CU Boulder Symposium Keynote: Literacies for Every Season of Their Lives

Many thanks to my colleagues at UC Boulder for the opportunity to participate from afar in your symposium today! Thank you so much for inviting me to be part of your day of learning and sharing.

Links of Interest:

Mindmapping Our Presearch Notes: Seeing Patterns and Gaps

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For the last month or so, I’ve been working with a section of Honors 9th Language Arts (hopefully, another more comprehensive post coming on this endeavor later in the spring).   After completing a class study of To Kill a Mockingbird, the students selected a motif of choice and began presearching a topic of choice related to the motif.   After completing a presearch search term map and arriving at a narrowed topic (which I’ve blogged about earlier this semester), we moved forward with another and more focused round of presearch while using EasyBib to capture information sources and take notes.   After approximately two and a half weeks, most students had a body of notes on their focused topic.  However, after many 1:1 student conferences and a formative assessment of collecting and reading their notes, the teacher and I realized many students were struggling with:

1.  Recording relevant information from their information sources.

2.  Taking notes in “bite-sized” portions.

3.  Being discerning about information that would help them go beyond merely reporting and instead, help them dig into the higher level thinking and questions that we wanted to anchor their inquiry.

After addressing some of these challenges with a mini-lesson and small group or individual conferences, we felt the students needed a more concrete way of discovering the patterns of information as well as the gaps in their notes. We asked students to print out their e-notes from EasyBib and gave them supplies (Sharpies, markers, large/oversized  sticky notes) to help them map out the information they had collected up to that point in their notes.  We discussed some strategies for identifying major topics and subtopics as well a sample mindmap of notes. Students were assigned a working area with a partner so that they had a “research buddy” to help them think through their process as needed and worked on their maps about a day and a half.

We wanted the class to have an opportunity to look at their peers’ maps and provide feedback; we knew our students would need a little scaffolding to provide meaningful peer feedback, so we took a few minutes to review their peer review activity guidelines with them.  We spread out the maps and placed pads of lined sticky notes at each table of notes mindmaps.  We asked students to write their feedback on these sticky notes and to include their name, their feedback, and the feedback category number (see the handout embedded below).  We discussed ideas for meaningful feedback (including a list of idea/conversation starters) that were numbered so that they could include the “feedback category” ID number on the sticky note as an extra layer of clarification.

As students walked around giving feedback, we also instructed them to keep a running record of the maps they were reviewing and quick notes about what they were seeing (see page 2 of the document embedded above).

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We initially thought the students could complete the activity in 12-15 minutes, but in spite of our best efforts to be proactive, we had about a quarter of the class that had difficulty staying on task, participating, or making a legitimate effort to provide meaningful feedback.  Because our studio space had been reserved for another activity the following day, we had to adjust our plans to complete the activity in the teacher’s classroom, a space that really was not conducive to the activity or an ideal learning environment for this kind of activity.  However, we had no choice, so we had to adjust as best we could.   I hung some of the maps on whatever wall space I could find; for the rest of the maps, I had students place desks together in pairs and utilized that surface space for the remaining maps.  We thought they could complete feedback within another ten minutes, but some of the very same behavior issues that plagued us the day before were again problematic even after we enlisted the assistance of an assistant principal to conference with some of the students outside of class as part of our efforts to address the previous day’s issues.  However, we stayed the course and tried to redirect students as needed so that we could get as much helpful peer review for everyone as possible.

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Once we brought the peer review to a close, students paired up once again with their research buddy and used the Making Thinking Visible learning structure of Compass Points to help students reflect on the mindmapping process and peer review activity.  Each pair received a graphic organizer to complete their ideas they were to share and discuss.

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After having 5-7 minutes to discuss and record their observations and ideas, we asked each pair to do a quick share of their notes with the large group.   Students noted effective map organization strategies as well as what constituted “good” or quality information from the notes in the maps.  However, many students noticed that quite a few maps lacked depth of information; others noted that better organization was needed in structuring topics and subtopics. In spite of some of the challenges we encountered, we felt most students truly benefitted from the mapping activity itself as well as the peer review.

When we returned from spring break, we returned maps to the students along with the sticky note feedback others gave from the peer review activity.  We then asked students to think about what they had in their notes and maps that was helpful and what was missing.  Students then had the class period to complete two thinking/reflection exercises:

1.  The question lenses activity that I borrowed last semester from my friend Heather Hersey (and blogged about; also see Sarah Ludwig’s awesome adaptation of this thinking exercise–I would have totally done her version if we had more time in our schedule for this project).  We framed this thinking exercise as a way of addressing gaps or “struggle areas” of their mindmaps and as a means of thinking about next steps for our new round of additional research for the week.

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2.  They then had time to complete  mindmapping reflection questions via a Google Survey embedded in the project LibGuide.

We collected the hard copies of the question lens activity; I downloaded the responses from the Google Sheet as an Excel spreadsheet and then ran a mail merge so that the teacher and I both had easy to read hard copies of the student responses.    Common feedback ran along the lines of these statements:

  • The mindmapping process helped me better organize my ideas.
  • The mindmapping process helped me realize I didn’t have enough information about my topic.
  • The mindmapping process gave me new perspectives I had never considered.
  • The peer feedback helped me rethink one of my subections and a new direction for research.
  • Organizing my topics and subtopics was harder than I realized.
  • The mindmap challenged me to make sense of my notes (more intentional thought as opposed to just randomly taking notes).
  • I realized some of the information I had taken notes on really did not fit with my narrowed topic focus.
  • Mindmapping helped me visualize how my pieces of information fit and relate to each other.
  • Writing in short phrases or brief key ideas was challenging for me; I wanted to copy my notes as they were in complete sentences.
  • Mindmapping was challenging because categorizing my ideas and information into subtopics was difficult.
  • The mindmapping process helped me to see I need to slightly change my topic focus from A to B.
  • I realized the notes I have are lacking in meaningful detail.
  • The mindmapping process has allowed me to see/find a deeper personal connection to my overall topic.
  • The mindmapping process has helped me to see I need to go deeper with my information and further develop the topic.
  • The mindmapping processes helped me better see the strengths and weaknesses of my research and better refine my subtopics.
  • The peer feedback helped me to see I need to regroup my ideas on my map.
  • The question lenses activity helped me to look at my project from a different point of view and to rethink what information I should now focus on gathering.

I’m happy the mindmapping activity and peer review provided students the opportunity to wrestle with their notes and the information they had gathered during our first round of presearch.  My hope was that the process would nudge their thinking because it was clear within the first few days of working with the students that they were used to reporting information as opposed to researching, a distinction my colleagues who blog at Letting Go have made in previous posts.  I know that for some students, the uncertainty and our pushing them to think more deeply beyond shallow, surface level work has been uncomfortable, but we have tried to give them as much support as we can to help them develop new strategies and resilience in this inquiry focused project.  I think it is especially important with freshmen to provide and scaffold these kinds of learning experiences, particularly if they have had few or no opportunities to develop these kinds of information literacy skills and processes.

Their teacher and I are proud nearly every student has either had the confidence and persistence to move forward this past week wherever they have been on the spectrum of the quality and depth of their work.  Several have regrouped and have been digging in to act on the next steps they identified from their insights and reflections on their work.   It takes grit on the part of students, teachers, and librarians to grapple with these kinds of challenges, but it is so gratifying to see the individual growth and forward momentum for each student.  They are now starting to sketch out their multigenre products, and we’ll be moving forward with creating those artifacts and the supporting notes narratives/compositions.

Designing Successful Learning Structures for Literature Circles with Sarah Rust

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While literature circles are not a new concept, teachers are always looking for strategies to help students successfully interact and develop sustained conversations about texts.   If you are thinking about literature circles for any grade level or subject area, you will want to listen to my interview with Language Arts teacher Sarah Rust as she takes us through her planning and design process with students:

Sample Conversations:

Scenes from a Literature Circle Meeting in the NHS Learning Studio:

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Scaffolding Student Presearch and Topic Ideas with Reading Frenzies

Photo by Sean O'Connor

Photo by Sean O’Connor

Like many of you, we’re always looking for ways to support students in their presearch processes.  Finding starting points for topic selection is often difficult for students, especially if they have little or no experience in choosing a topic.  In late March, we collaborated with Language Arts teacher Sean O’Connor and his freshmen classes to incorporate a blend of brainstorming/writing around topic ideas and a learning structure, Reading Frenzy, he learned earlier this year from Nancy Steineke at a workshop in New Orleans.   Like us, Sean is a big fan of the work that both Nancy and Harvey Daniels do with inquiry, literacy, and ways to facilitate conversations for learning.  Below is a video interview with Sean about the processes I have outlined below:

Sean kicked off their inquiry with having students write around motifs they had studied throughout their novel unit of To Kill a Mockingbird.  Students used our large blue post-it notes to brainstorm historical and current topics related to a motif of interest; they then moved about and posed questions and feedback to their peers using smaller post-it notes.

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This activity was the springboard to the reading frenzy, a learning structure that is flexible and gives students opportunities to skim, scan, and discuss multiple texts in a set time period.    After we looked at the ideas students generated from the brainstorming/write-around activity, I pulled a wide range of articles related to their topics of interest from the web as well as our databases (Academic Search Complete, MAS Ultra Student Edition, various Gale databases) trying to include a variety of reading levels, publications/information sources, and perspectives on the issues and events.

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Students passed around the articles and read them; they also discussed what they were reading with a neighboring buddy as something of interest got their attention.  As students began thinking about more specific topic ideas as they read the article, they requested additional articles, and I was able for the most part to either produce those on the demand to go or to provide them the following day in class for follow-up.  Other students who read an article that resonated with them requested I print additional copies, and I was more than happy to do this.  After the first class, I decided to make article categories to make it easier for the students to go directly to piles of articles of interest to them.

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We love these structures because they support students who already have a topic idea as well as those who might be a little less certain about a topic interest.  It can also introduce new topics or more nuanced aspects of a topic to students.  This investment of time ensured students enhanced their understandings of the novel’s motifs and connections of that motif to contemporary as well as historical events.   This process also reinforced our efforts this year to really focus on helping teachers and students find ways to narrow or “crop” topic so that they can hopefully engage in deeper and more thoughtful inquiry.  We feel this entry point is a particularly effective way to scaffold students who may have little research experience OR more experience at “reporting” vs. researching (see the blog of my colleagues at Letting Go for more on this idea).  These activities prepared students to move forward strategically into presearch and to find articles on their own.  They have now narrowed and refined their topic and are composing their research design plans to Sean.  We are looking forward to seeing where they go from here with their research after our spring break as well as using the reading frenzy strategy with other classes!

Battledecks: It’s Not Just for Librarians!

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The Challenge 

A few weeks, IB History of the Americas teacher and one of our regular collaborative partners Dan Byrne came to us with a challenge:  he needed his students to research different nationalist movements and revolutions as well as present their findings to their peers.  The dilemma?  His students were suffering a severe case of early onset SENIORITIS.  He needed a way to challenge the students with their presentation format and skills yet avoid crafting lengthy PowerPoints that were primarily an exercise in boring regurgitation.

After some thought, my solution was a modified form of Battledecks, the legendary form of “PowerPoint Karaoke” that has been especially popular in library conference circles.   Drawing on my own experience as a participant, watching others, and some great advice from fellow librarian Andy Woodworth, I pitched the idea to Dan.   After some initial conversation, we worried a true Battledecks might be a little overwhelming for their first effort; in addition, Jen and I were worried about prepping slidedecks for three classes even though the presentations were going to be shorter than a typical Battledecks sesssion.    After a little research, I found a modified version from teacher Tom Woodward that seemed to be the perfect balance of creative thinking and enough structure to push our students but not send them over a cliff.

Processes and Procedures

Our rules were as follows:

Byrne Battledecks Instructions and Sample Slides March 2015

I decided to expand my photo pool (shared with students via Google Drive and the link was posted to Dan’s course page) to 45 images since I was worried presentations could get a little stale with a smaller photo pool for three classes.  After explaining the purpose, guidelines, and a sample slidedeck with students, they were off and running.

Because students had already distilled their research into a poster, they had a great starting point for pulling out the big ideas and details they wanted to convey through the image based slides.    We also gave our students a little more prep time with two days total for introduce the concept, to craft slides, and to do a little individual rehearsal.  On Day 2, students completed a quick reflection via Google Forms; this survey also served as a database to help me generate individualized scoresheets thanks to good old-fashioned mail merge.  Finally, we gave the students the option of using a notecard if they needed a “safety net” to help them although we had quite a few who either used no notecards or who barely glanced at them because they had done such a great job creating their presentations and remembering the details based on the images they chose.

For assessment, we borrowed from our ACRL colleagues and developed these evaluation guidelines:

  • Content and Credibility: did it make any sense, did you highlight the key events about your topic, accuracy of facts
  • Poise and Gesture
  • Flow: minimal pauses and stammering
  • Audience Response
  • Creativity: how well did you connect your talking points to your image choice? (bonus points for connections to images that clearly are not an easy connection)

We assessed students on a scale 0-5 in each of these areas and took notes as students presented.  Students were also asked to jot down a few notes or a big takeaway for each presentation; Dan provided these feedback strips to students.

Students presented over approximately 2.5 days; presentations were uploaded to the course dropbox in D2L, the district course platform, so students can download them and present easily for the most part.   We drew for names, so the presentation order was random, and each period a student assisted us as official timekeeper.  Overall, we were pleased with the work and performance of the classes as well as the atmosphere of support students gave each other. Each day we awarded a tiara and wand to the most interesting presentation from each class period.

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Student/Teacher Feedback and Next Steps

Students were generally very enthusiastic about the Battledecks presentation, and many expressed they would like to do a “true” version of it after our spring break as part of their end of review.   While some students shared they would like to do a true Battledecks individually, others thought it would be fun to do it with a partner or to even have a version where they play off each other in pairs and one participant gets eliminated.  Others shared they would not feel comfortable participating in a true Battledecks presentation but would want to help out in some way.  Most students liked the pool of images and having that pre-selected as well as a mix of abstract and unorthodox photos to work with rather than finding the images themselves.  While most students indicated they liked the larger photo pool, others felt the challenge element would have been greater with a smaller photo pool.  Overall, the student response was incredibly positive and many shared they felt it was a great creative stretch for them that was fun and meaningful.  Check out what Dan has to say about the Battledecks learning experience in the short video below:

Other teachers who have heard about this activity are now planning on using this strategy as a way of having students jigsaw and share information.  It’s a great presentation structure that is flexible and can be adapted as a formative or summative learning performance.    We are looking forward to helping Mr. Byrne and his student stage an authentic Battledecks later this spring and sharing that with you.