instruction packet was not only discussing with other members of your group what you plan to add, but also to read the profile to see what has already been added. This cuts down on unnecessarily duplicate glossary entries and footnotes. Interestingly, even with three classes working through the book at the same pace, only a few complained they had absolutely nothing to add, although some had to go back to older entries or were allowed to work on a different profile area.

We were challenged on how to do a collaborative Book Drum project for four of the profile sections: Author, Setting, Review and Summary. Typically, when one contributor is working on a profile, univocal content is not an issue!    However, over the course of a day, more than a dozen students from three different classes might be assigned one of these sections. I fretted how to make it work, but ultimately treated it like students were working on a wiki, hoping a useful and consistent "voice" of content would emerge. The first set of students would find and add material; later students would edit or add to the work of previous students.    Although I did operate as a "editor-in-chief" of these sections before submission, particularly in Review (see below), in the end I was pleasantly surprised that the content was strong, and in fact may have been better with this "team refinement" approach.

Hector and I had discussed what would happen when multiple students logged in as the same user and tried to edit simultaneously. Although I had a small trial run to prove it would work, I held my breath when a full class attempted it. The good news: it usually worked very smoothly. However -- perhaps because two students submitted content at the exact second, or because of server issues -- there were several times that students would receive an error message, which meant retyping their content all over again. Starting with the second visit to the computer lab, I recommended students type their content up in Word and copy/paste the verbiage in the site's text boxes, just in case of errors while uploading. It also gave another validation for students having digital copies of their entries handy.

Halfway through the project, both the students and I began having paperwork fatigue. Theirs came from writing an entry for every reading assignment; mine was grading and assessing three classes of entries quickly enough so that students would have feedback before their next entry was due. Therefore, although the reading schedule remained unchanged, I began alternating which classes had to complete a diary entry for each part. This meant each reading passage had at least one class set of entries to apply to the profile on library day, thus keeping the content consistently reflective of the entire book.    (For example, the Bookmarks are organized into book divisions of twenty-five pages; we tried to make sure we had at least one Bookmark for each of these chunks.)

After content has been added for all six sections of the profile, it is possible to submit it to Book Drum for editorial review. Once this happens, you can no longer edit the profile. Now, after six years of teaching, you think I would learn not to assume anything with students. I assumed someone wouldn't click on a submit button -- twice! -- without asking or wondering what will happen. In fairness, I suppose, I never explicitly said not to submit the profile. So, on the final day in the library, a student in the middle of my second class did just that, and locked the rest of the profile up. With one class left to go, I frantically emailed Hector and asked for him to "de-submit" us. Luckily, he did so in time for my final class to add and edit. Lesson learned!

After the students had their final day in the library's computer lab, I was stuck with one section: Review. How would a small number of students be able to craft a fair opinion of the book that represented all three classes? At first, I dodged this issue by having some students simply find professional reviews and critiques of The Poisonwood Bible and post short excerpts. Originally, that was all I submitted. However, Hector explained to me that traditionally the contributor includes their own first-person perspective of the book. I pondered this for a bit, and decided on a plan of action. First, back in the classroom, I had students write a short reflection both on Book Drum (more on that in the next section below) and on the book itself ("What did you think of the novel? Strengths, weaknesses? Any lingering questions?"). We also did an oral discussion where we discussed not only these answers, but how post-colonial lit crit theory would apply to the novel, major themes, etc. After collecting the sheets, I read them carefully and began typing a general consensus on what the students felt about the book. Next, I added several exact quotes from various students that backed up these consensus points. Lastly, there were four reflections that were extremely effective: they were excellent models for what the consensus of the class had to say about the book, and/or they were interestingly unique.    I typed these up verbatim and added them last. For all of these quotes and reviews, I respected the privacy of students and referred to them only by pronouns or in gender-neutral terms. This typed summation eventually became part of our profile's Review section, and it was finally officially submitted.

One final point to make was explaining my role during the profile creation process. As I mentioned earlier, I functioned as "editor-in-chief." First, I wrote the intro section of the profile ("In Brief" and "Why you should read it"). Next, I added a few Bookmarks for model's sake (two examples were on the okapi and when Lumumba was recaptured). Lastly, I would read through the profile sections after every day the students spent in the library, mainly fixing spelling and mechanical errors, but in several cases adding a bit more to content (for example, I added a video clip to a Bookmark on Charlie Chaplin) or in a few cases deleting duplicate entries. In short, I tinkered and tweaked. I should stress, however, that the vast majority of content on the profile is their work and words, as it should be.


Reflections Post-Project

As I mentioned above, once the profile was completed, I had students write a short reflection on the project, asking several questions: What did you think of the Book Drum project? How did the process of editing the profile/adding content impact your understanding of the book? How did it validate your Diary Entries?

Out of three classes of 73 students, 18 expressed mixed to negative feelings about Book Drum. Some saw it as only a "copy and paste job" from what they found was the real work, their diary entries. Others thought their time was rushed or limited, thus making the project less effective. Here are some student quotes from eight such reflections:

"I felt like I was just rewriting my homework in class."

"What I got from this project seemed to be that we just copied and pasted our diary entry to the website."

"I never understood the point of Book Drum. It felt as if it was just a 'copy and paste' sort of job."

"I think that it was a good way to see other ideas but it is hard to know what is useful info."

"If we had spent more time to individually do this, it could've been more helpful. The diary entries helped though."

"I was indifferent about Book Drum. . . . Vocabulary didn't have much of an impact on me or allow me to learn anything new about the book. Typing up the summary was better because we used [a student's] summary and he picked up on points . . . that I missed."

"I thought that working as three classes together . . . was too many people working on one thing. Unless you were the first group to do something [other than] footnotes, you almost had nothing to do."

"I thought doing Book Drum was kind of dumb. Once we got to the computer lab, all I did was copy and paste. . . . We didn't even get to use everything in our Diary Entries for Book Drum. Yes, Book Drum was relatively easy to navigate and edit but I wouldn't actually use it while reading the book."

On the other hand, the vast majority had an overall positive experience; they enjoyed creating a Book Drum profile and found it useful. During the project, they mentioned how seeing the work of others gave them further insight into the novel. Students also expressed how the knowledge that their content would be published motivated them to work harder and be more insightful and professional. Altruistically, they also were motivated to know their work might help future readers of the book. Here are some student quotes from thirteen such reflections:

"It made me try harder on the diary entries because I knew that whatever I said on that could be used in Book Drum."

"I really liked the Book Drum project because it was neat to see our knowledge as a class come together to create something useful. It made my work seem more professional and important. It was good to see everything that we, as a class, had learned compiled on one website, because it created accountability for students to complete assignments."

"I think that it gave more validation to the required diary entries because each section served a specific purpose on the website to improve our finished product. It did lend more understanding because the diaries added a scavenger-like effect to the book."

"I learned throughout this unit with everything everyone else learned. It also felt really cool to put my knowledge into a place where other people can see it and draw things from it in order to make their experience with the book as positive as my experience was."

"I thought it was neat that you could add pictures of some of the things the book talked about like plants and animals found in the Congo."

"The Book Drum project was very good for me because it made me feel like what we as students had to say is important."

"Since we could not include any of the same information, it allowed you to learn more from seeing what others had written -- and search more to find something new."

"I thought the Book Drum project was imaginative and unique. Looking through the many categories, the reader has an opportunity to learn so much about their novel. It's like an upgraded Sparknotes."

"I liked it a lot. It was a very modern project and it allowed us to be creative. I did learn about the book from other people's posts and it made me phrase and think about my posts differently so everyone could understand them better. It definitely made the diary entries seem more important."

"I enjoyed the Book Drum project because it gave me a reason for the diary entries instead of it just being pointless work. I also enjoyed being able to read what other people came up [with] and compare it to my own work. Lastly, just being able to go and find images and such was enjoyable b/c it made the events and objects in the book more real or concrete to me."

"Once I found out about the Book Drum project, I was more motivated to do the entries, and also be more thorough. I also enjoyed being introduced to the website, which I could use in the future and have some fun exploring."

"I felt the Book Drum project was helpful in showing me whether or not my diary entries were good entries or just something slapped on paper. Because our work was being publically published, it made us put more thought and effort into making our submissions quality work."

"I really liked it! It was fun to use the stuff you found out about in our diary entries in a way that felt important and that you were doing it for other people, not just for a teacher for a grade. Seeing other people's entries helped me gain a broader understanding of the book and not just what I saw from my own point of view. I would definitely like to do this project again if I got the chance."

The last student's comment brings up an important point. Although I did grade the students' diary entries -- I gave some entries credit simply for completion, and others were assessed qualitatively for points -- you might be wondering how I graded the student work on Book Drum. The short answer is, I didn't. More importantly, however, this did not seem to affect most of their enthusiasm or effort to add and edit content for the profile; not a single student ever asked me, "How many points is this worth?" Based on the student feedback above, the payoff of being published combined with the novelty of the project made students feel it had intrinsic value without the motivation of an outside grade. To be sure, it would have been difficult to fairly grade their contributions on an individual level, since there was one user name for all the students. Also, in some ways it would have been "double grading," since in most instances I was already assessing the content they were adding by grading their diary entries where the content came from.

If I did another collaborative Book Drum profile in the future, one thing I would do differently would be having a key student or two from each class act as proofreader and assistant editors. I did my best to catch mistakes, but I know some typos slipped through, and having helpers would have made a difference.    A second change would be to make the purpose of Book Drum more clear; it's as much paying their knowledge forward to future readers as it is a chance to share our collaborative knowledge of the book with each other. The last and perhaps most important change would be holding students accountable to reading the content added by their peers. My directions only asked students to check content to avoid duplication, but never emphasized truly looking at the work in progress; however, as some of the student comments above confirm, several did this even though it wasn't an original intent of my planning. This deeper reading of the content could have been accomplished by something as simple as students writing a short reflection two or three times over the course of the book, where they could explain what new insights and information they gained from other students' profile contributions.

Final Thoughts

Book Drum has fantastic classroom potential on two fronts. First, it's an invaluable resource of information for books you will read in class. Second, it gives your students a chance to be the resource of information. For those seeking a student-centered classroom, Book Drum can be an integral tool. Don't let the technology and logistics scare you away!    Plan in advance, and trust your classroom's ability and desire to be twenty-first century learners. To echo one of their comments, "I would definitely like to do this project again if I got the chance." You simply have to be willing to take one.


You may reach the author via email at adam.watson@oldham.kyschools.us.


Written in 2011 by Adam Watson, South Oldham High School, Crestwood, Kentucky USA. Reproducible for educational purposes only