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.
I so appreciate how a “low tech” structure engages students very deeply in practices that may be useful in their online learning lives as well. Great questions are popping for me: how do we invite students into dialog through written conversation in a nonthreatening atmosphere on a more regular basis across content areas and disciplines? Will the powerful engagement witnessed here transfer to online formats? Can the depth and interaction witnessed her be maintained in those places, too? What does this activity look and feel like to those who struggle with written expression? I love this work and thank you all so much for sharing it. I think it honors what’s possible in our learning institutions in for encouraging deeper engagement with ideas and one another so elegantly and simply. Thank you!