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

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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:

A Visit to the Lovett School Story Studio: Redesigning Learning Spaces, Rewriting Narratives of Learning

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Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit the Lovett School Story Studio Project  in Atlanta, Georgia. This project, which I have been following since its inception a little over a year ago, began with these seed questions:

  • What might be a classroom of the future?
  • How can we design existing space to be more dynamic?
  • How might a space support different learning styles?
  • How can we be more intentional about this “third space”?

The original pilot (Phase I)  began with a secondary Language Arts teacher documenting the learning experiences of his classes and his journey as a teacher using a classroom redesigned to serve as a learning studio. (Please click here to view scenes of the original Story Studio classroom).  This experiment and prototype studio led to Phase II, “The Lovett Learning Ecology“, which is a cohort of nine teachers and two facilitators exploring the concept of teacher as designer with their students.  What learning ecology has evolved from the original prototype of the Story Studio?  In “The Role of Environment in Learning“, Lovett offers us this synopsis of the vision and work of the cohort:

If a classroom were no longer filled with immovable desks aligned in rows, could it become a space that invited–even required–student collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking? What if the front of the room disappeared and students owned the walls–writing, wondering, and questioning? What if the physical space could be transformed in seconds, flexing to support the moment’s work? What if lesson plans gave way to student learning experiences where the student, not just the teacher, designed the curriculum and the learning?

In conjunction with Cannon Design/The Third Teacher+, a school design consulting group in Chicago, and led by Laura Deisley and upper school dean of academic affairs, Marsha Little, the nine fellows have already engaged in significant professional development, as they focus on their role as designers–of curriculum, space, and student experiences. They’re teaching in renovated rooms with mobile desks, tables, and chairs; copious writable surfaces; and versatile technology.

As the traditional boundaries of room ownership and discipline-specific hallways fade, we’re already seeing innovative collaboration between teachers and a breaking down of boundaries that seemed etched in stone. Ultimately, our goal is simple and unchanged: offer the best possible learning experience to students as they become excellent collaborators, creators, critical thinkers, and communicators. We are excited to explore how that work might be more fully realized in the Model Classrooms as the year unfolds.

The six model classrooms whose physical spaces are crafted around these learning design drivers

  • Content:  what students know
  • Skills:  what students do
  • Mindsets:  how students think
  • Tools:  what students use to learn
  • People:  who students learn with
  • Environment:  where students learn

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Using the process of design thinking to ideate possibilities for what learning experiences framed around these design drivers might look like, the cohort and partner The Third Teacher of Cannon Design reconfigured the six model classrooms to reflect interest in these six scenarios for learning experiences:

  • Designing with Writable Surfaces
  • Designing for Inquiry
  • Designing with Micro Environments
  • Designing with Ubiquitous Technology
  • Designing with Flexibility and Agility
  • Designing for Learning Groups

My fellow Norcross High School librarian Jennifer Lund and I were interested in the Lovett model since their work aligned with our vision for not only redesigning our physical space and the kinds of learning experiences we want our library to facilitate, but to also help us recast our roles here as instructional partners more deeply embedded in the day to day work of teaching and learning with our faculty and students as we aspire to craft a more participatory culture of learning, a vision that also aligns with our school’s literacy plan.  Inspired by the work and vision of Brian Mathews at Virginia Tech and the model of Connected Learning, we envision the NHS library as a vibrant innovation hub of sorts to incubate, ignite and inspire larger change throughout our entire building, ultimately transforming learner experiences in a more seamless and cohesive way.   As part of our strategic plan for the revamping of our physical space, we have proposed housing a prototype space for teaching and learning where we work with faculty  and students to pilot, assess, model, and assess learning experiences.  We want to enable our teachers and students to take risks as learners, to reflect and learn with them, and to help then share and distribute those insights across multiple content areas for cross-pollination of innovative strategies.

Because our vision paralleled the design drivers and physical design elements embodied in the six prototype classrooms at Lovett, we reached out to my friend and colleague Laura Deisley, the Director of Strategic Innovation at Lovett, to see if we could come for a visit and to have a conversation about their work.  I know from my previous collaboration with Laura through Reimagine Ed that she is someone passionate about learning, libraries, and inquiry.  Laura and Upper School Dean of Academic Affairs, Marsha Little, graciously accepted our request.  Our visit yesterday, accompanied by friend and colleague Holly Frilot, Media Instructional Coach for our school district, was nothing short of energizing.
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As I watched students actively participating in learning experiences and discovering how the shift in physical space shifted teachers’ pedagogical stances, I literally quivered with excitement and joy—seeing how such simple yet profound changes were yielding impact and transformative learning experiences for both teachers and students was such a tremendous joy.  In my previous experiences and now here at Norcross, I have sought to break down the artificial barriers that seem to separate libraries from their communities and create siloed learning experiences.  The Lovett model reminds me that this scale of change is possible, scale that is needed to help our school grow into a learning community that embraces shared ownership of learning and connects contexts of academic driven, interest powered, and peer/mentor supported learning.  Because the teachers float through the day from one model classroom to another, they do not have a teacher desk or other teacher-oriented paraphernalia plastered all over the room. Instead, the student handprint is embedded in each room with student created content; I find Lovett’s concept of learning spaces co-curated by students to be quite powerful and participatory as it invites collaboratively created content and honors fluidity in the roles of experts and novices by positioning teachers and students as co-teachers and co-learners.  The purposeful and contextualized application of technology, rooted in learner needs and sound instructional design, was also refreshing.  I heartily applaud the cohort’s willingness to engage in this kind of messy, organic work and to grow from the friction/cognitive dissonance that comes from being outside of one’s comfort zone.
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Hallmarks of these spaces included:

  • Variations in furniture styles and functions as well as heights for flexible seating and multiple types of collaborative work.  Soft seating as well as hard seating were incorporated into the rooms.
  • Writable surfaces:  tinted glass affixed to the wall, mobile whiteboards on wheels (a favorite of the students and staff), IdeaPaint walls, writable tabletops.  (note:  Laura advises that if you are in an older building that has had multiple layers of paint or less than ideal drywall, you might want to consider the glass surfaces or mobile whiteboards (6 feet in length is optimal) since ghosting and the durability of the paint could potentially be problematic.
  • “Zones” of rooms for smaller groups or paired conferencing.
  • Wireless infrastructure to support 1:1 computing and/or BYOD
  • No teacher desk taking up the space.
  • Students and teachers capture the student work each period with their cameras; Evernote is also a great app for capturing and sharing the content on the walls.
  • Strategic lecture designed to facilitate, rather than dominate, the conversation, conversation that is fueled by students being contributors and active participants.  Some teachers also time themselves to limit themselves to short chunks of lecture at a time.
  • Rooms feel clean yet cozy; they are quickly and easily transformed since the space is open and supports transitions and reconfigurations of seating/workspaces/students.
  • Time for individual reflection and work as well as active, collaborative time with small and whole group discussions/conversations for learning.

Experiencing this learning ecology firsthand affirms our belief that our library can be the Story Studio prototype learning space for Norcross High; we see it as a springboard to future work in developing and working with a cohorts here to scale the pilot and more explicitly situate our work in the context of our classrooms.  We are deeply appreciative that our principal, Mr. Will Bishop, supports this vision and the kind of work we want to do; we also appreciate the encouragement and feedback from assistant principal John Decarvalho and our LSTC (Local School Technology Coordinator) Dr. Victoria Dodd.  By being a catalyst for designing learning experiences with our teachers and students that will meet our learners at their point of need, we can expand the possibilities for our library as both a learning space and a change agent that creates more diverse entry points for all learners, helps young people leverage the knowledge across multiple learning boundaries, and honors multiple ways of learning.  We also see this an opportunity to more deliberately examine and expand the ways our library functions as a sponsor of literacy here at Norcross High.  Ultimately, we hope to crowdsource with our students and faculty our own “learning playbook” that we can share with others as we engage in conversations for rewriting and composing new narratives of learning for everyone who is part of our learning community.

A heartfelt thank you Laura, Marsha, the faculty, and students of Lovett for so generously sharing their wisdom and for giving us the opportunity to experience their learning ecology firsthand!

Resources of Interest:

Thinking, Wondering, and Blogging at DMLcentral

I’m delighted to share that I have joined the blog team at DMLcentral-–I’m humbled and honored to write and think in this learning space as so many people who are part of the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub have inspired my work and pushed the boundaries of my thinking.  My first post, “Literacies and Fallacies“,  is now up if you would like to read the first of what will be a series.  If DMLcentral is not already one of the resources in your learning network, I hope you’ll consider adding this collaborative blog and curated collection of free and open resources that will offer you multiple perspectives, research, and and provocative ideas to contextualize your thinking about learning environments, ecosystems, and the dynamics that inform them.

Nurturing Lifelong Learning with Personal Learning Networks, Ohio eTech Conference 2013

A sincere thank you to everyone who made me feel so welcome at the Ohio eTech Conference last evening and today as well as the conference organizers for their hospitality!  I’d also like to extend a heartfelt thank you to my friends at InfoOhio for their support and lovely company last evening.  Finally, a special thank you to all who took time to attend my session today–it was wonderful to have the chance to chat with several of you, and your kind words truly humble me.
You can download the PDF of my slides here:
Personal Learning Networks and Lifelong Learning February 2013 Ohio eTech Conference

The slides are also available on SlideShare:

Participatory Culture and Learning: Knowledge Quest September/October 2012

http://www.ala.org/aasl/aaslpubsandjournals/knowledgequest/archive/v41no1

Participatory Culture & Learning | American Association of School Librarians (AASL) via kwout

I’m delighted to share that the September/October 2012 issue of AASL’s Knowledge Quest is now available; I had the tremendous honor of co-editing this issue with my good friend and colleague Ernie Cox.  The issue’s theme, participatory culture and learning, is one that has been central to my work in recent years and as most of you know, a lens of practice and thinking that is close to my heart.  We hope that our readers will be as enthralled as Ernie and I are with the quality and diversity of articles; a talented range of practitioners and scholars who work in librarianship as well as related fields have contributed rich, thoughtful, inspiring, and provocative articles to this issue.  Not only am I honored to serve as co-editor with Ernie, but I’m also thrilled to have co-written an article with four of my Media 21 students for this issue.  Many thanks to Kristiena Shafer, Jordan Grandt, Bethany Roper, and Jacob Morgan who gave up a slice of their summer to co-compose our collaborative article.

Here are a few links of interest for those who may be waiting on their print issue to arrive in the mailbox , who may be looking forward to accessing the issue later this fall through their library databases, or who want to access additional resources and content independent of the print issue:

A heartfelt thank you to all of our authors, Ernie, Markisan, and the entire AASL KQ team who worked diligently to help us take this issue from abstract musings that began in the early spring with mine and Ernie’s marathon Skype session to reality this fall.  Whether you are a librarian, classroom teacher, student, parent, administrator, or community member, I hope the issue will expand your thinking about the possibilities for participatory sites of culture and learning in schools and libraries.