I invite you to check out my latest post for DMLcentral as I explore the possibilities for writing literacies in libraries. In this post, I share how we are using writing as a springboard for inquiry and engaging with texts here at Norcross High; the post also features a video interview with colleague and friend Sara Kelley-Mudie and her use of written conversation strategies. Many thanks to our faculty here at NHS and to Sara for sharing their experiences and being willing to explore the boundaries of writing as a tool for inquiry and learning. Please be sure to check out my previous posts in this series for DMLcentral that explore the ways libraries can and might function as sponsors of literacy.
“For perhaps the first time in the history of mass literacy, writing seems to be eclipsing reading as the literate experience of consequence. What happens when writing (and not just reading) becomes the grounds of mass literate experience, when more and more people ‘think about audiences’ as part of their daily routine engagement with literacy? How does a social shift in that and energy toward writing affect the ways that people develop their literacy and understand its worth? And finally, how does the ascendant of a writing-based literacy create tension in a society where institutions organized a reading literacy, around a presumption that readers would be many and writers would be few?
Dr. Deborah Brandt, “How Writing Is Remaking Reading.” Literacy and Learning: Reflections on Writing, Reading, and Society.
I encourage you to read my latest post in a series exploring the ways libraries function as sponsors of literacies and learning for DMLcentral. In this new post, I outline Dr. Deborah Brandt’s arguments for writing, not reading, as the primary literacy of time, and what that might mean for libraries and how we function in a larger ecosystem of learning. If we accept Brandt’s assertions, what kinds of profound shifts might take place in libraries and how would that accelerate the movement for library as a space for multiple literacies, creating, and making through multiple mediums? How do we help all members of our communities engage in lifelong learning through writing, and how might that impact the ways literacy impacts communities at an individual and collective point of need? Where and how might this paradigm shift fit with the model of connected learning? I invite you to think aloud and inquire with us at DMLcentral.
I would like to thank friend and colleague Dr. Antero Garcia and the Colorado State University Department of English for the opportunity to participate in “The Literacies of Contemporary Civic Life” speaker series here in Fort Collins, Colorado. I appreciate everyone who came out to hear the talk in person; we also captured video of the talk through a Google Hangout. The joy in these experiences is not only having a chance to contribute to a conversation, but to also learn from others—my thinking has been pushed today through my interactions with the CSU English Department community as well as wonderful morning of discussion with fellow librarian Ally Garcia of the Clearview Library District. I feel confident seed ideas that have been planted and nurtured today will find their way into future blog posts!
If you are interested in the ideas central to the talk, I encourage you to check out my ongoing series of blog posts from DMLcentral here; I will have a new blog post soon for this series that relates directly to some of the concepts in this talk. Thanks to a historic winter storm that is battering Atlanta, my stay here is extended that will give me the chance to explore Fort Collins and relish some “found” writing time.
My co-librarian Jennifer Lund and I are continuing our efforts to introduce written conversations strategies to students and teachers across content areas here at Norcross High. Yesterday we had the pleasure of collaborating with Science Department Chair Logan Malm and her 9th Accelerated Biology/Chemistry students. Logan teaches three sections of this course that meets for approximately an hour and half daily. Our collaborative efforts began when Logan, who was in the library working on a video project with her classes, saw our write-around text on text activity with Emily Russell’s Language Arts classes and became interested in how to incorporate that technique into her subject area. Jennifer and I were excited by the prospect of partnering with Logan for the write-around text on text activity since this would be our first attempt to use it with 9th graders and in a non-Language Arts content area class.
Logan’s classes are currently finishing an ecology unit and preparing to transition to a new biochemistry unit with a focus on molecules and enzymes. She decided to use the write-around text on text strategy as a way of helping students link the prior knowledge from the ecology unit of study to information they are about to learn in biochemistry. She selected three National Geographic articles with a focus on enzymes:
- “Essence of Maggot” Ointment to Heal Wounds Faster?
- Deep-Sea, Shrimp-Like Creatures Survive by Eating Wood
- Trees Trap Ants Into Sweet Servitude
Since two of the articles did not offer a print friendly option, I took them and converted them into single page printouts with Word; the third article I was able to keep at one page thanks to the print friendly option. After checking with Logan about the number of students and groups, Jennifer and I prepped for the write-around by printing the copies of each article, getting our colored butcher paper for each group, taping each of the three articles on every sheet of butcher paper, and writing the names of each group member on their sheet of butcher paper with the articles. Because Logan wanted to build a conversation around the concept of enzymes, she decided to use the same articles for each group and have them respond to the entire article since all three were fairly brief.
At the beginning of each class, we did a similar mini-lesson on how to participate in a write-around; however, we did make modifications to the “idea/writing sparks” for conversation to be more reflective of the informational texts. After distributing colored markers and Sharpies, we cued the students to begin reading and writing. We honestly did not know what to expect in terms of depth of responses, how long the students might write, or how easy/difficult it might be for them to engage in a sustained participation since this was our first effort with informational text in the context of a science class unit; the students also did not have any previous scaffolding for this activity like Emily Russell’s classes. Because the class is a hybrid course that covers elements of two classes, it meets for roughly an hour and a half daily; we decided to see if the students could engage in the writing for at least 25 minutes (Emily’s students wrote for about 20 minutes). We were pleasantly surprised in several ways:
1. Each class wrote approximately 30-33 minutes; some could have continued writing had we not called time!
2. Most of the written conversations were rich and nuanced just as the literary conversations had been. Although the content was more academic and subject specific in nature, the written discussions still felt very conversational. We also noticed students using more visuals/graphics/drawings as part of these conversations.
3. The trajectory of energy and momentum to the conversations paralleled those of Emily’s classes—it is akin to a crescendo in music where the sound builds in loudness and intensity. We saw the written conversations building in those same ways.
4. Like Emily’s classes, students enjoyed using hashtags as part of their written conversations. I think #maggot was one of the more popular hashtags of the day.
We all participated as co-learners in the process as well, which gave us an opportunity to model for students as well as “listen” and respond to their ideas. Since we had the longer block of time for class, we were able to give students more time for the small group discussion/share/reflection that we incorporate after the silent writing time. We also did a slight variation on the small group share reflection format and utilized the “3-2-1″ strategy this time. After discussing their responses as a small group for about 15 minutes, Logan then facilitated the large group conversation. We began the large group discussion with each small group reporting their reflections, insights, and questions; some of the questions students posed included:
- How did the deep sea shrimp evolve to primarily consume wood in an environment completely devoid of it?
- Can scientists alter human enzymes to be better suitors for utilizing new resources?
- Has the maggot healing been put into effect since its discovery?
- What happens if the wood “goes away” for the shrimp and the trees/nectar “go away” for the ants?
- Is the tree and the ant more than one symbiotic relationship?
- Are the ants able to think and care for themselves? Do they have the freedom to choose what happens to them?
Finally, the large group conversation then culminated with discussions around the key concepts in the articles (natural selection, enzymes, mutualism, adaptation) and questions that Logan posed to students.
Just as we’ve seen before with other groups, each class definitely had a unique vibe that was reflected in their work. Two of the classes were very strong in terms of the quality of responses and interaction in the written and oral conversations. A third class that is strong in creativity shined a bit more in the small and large group discussions than in the written conversations; some of the students in that particular class are very bright but not quite as mature right now as some of their peers. While they struggled more to engage in sustained written conversations, we feel that they still benefited from the experience and that this activity can be a means to help them grow their skills in participating in this form of group think. Overall, all three sections were delightful, and we are deeply appreciative of Logan’s willingness to share her classroom with us and for the opportunity to learn together.
Students seemed to feel positively about the experience as well. One constructive suggestion we had from several students was to perhaps mix up the articles a little more. One student recommended having three articles on the butcher paper for half the tables/groups, and then to use a different set of three articles for the other half. While the focus of using the same articles at each table and giving students a chance to move about and respond to those was to help students make the connections to concepts of ecology and enzymes, we definitely think that the student suggestions are ones we’ll use in the future. We also think that self-selected articles (like we did with the literary conversations) are another option to explore in content area write-arounds.
As I mentioned earlier, Jennifer and I were happy to see students engaging with informational text in a deep and engaging way through the write-around. We both continue to feel a bit awestruck by how such a simple learning structure yields such powerful impact and dialogue with students; each time we have the chance to co-facilitate the written conversation strategies with teachers and students, the more excited we feel about the possibilities. We are also delighted that Logan shares these sentiments in her post-activity reflections:
Impressions – LOVED this activity. It was really special watching the students write about scientific topics and develop questions based on their thoughts and the thoughts of other students. I enjoyed seeing them question the validity of certain claims, argue in favor of/against scientific ideas using their prior knowledge and create questions that they had after reading each article. This activity gave me a chance to see my students in a way that I have yet to observe. They had an opportunity to act like true scientists, and didn’t even know it! Overall, this was a wonderful activity that I will be doing again!
We look forward not only to working with Logan and her students again, but we also are happily anticipating working with other teachers and their classes, too. Jennifer and I are delighted to contribute to our learning community and to foster these kinds of literacy practices that situate literacy as meaning making across content areas and units of study. Our next efforts with write-around strategies will be on Valentine’s Day with Jeff Cerneka’s Health classes–stayed tuned! In the meantime, I invite you to view the photoset from the this session here.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.