2014 BCTLA Summer Institute Presentations and Resources

Teacher Librarians Engaging in Inquiry Through Written Conversations Around Texts

It was truly a pleasure earlier this week to spend time with the wonderful teacher librarians of BCTLA—-they are truly among the nicest, most enthusiastic, and most progressive groups of librarians I’ve had the honor to speak to in my career.  I am truly grateful for their hospitality, their energy, and their passionate participation during the Summer Institute this past Tuesday!  I’d like to give an extra word of thanks to Arlene Anderson—she was the ultimate hostess and went above and beyond the call of duty in making my visit both possible and memorable!

Fabulous Librarians of BCTLA!

Fabulous Librarians of BCTLA! /Photo by Doni Gratton

Session 1:  Subject Guides

Resources of Interest:

 

Session 2:  Participatory Learning and Inquiry

Please let me know if I have omitted any resources you may have wanted as a participant or if you want to share any work related to our sessions as the school year gets underway!

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!

Advances in Citation Management Technologies: How Do They Shape Inquiry and Literacies?

Two years ago, I adopted EasyBib as my primary citation subscription service for a multitude of reasons, but the driving factor was to spend less time on the mechanics of citation and more time helping students and teachers dwell in research projects from an inquiry oriented stance.  Although we had always had high database usage statistics, that did not always translate into those sources finding their way into student projects and papers to the extent we would expect given our high number of hits; we knew from observation in the past that the primary reason was the amount of time and struggle it took students to create entries using the database wizard with another citation tool.  While we very much liked the original citation tool we had been using, our students were not coming with enough prior knowledge or usage for it to be the best fit for them as learners.    Within the first year of adoption, we noticed some significant changes:

1.  Students were not only citing more database sources in their bibliographies, but they were also incorporating the database content more into the body of their paper as paraphrased and directly quoted material.

2.  Because less instructional and working time was spent on citation mechanics with EasyBib, students were spending more times reading their articles critically and having opportunities to reflect on the content individually and with their peers in small groups.

3.  Teachers were more willing to devote longer chunks of  time and take more of an inquiry stance on research projects since they knew the citation piece of the learning experience would be more seamless and would not take as much time for students to complete.  Being able to invest more time in designing  inquiry driven projects using Stripling’s model of inquiry and helping teachers move along that continuum was exciting and energizing; for some teachers, it was also a pathway to pushing back against the pressures of testing.

At the time of our adoption in midwinter, we thought we had jumped light years ahead by being able to download .ris files to then import into EasyBib.  I have vivid memories of students AND teachers clapping when I showed them this fast new method that  felt like a revolution in citation.   That fall, we saw a glimpse of the next wave of citation innovation when we trialed Sage databases and saw one-click integration of direct export for the first time with EasyBib.  Not that it was terrible to download the .ris file with the publication data and then upload it to EasyBib, but to see that citation could be done so seamlessly in one click was a tantalizing possibility to imagine for other databases.

In August 2013, my colleague Jennifer Lund and I were overjoyed when we learned that Gale Virtual Reference Library and Gale Literature Resource Center had been re-configured to offer the ease of one-click citation export and integration with EasyBib. That feature was then enhanced to be even a little cleaner and more aesthetically pleasing in December.  Our only disappointment was that the feature was not yet integrated into our Gale “In Context” databases.  Because we are fortunate to have access to quite a few of these databases in that particular series, we often felt frustrated trying to explain to our students why the one-click integration was available in some Gale databases but not in others.    For young teens who did not have the same schema we did as experienced researchers, this discrepancy was sometimes difficult for them to grasp even though we had created tutorial videos to reinforce the “how to” steps we showed in person.  Worse, this feature was not only missing from the EBSCO databases that we were using as part of our research guides, but the direct export feature failed to deliver the file with the .ris extension essential for EasyBib to read the data file, so students also had to remember to rename the file and add the .ris extension.   For fledgling researchers, these differences and the appropriate steps for exporting citations from one database to another, even those under the same publisher, were sometimes challenging to remember.

student-resource-center-easybibexport-march14As of this week, the beautiful one click citation feature is now available in all the Gale In Context databases.   I literally felt like dancing around the library when I discovered the platforms had been migrated and sooner than I anticipated!  Some of our students came in this morning and said, “Ms. Hamilton, did you know Student Resources in Context now has that one click choice?!”  Jennifer and I were beaming as we discussed the ways this small but important change might help us in our larger efforts to reframe, disrupt,  and transform research experiences here at NHS as acts of inquiry across the curriculum.  If you are in a school that might be facing challenges of a large student body and faculty with a premium on spaces and time for research both within the library and the school building at large as well as curricular and testing mandates, a technology that is seemingly so simple can be a catalyst in how you budget your time for research instruction.   Now that we will have consistency in citation export within our  suite of Gale databases, we anticipate less confusion with this piece of research and more student confidence in using both the databases as well as EasyBib.  Now that we will be spending less time explaining why there are differences in the steps for exporting the citations, we are excited that hopefully more time will be spent incorporating learning experiences that will give students time to engage in deeper inquiry  and to think more deliberately about their research and composing (in whatever format the final product takes).  Of course, we hope that EBSCO will transform their direct export feature soon to be consistent with the Gale experience our students now have.

bibcardWhen we think about the catalysts for richer learning experiences that can shift perceptions about research as a one shot activity to something that is a natural part of an inquiry-driven culture of learning, we know that school culture, collaborative partnerships and strategies, physical space and the design drivers that inform those spaces, testing and curricular mandates, and pedagogical shifts are all important points of access.  As we try to help our students acquire the academic capital and citizenship skills they need as learners who attribute and share information in appropriate and ethical ways, I wonder how shifts in citation technology will impact learners and research experiences in ways we don’t yet foresee. Think about how approaches to citation have changed in your own lifetime (some of us more than others) due to the technologies available for both citing and accessing digitized information sources.  I honestly don’t remember much about crafting bibliographies as a newbie researcher in my junior year although I have vivid memories of painstakingly crafting footnotes, a tedious task.  In my senior year of high school as well as my undergraduate years, I relied heavily on the MLA handbook and resources provided by teachers/professors.   When I began teaching in 1992, my students used index cards and a MLA handbook to cite sources cite sources.  By the time I was a technology specialist in my district’s Technology Services department in 1999 , a free version of NoodleTools had arrived on the scene, and I was tinkering around with that before moving to a paid version purchased by my district.   As a graduate student between 2001-2005, I relied heavily on my NoodleTools subscription to help me format my citations for scholarly research; at the same time, I began incorporating NoodleTools into my instruction at Cherokee High first as an English teacher and then as one of the school’s librarians.   I marvel when I think about the changes in citation technology (or lack of) and how it impacted my work as a teacher and researcher over twenty years.

I can’t help but wonder what the implications are for learners (K12, undergraduate, and even graduate) who do AND who don’t have access to these technologies for research and learning.  How does access or lack thereof impact the learner experience and students’ information literacy skills? How do these changes impact the ways people compose research-based writing and literacy practices as readers of informational texts in a variety of mediums and formats?  How might less emphasis on the mechanics of citation change people’s perceptions and connotations of “research”? How do these technologies and access or lack of access to them function as sponsors of literacy?  These are questions I’ll be pondering as I continue to think about the ways libraries function as sponsors of literacy in their communities and learning ecosystems.

Writing Around Text on Text Effort 2: Unplugged Conversations for Inquiry, Participation, and Social Construction of Meanings

write1

This past Friday, my fellow librarian Jennifer Lund and I had another opportunity to help facilitate written conversations about texts using the strategies we learned in the Harvey Daniels workshop we attended in December 2013.    Emily Russell, a teacher and Language Arts Department Chair we’ve collaborated with regularly this past year, and her students have been reading the memoir The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.  When she came to us for ideas for helping students transact with the text and their peers, we shared some of the strategies from the Daniels workshop as well as the write around text on text strategy we did with Darryl Cicchetti.

One of our reflections from our work with Darryl is that we think it would helpful to scaffold the write around text on text strategy by first giving students the opportunity to do the “silent literature circle letters.”  In this strategy, students can work in pairs or small groups of 3-4 (no more than 4) to have a conversation about a text or question through timed letter writing.  You can begin by having students write silently for 3-4 minutes and then swapping letters ( which can be written on notebook paper or large index cards) and writing again for bursts of 3-4 minutes.   Depending on how many people are in a group, this could go back and forth between pairs or you could simply write around the small group until everyone had a chance to respond to each other.  This can then be followed-up with small group discussion about the ideas and points they wrote on paper before moving to a large group share.  Emily did this with her three classes at the beginning of the week before coming down to the media center on Friday to do the write around text on text.

On Thursday, students used the same template we used with Darryl’s classes to have students identify a passage that stood out to write2them as well as questions they had about that chunk of text.  Some students chose brief and specific  passages; others chose large extended sections spanning 2-3 pages.  Most students chose something in the middle about a paragraph or so in length.  At the end of each period, Emily sent those down to the media center along with a roster of groups she selected to help us organize for Friday.  Just as I did with Darryl, I made copies of the passages on colored paper and then affixed them to large sheets of butcher paper.  Because our copier machine has been broken for two weeks, I used the ScannerPro app and then exported the PDFs of the passages to Evernote for printing.  This process moved fairly quickly although it would have been faster if I had access to a printer configured for Airprint.  The other aspect that was different this time was using colored butcher paper—that had been my original intent for the first time with Darryl’s students, but because I didn’t specify colored paper, our library student helpers assumed I wanted white paper.  This time I was sure to go with them and to be specific about colors I wanted.  While that sounds like a minor point, Emily’s students immediately commented about the colors and that they liked that when they first entered the library on Friday.  One other thing I did differently out of necessity with time constraints that come with doing prep work for more sections—I simply wrote group names on butcher paper with a black Sharpie instead of making the pretty group nametags in PowerPoint that I did last time.

This time we met in our area of the library that has eight rectangular tables and a screen for project rather than the rotunda area we used with Darryl’s classes.  We felt this would help us get groups together more quickly and help us avoid dealing with the horrific acoustics that plague our rotunda area of the library (as in a whisper echoes loudly across the entire space—it is akin to being in a cave when you are trying to talk to someone in this part of our library, a problem we’re working to address or at least mitigate). write4 As Emily’s students arrived, she, Jennifer, and I instructed them to find their table by looking for their name on the butcher paper on the tables; we also had the group rosters up on a slide we projected onto a screen.   We reviewed the instructions for the write-around text on text, took time to answer any questions, and then instructed students to jump in as we told them we’d write for about 10-12 minutes, and we’d alert them when time was up.  Just as we did with Darryl’s classes, we circulated among the groups, observing, photographing, and videoing; we also answered any questions students had, and Emily also jumped in and actively participated in the written conversations with students as well.

In reality, each class actually wrote for 20 minutes!  Because they were so into what they were doing, we did not want to break the flow.  It was interesting to note some differences in how these students engaged in the activity compared to our first group with Darryl.

  • None of the classes seemed confused about the directions and immediately jumped into the activity.  Because we had the hindsight of offering this kind of scaffolding and had already seated the students by their groups, we think these steps helped minimize any confusion.
  • There was less oral conversation doing the write-around time (which Daniels advocates as silent writing time) and less socializing; when students did converse, it was done so in a quiet manner and was related specifically to the text or the activity.
  • Students were able to write for a longer sustained time period (roughly 20 minutes vs. 10 or so minutes).
  • Students wrote more responses directly to the text as well as to each other; we have not yet coded the responses for every group yet (this will take some time as there are approximately 25 groups total to code), but I suspect from what I read and saw Friday that we’ll see some different patterns in terms of response type, volume, and depth from our first group in December.
  • Students seemed very organic in their work—on their own, each class began drifting to other tables and seemed intentional in trying to make their way to every table at least once.  We did not tell them to do this; in fact, with Darryl’s students, we had asked them to focus just on their group (this decision seemed practical at the time since each group was reading a different book whereas Emily’s students had this common text/book).    It was truly fascinating to  see them make their way around to each table; many also revisited tables to do follow-up responses other peers might have left.  Consequently, we saw more of a trajectory in the written conversations that reflected more of a dialogue between various students.
  • Out of three classes, there were only two students I observed who seemed to struggle with full engagement.  I was honestly struck by how focused and intent students seemed during the quiet write-around piece of the activity.  There was definitely a synergy of thought that was truly awe-inspiring to just stand back and watch.

These differences in my mind are not “bad” or “good”,  but in many ways reflect not just the difference in scaffolding, but to a larger degree, the fact that Emily’s students as a whole have had more opportunities in their past K-9 experiences to engage in group or collaborative activities.  Students who are tracked into what are considered “lower” level courses are often confined to write5solitary activities involving worksheets and silence; hence, when they are given the opportunity to do more interactive and collaborative work, teachers have to be patient in helping students work through the learning curve students experience as they learn the social and academic skills they need for these kinds of participatory learning experiences.   I am thankful for teachers like Darryl who want to disrupt that norm and give these students the same kinds of learning opportunities as “Honors” or other “higher” level classes.

We then gave students time to debrief and process in small groups when the 20 minutes was up.   We told them they could talk about one or more of the following:

  • The written conversations and specific pieces of those conversations on the butcher paper at their table
  • Ideas and conversations they had read at other tables
  • New insights, questions, or understandings from the process of reading others’ ideas

Each group appointed a recorder to capture the “big ideas” from the small group discussions that lasted about 5-7 minutes.  Emily and I walked about and listened in to each group; Emily used what she heard to help lead the big group discussion we then had the last 10 minutes of class, a time in which they tied together both ideas as well as literary aspects of the text that were highlighted in student written conversations.

Every class had an overwhelmingly positive response to the activity.   There was even a class in which students remarked aloud to both Emily and me that “we should be doing this more often!”  At the end of class, students shared what they liked about the write around text on text activity while asking ( very enthusiastically) if this was something they could do more regularly!   Other feedback from the students:

  • They enjoyed and appreciated hearing many student voices, something that sometimes gets silenced in traditional class discussions.
  • They liked being able to see different perspectives on their book; several remarked how the written conversations helped them see something they had not noticed about the book.  Others commented their perspective on a character or issue in the text had changed after reading the opinions and responses of their peers.  They were beginning to understand learning is social and how meaning can be constructed together.
  • Students liked the freedom in being able to move about and respond at their own pace during the write-around.
  • Students were focused on ideas, not grammar or spelling.
  • Everyone had opportunities to contribute to the discussion.
  • Students remarked that this activity was one that helped them think more critically and deeply.
  • Students were surprised by how fast the period seemed to go and that they had written as long as they did.
  • Some students remarked they loved the “freedom” of the space of the media center and being able to participate in the activity without feeling “confined” by the space constraints and seating arrangements of the traditional classroom (a point which we feel supports our vision of transforming our library into a learning studio for teachers and students!).

write3As I have reflected now on this second effort and experience of doing written conversations with students, a few thoughts have resonated with me over the weekend:

  • Activities that put inquiry and participation at the heart of the learner experience are the ones that will truly capture students’ minds and trust.  Sometimes this involves using technology; sometimes it does not.
  • Over the course of Media 21, Susan and I became more selective and strategic about our incorporation of technology as a medium or tool for learning; we saw that students often needed the “offline” experience of learning how to participate in a community of learners in a space that was not so public online and provided immediate, face to face feedback.  These experiences so far at NHS seem to parallel those with Creekview students.
  • These kinds of conversations that don’t involve technology or dialogue in an online space can be a scaffold for more public conversations; however, I increasingly worry about the fine line in not imposing a medium for learning that might not work for teen learners vs. how to respectfully their comfort level and skill in participating in virtual learning spaces.  I plan to revisit Shall We Play?, an outstanding document that addresses this very challenge of helping students cultivate new media literacies and the four Cs of participation.  I think their pedagogical model of scaffolding those 4Cs in both low-tech and high-tech contexts will help me better think how to negotiate these questions and challenges as we hope to expand our work with teachers and students to grow these conversations.
  • These questions and reflections in these excellent posts from Lee Skallerup (It’s About Class:  Interrogating the Digital Divide) and Jackie Gerstein (Is There a Digital Divide or an Intellectual-Pedagogical One?) also reflect my thinking and work from the trenches.  These are definitely worth your time to read and to ponder as I worry that schools and libraries are doing a lot of shallow pedagogical work just for the sake of saying they are “integrating technology” and embracing “digital learning” (what the heck do we even mean by that?).  I fear the emphasis on “technology integration” is trumping sound, thoughtful instructional design in too many classrooms and libraries.

I hope to do a follow-up post in the next ten days or so to share our findings of coding the student work.  For now, though, I hope that this post will be helpful to those interested in these strategies.    This past Friday was one of those magical days with students and teachers in which you get to watch learning in action–watching ideas blossom like a bud unfurling its petals still evokes pure joy after 21 years of teaching.  In a climate in which high stakes testing increasingly informs the experience of school and undercuts teachers’ autonomy in determining the most effective ways their students learn, I’m grateful for teachers like Emily and Darryl who put their students’ needs first and are willing to give them time, space, and opportunities to be active agents in their experiences as learners.   If you’d like to see more scenes from Friday, please visit my photo set housed here.  In addition, here are two videos (I promise to film from the horizontal perspective next time!) from Friday:

First Efforts at Written Conversations Strategies: Write-Around Text on Text

A collaborative post by Darrell Cicchetti, Jennifer Lund, and Buffy Hamilton

Background

Original photo by Buffy Hamilton

Original photo by Buffy Hamilton

Earlier this month, my colleague Jennifer Lund and I attended a half day workshop sponsored by our Gwinnett County School District.  We spent a Saturday morning with the smart and funny Harvey “Smokey” Daniels, who engaged us in a variety of strategies for helping learners transact with text more deeply while building writing fluency.  Through his presentation as well as our hands-on exercises based on his new book, The Best-Kept Teaching Secret:  How Written Conversations Engage Kids, Activate Learning, and Grow Fluent Writers K-12, we came away energized with concrete and meaningful strategies we felt we could apply right away in a variety of ways with teachers and students across multiple subject areas.  One of the variations of written conversations that Jen and I really liked was the write-around, a strategy in which “Small groups of kids write and exchange notes about a curricular topic for several rounds—maybe 5 to 15 minutes of sustained writing–and then they burst into out-loud talk that’s rooted in their extended written rehearsals” (Daniels 155).

As soon as we returned to work on Monday, we immediately approached Language Arts teacher Darrell Cicchetti, a teacher we’ve collaborated with all semester to support the Independent Reading (IR) piece of his 10th grade classes.  Students read for an entire period every Wednesday and have free choice over their self-selected texts.  Thanks to a grant we received from the Norcross High Foundation for Excellence, we were able to purchase multiple texts by YA Author Paul Volponi for student formed literature circles as part of a culminating virtual author visit with Volponi (whom we highly recommend!).  We felt two of the written conversation strategies we learned in the workshop, the Write-Around Text on Text and Silent Literature Circle Write-Around, would be great structures for helping students dwell in Stripling’s recursive model of inquiry and to scaffold their efforts to build conversations for learning.  Although the class we chose for our first efforts had experienced some difficulty in small group work in the past, we all felt optimistic in trying these strategies with the students.  In this post, we’ll share our planning, process, assessment, and reflections on our first efforts at the write-around text on text strategy.

Write-Around Text on Text:  Prep Work, Implementation, and Reflections

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Definition and Planning

Harvey Daniels defines the text on text variation of a write-around as “what happens when you have several kids annotate the same copy of a text at the same time, jotting down their responses in the margins.  Quite naturally, students start reading other people’s comments and want to give their classmates a written high five, ask a clarifying question, or throw down a tough challenge” (184).   Essentially, you take a copy of a piece of text, affix it to a large piece of butcher paper or sticky note poster, and provide different colored markers or Sharpies for students.   Students work in small groups to literally “write around” the text and engage in their annotations and responses to each other as they compose; each student uses a different colored pen so it is easy to distinguish each student’s written responses.

write-around-prep1

Template for Gathering Student Selected Passages from a Text

We first began preparing by creating a template (we recommend installing Rockwell and Bebas Neue fonts to see the document properly) for students to select a favorite passage they wanted to share and discuss from their chosen Volponi book.  We did this so that we would have time to copy the page for each student selected passage, mark it, and then affix it to the butcher paper for the write-around activity.  This document also included a space for students to pose five questions they were thinking about related to their book; we felt these questions could be a “safety net” for the silent literature circle write around activity if they were struggling for a conversation starter.  Darrell then returned these templates and included a roster of groups by book so that we would know how many sheets of butcher paper we’d need to prepare as well as any other organizing materials.  I chose to do the copy the passages on different colors of paper since our butcher was white, and I thought it would help differentiate each passage since we actually included 3-4 passages per piece of butcher paper since we wanted the students to write-around each group member’s selected text.

Once the colored copies of the pages were made of each student selected text, I took a black Sharpie and marked off the passage with brackets.  If students selected only a sentence, I went ahead and marked off the paragraph around it to help students see more context.  I then trimmed them with our paper cutter and organized piles of texts by group.  Next, I took large sheets of butcher paper (2-3 feet) and laid each one on a table in our rotunda area.  I then taped each passage onto the butcher paper, usually working a triangular pattern so that students would have room to write around each piece of text on the butcher paper.  I also created little “nametags” of group rosters using PowerPoint and taped those to each piece of paper so we would not lose track of which group owned each write-around. The other prep work involved writing up simple and direct instructions for students to frontload the activity.  We knew they would need start-up instructions and wanted to include visuals with concise steps to try and mitigate confusion.  Since the students had little prior experience with text annotation, we also printed copies of possible conversation prompts in case students experienced any difficulty thinking of how to engage in the written dialogue once they were at the tables with their groups.  Finally, we included rosters of each group so that it would be easy to quickly get groups to their writing tables.  I incorporated all of these elements into a PowerPoint that I showed at the beginning of our session in the library; I also used the slides to print out the group nametags and copies of the writing prompts.

Implementation:  Our First Efforts
Students Writing Around Text on Text

Students Writing Around Text on Text

It took about 10-12 minutes to review the introductory directions and to show students examples of how they might annotate their text.  We also encouraged them to use both written dialogue as well as any visuals/drawings they wanted to draw as part of the write-around composition.  Once students got to their tables and selected a pen, we told them we would take about 10 minutes to write as quietly as we could; I used my iPhone as my stopwatch.   Once I gave them the verbal “go”, they were off and writing.  At first, they looked a little hesitant, much like a wobbly newborn deer standing on its legs for the first time.  However, they soon jumped in and began “writing around”!  Darrell, Jen, and I walked around listening and observing.  At times, we redirected some of our “social butterflies” who might have strayed from their groups; we also monitored for students who appeared to be stuck in neutral and helped nudge them back on track as needed. As we observed, listened, photographed, and videoed the activity, some students occasionally asked for clarification or just wanted a little verbal assurance that they were working in a constructive direction.  It was exciting for us to see them moving around, ruminating deliberately, and interacting with the texts as well as with each other in positive, constructive ways!  Once time was up, groups sat down at their tables to  “debrief”  reflections on the process.  We gave each group a response sheet to record their three big take- aways from the activity; we encouraged them to think on what ideas seemed most important or interesting.  Some groups appointed a scribe to record their reflections; in other groups, each student wrote his/her ideas.  We had planned on doing a large group share, but we ran out of time.

Students Writing Around Text on Text

Students Writing Around Text on Text

Although Daniels recommends the writing period of the activity as a silent one, a hallmark of the write-around process, this might be difficult in some situations.  While we encouraged our students to write as quietly as possible, we found they felt comfortable with some level of verbal conversation, most of which was actually related to their texts or affirmation from peers in their small group that they were moving through the process as we had outlined in the instructions.  While our students were initially a little tentative in their confidence about their first efforts, we saw them becoming more comfortable as they moved deeper into their writing.  For these students, this kind of student facilitated, visible, and public literacy practice was somewhat risky since most of their school literacy practices have tended to be private, solitary, and teacher dominated. Here is a short 90 second raw footage video clip of the write-around with text on text in action:

Assessing Student Work

We honestly did not have any kind of rubric or preconceptions as to what to expect for this first effort. Because this particular group of students had experienced difficulty working in groups or collaboratively earlier in the semester, we were just hoping they would participate and have a positive experience working in small groups.  Since this was a first effort, we were more interested in student responses than actually “grading” content or participation.  Instead, we wanted to focus on looking at students’ written responses and seeing the types of written conversation they composed.  The plan was to code student responses and tally the number of responses in each category to get a sense of the types of written conversations and to get some baseline data that we could work from to track the trajectory of responses over the course of the next 18 weeks as we hope to fold this structure for learning into Darrell’s classroom life.

The three of us first looked at the student work together after class the day of the activity.  After debriefing on what we had observed in action and our first quick look at their work, we felt we needed the weekend to process it all.  When we returned the following week, we devised some broad categories of student responses.  Initially, the categories included:  questions, opinions, annotations of text, response to text, drawing/graphics, and off topic.  However, as I began making the first “deep” pass at looking at student work yesterday, I had a couple of realizations.  After looking at the first group’s efforts,  I realized that  all the responses were really a form of annotation; however, I felt it was important to keep a category of explicit traditional types of annotation.  Secondly, I felt a bit sheepish when I realized very quickly we needed a category for “response to peer”.    After tweaking the document, I was ready to dive into looking at the student work.

Coding Student Work

Coding Student Work

My plan was to attach sticky notes to each response and label the sticky with the category abbreviation as I coded.   Initially, I attached the coded sticky notes and recorded the number of responses for each category.  After I had coded two groups of student work, though, I realized I needed to be a little more intentional in my tallying process  to avoid getting confused as to what responses I had counted and which ones I had not.  I started recording by clusters of text and then began adding check marks to the sticky notes as I recorded the responses.  It took about an hour to code eight groups; I then tallied the overall results.  It was fascinating to me to not only look at individual annotations by students, but I also enjoyed seeing patterns within specific groups as well as the larger picture of overall responses.

Final Tally of Responses

As you can see, the dominant student talk included responses to text, questions, and opinions.  Within individual groups, some conversation was primarily one category; only one group’s responses consisted of mostly graphics or drawings.  We were not surprised by these patterns, and this coding process helped us to see that students will need additional modeling and opportunities in how to respond to peers to grow their fluency in developing written conversations.  We were very pleased to see that many developed thoughtful questions and that many made clear connections back to the text in their responses.  This student work, as well as feedback in interviews we are doing with Darrell’s students, underscore the importance of choice for readers engaging with texts, particularly for students who have not felt a sense of passion or success as readers.

Reflections and Next Steps

After having the opportunity to take a more deliberate pass at coding the student work and looking at the results, Darrell had a chance to talk with us about his insights and how he might move forward with using this strategy in his classroom.  Here some of Darrell’s reflections and next steps for second semester in January:

  • “Flip” the conversations by rotating groups during a write-around to spark responses within a given period to “jump-start” written discussions.  By “flipping” and moving to other write-arounds from peer groups, less confident students might have a schema or jumping off point to jump into the conversation–think of it as a little nudge to give them a starting point and help them get momentum.
  • Consider doing write-arounds over a two-day period so that there is a bit of break in the “flipping” of groups. Because some students are very defensive about any response to their work, splitting the write-around into two days might provide some degree of anonymity when groups rotate and defuse any possible confrontations. While we’ll work with students to develop strategies for sharing, receiving, and acting on constructive criticism, we know now this is a real issue for several students and feel that a “breather” in the write-around until they build their capacity to draw positive energy from tensions in ideas.
  • Clarify the annotation category to hone in on student conversation that relates to specific literary talk (i.e. theme, symbolism, figurative language).
  • Help scaffold students’ tactics for challenging someone’s opinion or idea in a positive way.
  • Student self-selection of texts for the write-around activity itself is important for building buy-in from students.

Jennifer and I are looking forward to our continued work with Darrell and his students.  We were absolutely thrilled with the overwhelmingly positive feedback from the students about the activity—we felt like they enjoyed it based on our observations, but their written feedback more than confirmed our instincts.  We hope to report back to you all in the spring the data we are collecting and updates on the ways students are engaging with text and each other through this and other write-around strategies.  We also feel these strategies will be a seamless medium for collaboration with content area teachers as they strive to meet curricular and schoolwide literacy goals; we also see applications for using this and other write-around strategies in the context of information literacy instruction.  Jennifer also has some terrific ideas on using written conversation strategies from the Harvey workshop to invite participation and grow conversations in professional development activities and meetings!  We are now working on a proposal to offer PD to our faculty on this specific strategy and then grow that work as we hopefully have the opportunity to help teachers and students pilot other strategies for written conversations in both print and digital mediums.  We look forward to seeing how we can grow our efforts to be collaborative partners and instructional designers with our learning community second semester!

References:

Daniels, Harvey, and Elaine Daniels. “Write-Arounds.” The Best-kept Teaching Secret: How Written Conversations Engage Kids, Activate Learning, Grow Fluent Writers, K-12. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Literacy, 2013. 155-91. Print.