After attending a session at NCTE on reflective notebooks with Dr. Susan James and then doing some additional research on interactive writing notebooks over the holiday break, I decided to implement a hybrid version this semester with my War Eagle Studio writers. I love the idea of using the right side of the notebook to present content and using the left side for students to reflect, write, and/problem solve based on the mini-lesson and content for that day. I am hopeful this approach might help us use our writer’s notebooks in a more robust way that will give students some meaningful structure yet still have enough flexibility to stay true to a traditional writer’s notebook.
While browsing the wonderful Ethical ELA blog yesterday, I came across a post about visual thinking strategies by Dr. Sarah J. Donovan. You read more about VTS here, but this page on VTS and a description of how a Fulton County teacher used VTS with her students in their writing notebooks, I just knew I had to give this strategy a try with my students. I plan to use both photography and artworks as our discussion starters, but I felt starting with a current event photo would be the best choice for our kickoff effort with VTS in our interactive writing notebooks today. I decided to use the photo from the “Dabbing in Congress” prompt from the New York Times library of picture prompts.
When students arrived today, I had made mini-versions of the photo with our prompt, “What do you see? What do you notice?” I reviewed instructions for gluing or taping the photo prompt into their interactive writing notebooks (this was our first entry!), and then projected the color photo onto the board with Google Slides. I told students to look at the photo and write down everything they saw; students could list their noticings as a bulleted or numbered list. I encouraged them to keep their pencils moving as much as they could and to keep digging for any detail they saw even if it didn’t seem significant. After 5-6 minutes, we then stopped and every student shared at least one noticing/observation; I recorded these in a Google Document as I wanted to see patterns of observation. I was astonished by the level of detail as well as students’ enthusiastic participation in the activity; even my 8th graders, who have been my most challenging group of learners this school year, were full of energy and excitement.
During our first round of sharing, I used the protocol of VTS by asking each student to share:
- What do you see? What’s going on in this picture?
- What do you see that makes you say that?
The “What makes you say that?” question was especially powerful in drawing out student responses and nudging them to further explain their answers or go back to the photo for “textual” evidence and details. After the first round of sharing, I asked students to look at the photo more closely and to see if they could find at least two new noticings or things they didn’t see before. This was a shorter time period of observing and brainstorming–roughly two minutes. This piece of the activity comes from the third part of VTS facilitation, “What more can we find?” I was beyond impressed by the breadth AND depth of noticings by students in every single grade level (6-8).
We did one more share aloud with these noticings. I then read them a short news story about the actual event and showed a short video clip. We then pulled together the VTS activity with the actual facts of the event to talk about the teen’s actions, his father’s response, and why/when dabbing might be considered appropriate or inappropriate. It was one of the best discussions we’ve had this entire school year!
Finally, I then presented students two choices for writing and responding to our activity:
Write an opinion paragraph. State whether or not you think it was appropriate for the teenage son, Cal Marshall, to dab at his father’s Congressional swearing in ceremony. Support your opinion with at least two reasons and explain your ideas.
Write a mini-story (1-2 paragraphs) about what happened in this photo from the perspective of one of the following characters in the story:
*Speaker of the House Paul Ryan
*Dad, Representative Roger Marshall
*Son, Cal Marshall (age 17)
I asked students to use the left side of the notebook to begin brainstorming and then writing their selected piece. While it was not my intent in designing these prompts, both are similar in nature to the kinds of written responses/constructed responses they might see on the Georgia Milestones test in April.
We’ll finish our writing tomorrow, and students will volunteer to share an excerpt or all of their writing tomorrow in class for a class share-aloud. I have our school’s awesome wireless microphone speaker system on standby so that we can elevate the level of sharing (the kids love it), plus it helps my more soft-spoken students share with their peers.
I’m excited to hear their writing tomorrow and to explore the possibilities for our hybrid interactive/reflective writer’s notebooks. I also plan to make the VTS a weekly part of our writing/thinking routine as the kids were incredibly engaged with this method; I think it will also be a wonderful way to grow our powers of observations and attention to “textual evidence” and details as writers. Are you using VTS or interactive/reflective notebooks with your writers? I’d love to hear what you are doing and how it is impacting student learning.