As of August 1, I have returned to the classroom and stepped into the role of Title I Writing Support teacher at Chestatee Academy in the Hall County school district. This is a new position with all new classes—I am part of the Connections group, and students taking writing classes with me as an academic elective. I teach six sections of students in grades 6-8 daily; though the nuances of the courses are a little different from one grade to another, all the courses take an inquiry stance on literacy. I am using a writer’s workshop approach that infuses inquiry with all my students; because the courses are all new, I am building all the content and curriculum map from ground zero. Thought it feels a little overwhelming at times, I am mostly excited and elated to have this opportunity to be engaged in writing literacies and inquiry with kids daily plus I get to innovate with tried strategies I’ve used previously while implementing new ones I’ve been studying over the summer!
One of our first tasks this week with our writer’s notebooks has been to explore our territories for writing. I borrowed the idea and resources from Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski at the Two Writing Teachers blog, a wonderful resource for anyone who teaches writing. Like Sokolowski, I have used Georgia Heard’s wonderful Heart Mapping activity for identifying an initial list of topics for writing, but the territories concept seemed to mesh with my “writing studio” framework I’m adopting and fleshing out over the next 180 days. We first started with the graphic organizer created by Sokolowski (it is available in her original blog post) because I wanted something accessible for my learners. We initially began working on these territories on Tuesday of this week; students were given additional time to work on these at home and in class on Wednesday and the beginning of class Thursday. While some students could easily identify ideas in each territory category, quite a few struggled, so I thought it might be helpful for them to see what their peers were thinking. Enter the Gallery Walk!
Yesterday (Thursday), I gave them a few minutes to tweak or add their initial list of writing territories. I then gave each student four Post-it notes and a Sharpie; I asked them to look at their list and pick the four territories that were most meaningful. The only restriction was that I wanted them to pick from four unique categories out of the possible. Once they wrote each territory idea on a Post-it note (one idea per Post-it), they then got up and placed their Post-its on the appropriate placeholder that I created with oversized Post-it chart paper and icons from the Noun Project. I also modeled for the students how to list the territory idea on a Post-it and place it on the “parking lot” for that idea.
Once students had about 5 minutes to complete this task, they returned the Sharpies to the Sharpie tub and then picked up an index card from me. Once everyone had finished “posting” their territories, students were then given a few more minutes to walk about again and read the territory ideas that had been shared. As they walked about, I asked students to think about the one that struck them in some way as clever, original, interesting, or surprising.
Students then wrote 1-2 sentences to share their reflections; again, I provided some models to assist them in formulating their sentences. We did a running collection over three periods in the first half of my instructional day and then the second half (post-lunch for me) of my instructional day, so they got to see ideas across multiple classes and grades. They also had the option of revisiting their territories and adding ideas if they were inspired by something a fellow student had shared.
Overall, most students indicated they found this to be a positive learning experience. I liked that we incorporated sharing into our activity in a way that was non-threatening (they were not asked to put their names on their Post-its–this choice was completely optional). This learning opportunity also gave us a chance to do a Gallery Walk for the first time in a low-stakes kind of setting since this activity is new for many of my students. These are also the first of our baby steps to growing our academic and social capital as we grow as a community of learners.
One observation I’d like to share is that the territories of special people, favorite places, dreams/hopes, hobbies/interests, and worries/fears had the most responses. In contrast, there were very few shares of “Wonderings” or “Issues That I Care About.” I know from watching them work and the questions I received that most students didn’t seem to have much of an awareness of current events or “big topics”, so I’m excited that inquiry mini-studies will be a regular part of our classroom life. I did see a lot of interesting wonderings on their graphic organizers, but I’m intrigued that few felt comfortable sharing those though it makes sense, especially for this age group, that the more personal topics relevant to their daily lives would be more important or share-worthy for this activity.
My classes meet for 40 minutes; we needed roughly 25 minutes to complete this task. If you have students who are experienced with a gallery walk, writer’s workshop, or accelerated learners, you might be able to complete it a little more quickly.
Overall, I am glad we did these learning activities and look forward to revisiting our territories throughout the year! I will continue to share our work in writer’s workshop and inquiry projects as we move forward into this 2016-17 academic year. Many thanks to those who expressed interest in these activities on Twitter!