Librarians and Teachers as Instructional Partners: Written Conversations with Write Arounds Text on Text for Inquiry, Participation, and Social Construction of Meanings

Many thanks to the gracious librarians of ISLE for inviting me to join them for their summer retreat and for the opportunity to share the structure of writing around text on text for inquiry driven learning with students of all ages.  We had a wonderful hour of sharing, learning, and thinking about applications for this strategy for inquiry focused activities with our learners!

Resources of Interests

Thank you to Sarah Clark for her idea of using this structure for peer editing for creative and academic writing as well as Elisabeth Abarbanel for her suggestion of using this as  medium working with students and summer reading!

Twitter Chat + Socratic Circles

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A few weeks ago we co-facilitated write-around text on text conversations with Emily Russell’s Language Arts classes in the library.  The activity was such a hit with students and Ms. Russell that we decided to take our collaboration to the next level by combining a Twitter chat with Socratic circle discussions as the culminating conversation for the reading of The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.  I shared Ellen Hampton Filgo’s write-up of her experience as an embedded librarian via Twitter with Emily and Jennifer Lund, my co-librarian; we all felt this would be another great medium for “written” conversations.  Because she had been using Socratic circle discussions with her classes since August, Emily asked if we could combine the Twitter element with this method of class discussion. We all felt this would be a wonderful medium for incorporating a Twitter chat into the classroom.  After some date shuffling due to winter weather, we scheduled Friday, February 7 as the big day to debut this activity with our students.

We visited Emily’s classes the day before the chat to introduce the concept of a Twitter chat, share examples of real world Twitter chats, and then discussed Twitter chat manners/etiquette for constructive conversations.  We also reviewed the hashtags that Emily had developed for each class period since we wanted to capture each discussion with Storify.  Emily then reviewed Socratic circle protocols and explained how that would blend with the Twitter conversations.   Students prepared questions for the discussion by sharing their lines of inquiry via notecard with Emily, and these became the springboard of initial discussions to spark conversation and additional question the following day in class.

To accommodate students who did not have a smartphone or who did not comfortable using Twitter, we offered a couple of alternatives way of participating in the virtual discussion:

1.  Jennifer and I brought about 5 extra laptops to the room, and students could elect to use the laptops to Tweet with their own Twitter account.

2.  For students who did not want to use Twitter, we originally planned to have them pass us their questions via an index card.  However, we forgot that Emily has a set of mini-whiteboards that students use in class, so we had students write their initials and questions  or comments on the whiteboards.  When they were ready to “Tweet”, students held up their whiteboard, and either Jennifer or I acted as a scribe Tweeting their question or comment on their behalf along with their initials.

Emily had planned ahead of time which students would be in the initial inner circle; we posted this information on the whiteboard via a PowerPoint slide to help students get seated quickly.   Emily took  a few minutes to review the procedures for the day and to answer any last minute questions.  She also reminded students to show love for each other by helping classmates who might be struggling to jump into the conversation by asking them a direct question to give them a gentle entry point into the discussion.  Jennifer and I were in the room each period to actively participate in the Twitter chat to scribe Tweets for our “unplugged” students, to share resources of relevance to each class discussion in a responsive manner, and to interact with students in the back channel while photographing each class discussion.   I also wanted to project a real-time stream of Tweets so that all students could see the Twitter conversation in progress on the whiteboard.  Initially, I began by using TweetChat, but after one class, there seemed to be technical difficulties with the site, so I switched to tchat,io.  This alternative turned out to be a great choice, and I highly recommend it if you want a quick and easy way to follow a Twitter chat.

Much like the write-around text on text, there was an arc of energy building with the conversation both in the Socratic circles as well as the Twitter back channel.   Overall, each class felt energetic and engaged!  We were also excited that fellow Language Arts teacher and collaborative partner Darrell Cicchetti and two assistant principals came to observe what was happening—the adults were just as jazzed as the students!  One of the most interesting observations was to see students continuing to Tweet comments as they walked out the door.  Jennifer and I were busy the entire period for each class as “embedded librarians”, and in hindsight, it was definitely an advantage to have two of us to help facilitate the Twitter conversations and to help distribute laptops, answer student questions at the beginning of the period on how to follow the hash tag on their smartphones, and to act as scribes for our “unplugged” participants.

I was easily able to capture each class’s chat with Storify and embed those conversations into a LibGuide for this activity. You can also see photo sets for each class for the day on the LibGuide as well.

The following Monday, February 10, Emily collected student feedback—what she calls “glows” and “grows”—from students via notecards as we wanted student feedback and suggestions for the future from each class.  Jennifer took the notecards and compiled these highlights of student reflections:

  • Overwhelmingly, students enjoyed using Twitter (got lots of favorites, loves, fun).
  • “What I liked most about the Twitter chat was how we were able to be on our phones in class, but still related to school. Let’s do this more often!” -6th period student
  • “What I liked about the seminar was the way the class connected. It was fun because the tweeting allowed the class to be involved in an activity that they’re used to.” -2nd period
  • “Likes – being a part of the conversation without having to talk.” -2nd period
  • “The tweeting was also very academic because we were able to tweet when we weren’t in the inner circle. We should definitely do that again.” – 3rd period
  • “Shy people didn’t have to feel left out because they had the option of tweeting to earn points.” – 6th period
  • “People engaged inside and outside the circle.” – 6th period
  • “I liked the Twitter seminar because everyone was participating and no one was left out. I really did enjoy how when someone was in the inner circle the people that were in the outer circle were resounding to our conversation or giving opinions.” – 6th period
  • “I liked how the outer circle tweeted while the inner circle talked. It made sure that everyone was involved and gave everyone a chance to talk.” – -2nd period
  • “…everyone stated their opinions and disagreed in a respectful way.” – 2nd period
  • “Everybody was into it. It was really intense and good points were brought up. Everyone had something to say.” – 3rd period
  • “I felt that we were teachers on seeing each others’ insight of the Glass Castle. I would let people start off on a topic and let the conversations start.” – 3rd period
  • A few mentioned how fast-paced it was – some thought too fast.
  • “I didn’t like how fast we were moving from topic to topic. We also should have gotten more in depth with it.” – 6th period
  • “Super fun, fast paced; loved hearing and seeing everyones’s thoughts and comments.” – 3rd period
  • “Too fast. I feel like we rushed and there wasn’t enough time.” – 3rd period
  • “One thing I didn’t like was how fast-paced it was and it was kinda hard to read everybody’s tweets.” – 3rd period
  • “I basically loved and enjoyed everything from the desks were set up to how people were still tweeting after the bell rang.” 2nd period
  • “More seminars!” – 2nd period
  • “I would like to do it again. Maybe more than 1 a month. Usually we don’t talk a lot in class but Friday everybody wanted to talk and share their ideas.” – 2nd period

Overall, most of the “grows” comments were related to the oral discussion piece – wanting better questions or more time for discussion, people to speak louder.  We will also definitely think about how to address the concern about the pace of the discussion and strategies to help students adapt to that challenge.  A few were self-reflective in their communication skills; for example, “I will speak up next time” or “I will work on my discussion skills.”  The majority of students mentioned they liked that everyone participated, everyone was actively engaged, and getting to hear other people’s opinions/thoughts.

In closing, I think we all feel like this strategy was successful, and we are already looking forward to incorporating it into Emily’s classes again and hopefully encouraging other teachers in different content areas to try Twitter chats and Socratic circles as well.   Jennifer and I continue to be elated to participate as instructional partners and co-learners with our teacher and students in the library and in the classroom!  We sincerely appreciate our teachers and students being willing to try new strategies and to help us pilot these kinds of literacy practices together.

Connected Learning and Implications for Libraries as Spaces and Mentors for Learning

“Connected learning is realized when a young person is able to pursue a personal interest or passion with the support of friends and caring adults, and is in turn able to link this learning and interest to academic achievement, career success, or civic engagement.”
from Connected Learning:  An Agenda for Research and Design

For the last month or so, I’ve been dwelling in Connected Learning:  An Agenda for Research and Design, a research synthesis report that outlines the research and findings of the Connected Learning Research Network, a group chaired by Dr. Mimi Ito.  In addition to the report, I’ve enjoyed the series of recent webinars centered around the report:

Supplementary readings have also informed my understanding of this report:

Additional definitions and explanations can be found here; the infographic embedded here is also a helpful visualization.

In “Connected Learning:  An Agenda for Social Change”, Dr. Ito asserts that connected learning:

“…is not about any particular platform, technology, or teaching technique, like blended learning or the flipped classroom or Khan Academy or massive open online courses. It’s agnostic about the method and content area. Instead, it’s about asking what is the optimal experience for each learner and for a high-functioning learning community?”

In the Connected Learning:  An Agenda for Research and Design report, the authors describe connected learning as a design model:

“Our approach draws on sociocultural learning theory in valuing learning that is embedded within meaningful practices and supportive relationships, and that recognizes diverse pathways and forms of knowledge and expertise. Our design model builds on this approach by focusing on supports and mechanisms for building environments that connect learning across the spheres of interests, peer culture, and academic life. We propose a set of design features that help build shared purpose, opportunities for production, and openly networked resources and infrastructure” (5).

I’ve recreated this visualization embedded in the report to provide another way of looking at connected learning and thinking about how this model seeks to “knit” together the contexts of peer-supported, interest powered, and academically oriented for learning (12):


I’m still coding and organizing my notes from the report as I try to pull out the big takeaways for me, but as I review these notes and the ones I took from the webinar on assessing connected learning outcomes last week, I’m thinking about this first wave of big ideas and questions:

  • How do libraries develop learning agendas that are aligned with agendas for social change in their community?  How do the two inform each other?
  • How can libraries embrace this approach to designing learning environments to help us move from “nice to necessary?”, a question that was posed at ALA Midwinter in 2013, and that I’m attempting to flesh out in my work here as a Learning Strategist at Cleveland Public Library (and that I hope to share with you later this year).
  • How do we create learning environments and experiences as well as relationships with those we serve to move beyond the initial “sweet spot” of attachment to building a deeper level of engagement?  How do we as librarians (with the help of our community) design learning environments that provide diverse entry points and access for people to form communities of learning where they can create more nuanced narratives of learning as they create, share, and connect with others?  How do we design learning spaces and experiences that create more “pathways to opportunity” and participation?
  • How might libraries of all kinds serve as an “open network” that is a medium and a mentor to helping people connect and move more meaningfully across multiple learning spaces and spheres within their local community as well as a larger and more global community of learners?  Kris Gutierrez’s metaphor of “learning as movement” across many kinds of contexts has spurred this thinking.
  • Kris Gutierrez and Bill Penuel discussed concepts of horizontal learning and boundary crossing in their webinar and explored the question of how do we help people leverage the practices, disposition, and expertises honed in one learning space to another to go deeper with that learning and expand the possibilities for action and participation.  How do libraries support communities of learning in engaging in this boundary crossing and engaging in horizontal learning to build greater personal as well as civic capacity?
  • Both Gutierrez and Penuel emphasized the need to further contemplate and explore individual and collective assessment of these practices.  In the words of Dr. Gutierrez, “What tools, dispositions, practices, forms of expertises TRAVEL and how do we know it when we see it?”  I’m also thinking about how we frame formative and summative assessments as touchpoints for learning.
  • How can librarians help people take deep “vertical knowledge” in a specific content area and apply it across multiple learning contexts and spaces?  This question relates to horizontal learning and boundary crossing.  I like to think of these concepts as cross-pollination of ideas and learning.
  • How do more effectively build vocabulary for this kind of learning in our learning communities?
  • How do we more effectively thread and address issues of equity across our instructional design and assessment processes?
  • How do libraries cultivate deeper and more meaningful partnerships and connections with other institutions of learning in their communities for more strategic impact?
  • How do we as librarians facilitate the creation of sustained networks to help people make connections between social, academic, and interest driven learning? ( see page pp.46-47 in the report for more on this question)

As you can see, these learning and design principles as well as the findings and concerns shared in the report have saturated my thinking.  As I make additional readings and passes through my notes from the report, I will continue to take an inquiry stance to further unpack the concepts and language embedded in this work.  I’ll also revisit the case studies included in the report to further develop ideas on what this work could look like in practice in different library settings.  In addition, I will carve out more time to listen as well as contribute to conversations about connected learning in the NWP study group as well as the Connected Learning Google Plus group.

People, Partnerships, and Participatory Culture: The Core of School Librarianship

A heartfelt thank you to the North Carolina School Library Media Association for their exceptional hospitality and warm welcome to their annual conference this past Friday.  It was truly an honor to be the opening keynote speaker and to be part of such a stellar conference!  Below are the slides from my presentation:

Guest Post: Teacher Reflections on Collaborative VoiceThreads on Aging Issues

Steve Sapere currently teaches Healthcare Science at Creekview High School and is a M.Ed. student at Georgia Southern University.   

Buffy asked me to post my reflections upon the completion of a collaborative unit I worked on with Lisa Kennedy and Peggy Corbett, two of our outstanding English teachers here at Creekview.  My involvement in the unit was brought about as a result of the requirements of my final semester in Georgia Southern University’s Instructional Technology Masters program, which will lead to certification as a school library media specialist.  Playing the role of the media specialist in this collaboration was challenging, interesting, frustrating, fun and above all educational – not only for our students but for us as well!  Through excerpts from my own blog (which I have been required to maintain as a part of my Masters program), as well as some new commentary to fill in any of the blanks, I will briefly recap the genesis of the unit, as well as its evolution throughout a period of several weeks, ultimately leading up to our students’ production of VoiceThread presentations on various issues relating to the elderly and aging.

Jan. 14, 2012: Speaking of the instructional unit, I spent some time today conferencing with one of the teachers with whom I will be collaborating, Lisa Kennedy.  She and I used to teach together when I was her Special Education co-teacher, and we have worked together during my program on other units.  We talked in broad strokes about the scope of our collaboration, and mapped out a tentative schedule.  The students (enrolled in 9th grade Literature/Composition classes) will be reading Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie, and will be researching issues related to aging.  I will be creating the pathfinder for the students’ research, as well as instructing them during the final part of the unit, where they will be creating some digital, multi-genre presentations using a variety of Web 2.0 tools (we will be meeting further to brainstorm the specific nature of these presentations).

Lisa and I sat down with Bruce Guyer, one our school’s media specialists (we are fortunate to have two at the high school level in our district) to do some more in-depth planning for our instructional unit.  He is new to our building and new to the profession (just completed his program at Georgia State), so the meeting was as much about developing a productive working relationship as it was about lesson planning.  I feel like we are off to a positive start.  Bruce will be working with the classes on the research phase of the project (the “heavy lifting” part of the job, as far as I’m concerned… teaching the research process to high school freshmen is a mammoth task, to say the least, and Bruce will do a fine job with it…).  I’m very glad to have Bruce involved in this.  He will also be working on end products with one of Peggy’s classes which I will not be able to service.

Feb. 4, 2012: At any rate, we spent some time this week making some more concrete plans for the technology lesson I will be guiding Lisa and Peggy’s students through.  The students will be creating VoiceThreads or narrated Glogs (we’ve narrowed it down to these two modalities) to present both their research findings on various issues of aging, and the results of their interviews with senior citizens at a local senior center.  Lisa and I discussed the project rubric, as well as structuring the assignment as much as possible for the students, 9th graders who are inexperienced with both research and the type of technology we’ll be asking them to employ.

Feb. 18, 2012: Lisa, Peg and I also reviewed all of the handouts and materials for the lesson and made some last-minute alterations.  It has been interesting to see the process from our initial brainstorming session back in January to where we are now.  As with all good planning processes (and I believe ours has been a good one), we started with a wide range of ideas, and have continually narrowed our focus.  We both share the philosophy that it is more effective to do one or two things very well as opposed to a dozen things half-way.  This ‘less is more’ approach has brought us to a plan that we are both confident in executing.

We ultimately narrowed our presentation modalities down to just one, VoiceThread.  Again, we sought to err on the side of simplicity, particularly after an informal survey of the students indicated that few, if any of them had any experience with the software.  In addition, there was a learning curve for us as well.  I had only used VoiceThread once or twice previously.  Lisa had a bit more experience with it.  She is fearless when it comes to experimenting with new technology, which is why I enjoy collaborating with her – she makes me feel brave!  Peggy had the steepest learning curve of all.  She is an experienced and masterful teacher, but by her own admission is unfamiliar and a bit uneasy with certain aspects of technology.  Settling on the one program (VoiceThread) made it easier for everyone to focus.

Leading up to the actual delivery of the lesson over the culminating VoiceThread project, the students in Lisa and Peg’s classes had done a number of other activities critical to the success of their final products.  They produced research papers on self-selected issues related to aging, and then took a field trip to our local Senior Center to interview the seniors there about the impact some of these issues have had on them.  Students were asked to incorporate their research, their interviews, and their own reflections, not only about the issues they researched, but about the entire process as part of their VoiceThread presentations.  The day that we delivered the culminating project lesson to the students was the day that I was being observed for my program, so naturally I wanted to make sure that everything went well.  As such, I sought input from Buffy prior to the day of the lesson.

Feb. 18, 2012: I spent some time this week with Ms. Hamilton, my site supervisor, working on and talking about a number of different things.  First, I picked her brain for a bit about my plans for my site visit since I wanted the benefit of her experience.  This was a very beneficial conversation, and I came away from it noting the need to make a few significant changes/additions to my lesson plan and pathfinder.  At her suggestion, I also went through a quick check of the equipment that will be needed for my lesson (headset microphones, working computers, access to materials and other resources).  Everything is in place and we are ready to go.

On the day of the actual lesson, we were thrown a curve ball of sorts…

Mar. 3, 2012: Of course, our technology department made some modifications to our network over the break, and we started the day in our building with no internet – NOT GOOD, since the lesson and the students’ work is dependent upon a web-based presentation tool (VoiceThread).

Fortunately, by the time of the lesson, all of the technical and network issues were resolved, and the delivery of the lesson went as planned.  After we had the primary teaching done, our students got down to work.  As we found out though, the process would take quite a bit longer than we had budgeted for.  We also encountered other technical issues along the way, most notably some problems getting our headset/microphones to function properly.  Now, before you say anything, yes, I know this was one of Buffy’s last-minute pieces of advice, and I did follow it.  I just failed to try out a headset/microphone on every computer…  The big problem was that this was a hit-or-miss issue (on some computers the headsets would not function, while on others things worked just fine), which made it extremely frustrating.  Above all, it underscored the need to troubleshoot everything ahead of time, as opposed to scrambling around doing triage after the fact.  File that in the ‘live and learn’ notebook!  You can never do enough ‘test driving’ of your equipment…

Mar. 10, 2012: A big focus this week was finalizing the VoiceThread projects with the classes I have been collaborating with.  Overall, the project took quite a bit longer than I anticipated.  After discussing this throughout the progress of the project with Ms. Hamilton, the high school media specialist, we both agree that for a majority of our Freshmen (both of the classes I worked with were 9th grade classes), there seems to be a very steep learning curve in terms of practical use/application of technology.  Surprisingly, many of them have limited skills even when it comes to Word and PowerPoint.  This is problematic since the majority of the ‘heavy lifting’ in this project for the students is in the form of creating a storyboard in PowerPoint, which has turned into a tedious and laborious process for most of them.  This speaks to the ongoing debate about digital natives versus digital immigrants… while most of these students (so-called ‘natives’) can run circles around me when it comes to smart-phones, Facebook, I-Tunes and Twitter, they lack many of the functional skills that will be required of them in many of their high school classes, in college, and in the workplace.  This fact is a bit troubling, as I know great pains are taken at most of our feeder elementary schools to build technology skills into class assignments.  There seems to be a disconnect at the middle grades level which puts us in a situation of having to play ‘catch-up’ with our students in terms of technology skills.

Once faced with this learning deficit on the part of our students, we had to address it in the only way we could, by teaching.

When someone is faced with the task of teaching me something I know nothing about, I always ask them to “explain it to me like I was 6-years-old”.  Over the past 2 weeks, I, in the role of the media specialist, and the two teachers with whom I have been working, have done a LOT of explaining things as though our students were 6 years old.  While that has been frustrating, it is (in my opinion) our job, and we must do it and do it well if our students are to be prepared for their futures as students and employees.  As tempting as it is to ‘pass the buck’ to the previous grade level(s), we are called to meet students where they are and do our best to bring them where they need to go.

Ultimately, we taught our way through the difficulties…

We are finally at the stage where most of the students are finalizing their VoiceThreads and are ready to be evaluated.  Even though it has been quite a process, we are very pleased by the initial results.  We have believed all along that the time and effort that we and the students have spent at the ‘front end’ of this project would pay dividends in the final product, and we have not been disappointed.  Thanks to the efforts of Bruce Guyer, who along with Lisa and Peg guided the students through their research process to some valid, current, scholarly information about aging issues, the students had plenty of good ‘raw material’ for their VoiceThreads. 

I am including a link to a student work sample as part of this post:

This leaves me looking forward to next week, when we will be evaluating the students’ work.  My work with Buffy Hamilton the past six years has taught me that the role of the SLMS as an instructional partner extends far beyond the mere creation of a pathfinder page or assistance with finding and documenting resources.  The SLMS must be an integral part of every step of the instructional process, including the assessment of learning products.  I think that, based on the dozen or so final-product VoiceThreads I’ve seen so far, this project, despite the time that it took, was a success.  It was certainly great experience in terms of my role as an instructional partner, and what Ms. H. terms “embedded librarianship.”

Even though I am not currently employed as a media specialist, and have no immediate plans to pursue such a position, this experience has been an invaluable one that has definite applications to my current teaching assignment.  I think the biggest joy for me in all of this was the opportunity to work closely with fellow professionals in a shared endeavor.  As much as we are all proud of the products of our efforts, it was the process that we and our students benefited most from.  I am very grateful to Lisa and Peggy for allowing me to work with them and their classes.  I also owe a special debt of gratitude to Bruce for his key role in all of this.  I feel like this has been a great example of the collaborative process in action.  Finally, many thanks to Buffy for inviting me to share my reflections on this experience!