Crowdsourcing Our Knowledge With a Conversation Hotspots Gallery Walk

During the month of March, my period 6-3 (6th grade Writing Connections) selected drones as a topic they wanted to explore.  Over roughly 10 days, we read roughly 6-7 articles on the uses of drones; as we explored each article, we tracked the benefits and drawbacks to using drones as part of our front loading work for writing an argumentative essay.

I wanted students to have a way to talk about the pros and cons and see each other’s thinking, so I set up what I called “Conversation Hotspots” gallery walk after we had finished reading all of our articles and compiling a master list of pros/cons for drones.  I used pastel colored lined chart paper to set up 8 “hotspots” around topics from articles like drones and firefighting, drones and privacy issues, drones and farming, and drones and airplane safety.  Next, I assigned pairs and gave each pair a starting conversation hotspot.  Each group had 2 minutes to share a pro or con on that topic.  We then rotated to the next station where the next group had to either add a new pro/con statement OR clarify a statement that a previous group may not have written in specific terms.  While two minutes is a short time, it seemed to be just right for the students to review what others had written and to add something new.

After rotating to all the stations, each group eventually landed at their original station.  Each group then shared out the collaboratively built list of drones pros/cons with the rest of the class; this large group review/share also gave us an opportunity to add any ideas that may have been missed in our first pass during the gallery walk, and students could also update their individual pro/con lists.

The overall response to the activity was positive from the students.  The activity seemed to particularly resonate with one of my 6th grade students.   About six weeks ago, I got a new student who was very scared and anxious. He has had a chaotic young life and outside of band, very little academic success. He has also had a difficult time socially because he looks like a high schooler even though he is in 6th grade. He let me know right away he hated writing. Since arriving, I have watched his confidence grow and been proud of my students who have made him feel welcome. Flash forward to the end of our class today after we finished our Conversation Hotspots Gallery Walk. He came up to me and said, “Ms. Hamilton, are we doing this again tomorrow because this sure is FUN!!!!” I nearly cried hearing the joy in his voice and seeing his smile. That is something our state Milestones test can NEVER measure.

I love gallery walks because they get students sharing knowledge, talking with each other, fact-checking information, and an opportunity to physically move about the room (an aspect that is important for wiggly middle schoolers!).  How are you using gallery walks in your classroom to create “hotspots for conversation”?

Passages of Promise: A Student eBook Anthology of Creative Writing

I am pleased to announce that the SOAR Creative Writers eBook, Passages of Promise, is now available as a free download at Smashwords. This collection of creative writing is an anthology of creative works written by the SOAR Creative Writers over the last eight weeks.  The anthology includes:  poems, short stories, song lyrics, book chapters, memoirs, and a play script.  SOAR students also created the artwork for the cover design and most of the chapter dividers.  My job was to compile all the manuscripts, strip them, and put them into Smashwords formatting while serving as a “light” editor of their works; these tasks took approximately fifteen hours on my part.

One of our Language Arts teachers, Justin Reynolds, shared these thoughts on the eBook:

I just want you to know, I am thoroughly enjoying reading all the student submissions. You really have some superstars in there. I’m even using some of the memoirs to help teach my unit on memoirs.

I’m happy that the eBook is providing inspiration to teachers and students; it is always heart-warming to help the students who are truly passionate about their work have an outlet for authentic publishing.   While I don’t think the response to this eBook experience has had the student excitement of the one I did with Amy Balogh and her ESOL students last year (I think high school students may have a greater appreciation of what it means to publish one’s work), I hope to do more projects similar to this one in the future.

I hope you enjoy the eBook, and I’m happy to answer questions you may have about publishing through Smashwords.

Choose Your Own Learning Adventure: Enrichment Menu for Writer’s Workshop

I have encountered two significant challenges with my 6th, 7th, and 8th grade writers this spring:

1. I have a tremendous range in learning styles and abilities in each of my six writing courses.  Consequently, I have learners who always finish early, and I needed to find a way for them to use their extra time in a meaningful way and AVOID “busy” work.
2. Spring has sprung early in Georgia (as in 6 weeks ago), and students have struggled to stay focused yet energetic with their work as writers and learners.

My secret weapon for this March Madness? Enrichment stations. I have created a learning menu of nine different learning choices for students:

1. Vocabulary.com
2. NoRedInk.com
3. Creative Writing with Reader’s Theatre Scripts (may be done alone or with a partner)
4. Creative Writing with Tableaux (groups of 3)
5. Revising and Editing with Task Cards + QR Codes
6. Revising Task with QR Codes: Combining Sentences
7. Persona Poem (write a poem from the perspective of the topic or some aspect of the topic for our current unit of inquiry)
8. NewsELA Reading and Writing Club: Women’s History Month
9. NewsELA Evidence Detectives Club

I tried to craft a menu that had something for everyone:  individual work and collaborative work; creative endeavors that could tie into our inquiry units; review and practice activities for those who enjoy that kind of activity.

These activities are designed for students to work on when they finish work early; in addition, I’m setting aside one “enrichment day” a week to let them go more deeply into their selected activity. After doing an initial “test” soft launch with a few students, I took a day last week to do a brief presentation with all classes to help them think about their options and how our enrichment activities would enhance our learner experience.  You can learn a little more about each activity here:

Here is how I have launched the my “center” for students:

  • I have a “menu” placeholder with a brief description of the menu learning choice on back of my 2nd classroom door (see below).
  • Students then can get an informational handout on the selected activity to help them get started and move forward.  I bought a colorful cascading/hanging file folder organizer for $9 on Amazon to house the handouts.
  • Students let me know of their selection; if they need any help from me getting started, I provide it.
  • I have posted handouts with the QR code so that students can view the slideshow above at any time; it is also posted in our Canvas course.

Today was our first full “enrichment” day in my 8th grade writing classes (6th and 7th will have their day tomorrow).   We even had our first tableaux performance today on driverless cars which was an absolute HOMERUN!  I did not film it, but they students have agreed to do the performance again this week so I can video and share with all of you as well as my other students.  As you can see from the photos below, students are engaged with their selected learning activity.

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We wrapped up with a virtual Ticket out the Door through our Canvas course.

Here are some take-aways from my two 8th grade classes:

  • I’m learning to write complete sentences and more complex sentences; I am feeling more confident about sentence writing.
  • I’ve learned that acting out scenes is harder than I thought!  It is fun, though.
  • I *LOVE* tableaux!  It is so much fun!
  • I’m learning all kinds of new words!  I never knew learning vocabulary could be fun.
  • I like getting to work with other people and talking about our topic as we do our tableaux script and scenes—this has caused me to be understand our topic of driverless cars.
  • I was not expecting I’d need to go back so much into the text set of articles we’ve read, but it has been fun and helped me understand our topic better (this feedback was from the persona poem, tableaux, and Reader’s Theatre script projects)
  • Clauses are pretty interesting!
  • I like the mastery learning we do in NoRedInk.

So far I am thrilled with the feedback and the excitement I’ve seen from students about their selected project or learning choice.  What kinds of activities would you add to the menu for a writing class?  My plan is to continue to do enrichment for the rest of the year at least one day a week to supplement our current units of study and to give students something meaningful to do if they finish early.  I will refresh and add to the menu as we move forward through the last nine weeks of our school year.

Student Writers See, Think, and Wonder with Visual Writing Prompts

Many educators use images as  prompts to stimulate student thinking, inquiry, and discussion.  I have drawn inspiration from great educators like Nancy Steineke, Smokey Daniels, and Gretchen Bernabei.  I have also used Visual Thinking Strategies though in hindsight, I should have been using them more for our Writer’s Notebooks.

We’re currently in a writing unit of study with argumentative writing.  My 6th grade students are exploring arguments for and against the instruction of cursive writing in schools.   Earlier this week, they read two great articles from NewsELA ( a resource that has been a godsend for me this school year).  Today, I wanted to set the stage for the next article we’re going to read together from Scholastic Scope about the benefits and challenges of cursive writing.   I felt like they needed a concrete way to connect to the idea that cursive writing is very personal and often associated with personal connections to others as well as cherished memories.

I decided on the fly to use a photo I took of something I found in the overflowing storage tubs and drawers that held thousands of recipes belonging to my late mother.  Regular readers know I was extremely close to my mom and anything I have of hers with her handwriting makes her feel closer to me somehow.  As the students arrived, I asked them get their Writer’s Notebooks; I then projected this photo with my LCD projector:

We did three 5-7 minute “bursts” of writing with a modified See, Think, Wonder thinking structure:

  • See:  First, I asked students to write down everything they saw in the photo.
  • Think:  I asked students to think about why the photo might have significance or importance based on what they had seen and noticed.
  • Wonder:  I asked students to write what they were wondering about the photo and what they saw; they could use a “I wonder…” sentence stem or simply write a question.

Students then  broke into pairs of their choosing, and we did a Turn and Talk.  Next, we did a “lightning round” whole class share–each student got to choose one talking point from his or her “see” writing, “think” reflections, and list of wonderings.  My co-teacher Heather Blaker and I were impressed by the depth of thinking we saw from many students; what really struck me, though, was that my students who usually struggle with their writing were the ones who absolutely “rocked” this learning activity with exceptional depth to their thinking and noticings.

Once everyone shared, I then did the “Big Reveal” and told students the story of the photo and my connections to it as well as the meaning the objects in the photo had for me.  I then asked students to consider why the cursive handwriting held such significance and if they thought the significance of these handwritten recipes would be the same for me had they simply been typed.  We then ended class with students volunteering to share what they wrote, and several shared their own stories of having handwritten notes and other kinds of writing from relatives that held deep meaning for them.

This is not a new strategy by any means, but I was just so struck by the engagement and thinking of my students, especially those who usually struggle.  Students, even my shy ones, were also eager to share their writing and participate in discussion.  I am thankful my administrators support a literacy and writing studio where writing , student interaction, and student discussion (small and whole group) are valued.    As we approach the state Milestones testing window in a few weeks, I can’t help but wonder how my students might do if they had the opportunity to have at least one visual writing prompt like the one we used today.   I hope the developers of our state test will consider adding this kind of prompt, especially since students are so often judged, sorted, and evaluated on the basis of their test scores.

Today was also a reminder that I need to embed visual prompts more frequently for our notebook time, and I’m now thinking of how they can enhance the ongoing inquiry units in progress for all of my students in grades 6, 7, and 8.

How do you incorporate visual writing prompts into your writing or Language Arts classroom?