Modifying Conversation Strategies: The Mini Write-Around

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Today’s guest post is from my friend and former colleague at Norcross High, Dan Byrne.  Both Dan and his wife, Dr. Melinda Byrne, are accomplished teachers; Dan was our Teacher of the Year at Norcross HS for 2014-15, and Melinda was one of the finalists for the same award this fall.  Collaborative efforts with Dan were featured last year on the blog, and I am delighted he is continuing to integrate pieces of that work with his students.  Earlier this semester, Dan listened to his students and their points of need by modifying the large group write-around strategies we had done in 2014-2015.  Here are his reflections of that process!

The Mini Write-Around

I teach IB History to highly motivated juniors and seniors.  By highly motivated, I mean the kind of students who will read six chapters the night before a test just to make sure they feel confident.  IB History is different than many subjects because it rewards a high level of conceptual thinking that is paired with their choice of very specific facts that back up their concepts.

That is why I like “Write-Around” as a strategy.  I often give students a quote, an old IB test prompt, or even just a theme and have them add their ideas as they work cooperatively.  I find this a non-threatening, fun, change of pace for students to review, build concepts, or practice skills of supporting or refuting ideas.

Students sometimes remark that they enjoy Write-Around, but that they wish they could take all the ideas with them.  (Apparently, the iPhone photos that so many kids take of content in the classrooms are never looked at again.)  Because of this, I decided that I would try to shrink my Write Around by writing on a standard-size piece of copy paper instead of using a display-sized sheet.   Here is what we did:

  1. Students initially walked around and responded just like a regular write around.  However, they soon decided it was more efficient to pass them from desk to desk, so they passed the sheets.  (Like I said earlier, the challenge was the amount of information they had in their heads). In my smaller classes, students worked in pairs; in larger classes, students worked in groups of four.  Students were writing significant ideas/themes/facts for aspects of WWI.  The kids wanted this information/ideas to keep for review after class ended.
  2. Students then engaged in small and whole group discussion.
  3. After the class discussions, students “starred” the comments from the write-around they felt were notable, exemplary, or important in some way.

Once students had completed the activities , I copied their Write-Arounds so each student could have a packet of copies of their peers’ responses.

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Students liked the Mini Write Around because they felt “less pressured” to get all the information down (sometimes these kids lose the forest for the trees).  They also liked that the paper fit on a standard desk. We were also able to have more “writing stations” than we would with the traditional write-around.  The only drawback was that some students remarked that they didn’t have enough space to develop their ideas.

My main complaint about this modified approach was that students got very “facty” on this assignment.  I think this was partially due to the paper size and partly due to the fact that I did not have good prompts for them to build concepts around.  I think another strategy to try would be to provide students with the opportunity to spend time taking notes at the end of the activity.  That would force them to distill the ideas on their own rather than depending on me to give them a shotgun approach.   Another modification for the future:  groups of writers need to be smaller so everyone can see the paper; I also feel that three is the ideal size for my kids so that you have enough to generate discussion but not so many that they are butting heads. I also need to give them more time to write (I think I thought, “less paper, less time”).  Last but not least, the students need to write in ink so the copier clearly picks up what they wrote.

It’s Your Turn

How are you all integrating and modifying written conversation strategies to meet your students’ needs?  Please share your experiences and variations in the comments below!

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