Visual Thinking Strategies + Interactive Writing Notebooks FTW



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:

Option 1:

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.

Option 2:

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.

Breaking the Ice in Creative Writing with Speed Dating Conversations


This semester I am teaching a SOAR new to Chestatee Academy that is all about creative writing.  I am delighted there were enough students interested in this topic/course for it to make!  Students will have opportunities to inquire into different genres of writing, craft different creative works, and develop his/her own writing project that will be published in our group eBook through Smashwords much like I did last year in collaboration with Amy Balogh and her students.

Our first meeting was yesterday (we officially meet on Tuesdays and Fridays between 1st and 2nd periods).  I wanted the first day to be energetic and give students a chance to talk, especially since it is a mixed group of 6th, 7th, and 8th graders who often don’t know each other.  I do have four students (grades 7 and 8) who also take Writing Connections with me, so I’m honored that they are enjoying writing enough for this to be an interest for them.

I thought about doing a write-around, but I honestly didn’t have enough time (or energy, frankly) to get the prep work done, so I decided to go a different direction.  Students came in and sat in groups of 3 and 4.  Each group received a question printed on neon colored paper to contemplate and respond to quietly on a lined Post-It note.   Questions included:

  • What makes someone a writer?
  • What kinds of responsibilities do you think writers might have when they belong to a writing group or workshop like this?  How can someone be a positive and productive member of a writing community like this?
  • What do you think of when you hear “creative writing”?
  • How do you feel creative writing might change the world or have a positive impact in some way?
  • What qualities and resources do you feel are important to have in order to write creatively?

I gave students about five minutes to write down their ideas on their lined sticky notes; below is a PDF of the compiled student responses.  I am missing about 4-5 as a few students forgot to give me their sticky notes as we left, but the collection below will give you an idea of what they were thinking.

We then got up, put all our bookbags in the corner, and re-arranged the room by moving the tables into one long row (thank goodness for the wheels that finally arrived in November and to our custodial staff for putting them on the tables).  The kids loved that we could fit the different sized Artcobell tables together like a puzzle to form one long table.

I then explained that we were going to do a speed dating method of conversation, a strategy I learned many years ago from one of my favorite professors at the University of Georgia, Dr. Bob Fecho.   I told students we would be sharing our responses to the discussion questions by interviewing each other using the speed dating technique.  After reviewing the procedures and then modeling a conversation with one of the students, we jumped in and began our lightning round discussions!

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When we finished, I then told students I wanted them to think about everything they had heard during the speed dating conversations; I asked them to think of one idea or reflection from a fellow students that stood out to them that they felt was share-worthy. We also talked about how we would share support and respect for each other by being attentive listeners.  After giving students a couple of minutes to think quietly, I kicked off the share-aloud and we then went around the table quickly.  I think everyone enjoyed this collective think aloud, and it was also a meaningful community building exercise.

Next week we’ll begin writing, but I am so happy we kicked off our first day of the course with this activity because of the thinking and positive energy it generated.  I hope to blog more about the writing this group of students will be doing, and I am excited to see what writing projects they develop.

MakerZine Project Wrap-Up


We completed our zine projects on our final school day of 2016!  Originally, I envisioned the students crafting 8 page zines; however, I realized about 1/4 of the way into the project that it was going to be difficult for them to meet that target.  I adjusted the project to include a cover, a heart map of the topic, and four content pages instead of six.  I thought that four weeks be would plenty of time for all grade levels to complete the project (we used each class day to work on the project in class), but most students still struggled to get all four content pages finished even with a calendar of target dates/formative assessments to help them stay on track.  Consequently, I adjusted my evaluation criteria and scaled back to three completed content pages as a final goal.

Since this is the first time I have ever done a zine project with students, this project was as much of a learning experience for me as it was for the students.  One thing I tried to do throughout the project was to provide LOTS of modeling and model pages; as I shared in an earlier post, it was virtually impossible to find any age-appropriate examples of zines (with quality) for middle school students.  Once my students began crafting pages, I was thrilled to use their work as examples to show other students (the ScannerPro app made it easy to capture images and make PDFs of student work I could print on the fly through the day to the workroom printer next door).   I think most students found it incredibly helpful to see work from their peers as models, and of course, I love showcasing student expertise!  In addition to the student work models, I also tried to model for my students by crafting and sharing my own zine pages with them.  As we built our “library” of models, I added these to zine content page galleries students could visit around the room.  However, I realized many of my students needed the gallery brought to them, so I wound up crafting mini-packets with hard copies of the examples, tips/steps, and ideas for crafting that type of content page that students could get as needed and keep handy in their writing folders or zine “pouches” (the “pouches” were the kraft paper manila envelopes with a clasp–perfect for storing zine work separately from the writing folders).    Collages, informational comic strips, newspaper style articles, and informational text + visuals were the most popular genres of zine pages students chose to create.

While the modeling worked for quite a few students, I’m still puzzled and worried that it didn’t seem to help a large number of students.  Even with our noticings activities, regular access to the models, and lots of 1:1 conferencing, many of my students had a difficult time crafting the different zine genres that we explored.  I’m wondering what else could I do to help them to better make the connections between the models and their own work.  This challenge is one I will contemplate as I reflect on the successes and struggles of the project. With that said, though, most students (especially my 6th and 7th graders) were quite invested in their projects and showed great enthusiasm for the writing and content they were creating.  In their project self-assessments, many students indicated they genuinely enjoyed the project and would like to do it again in the future.  Several also shared how it pushed their thinking, writing, and design skills.  Some who struggled shared they realized how important topic choice genuinely was for this kind of project.

I was also impressed by the breadth of topics students chose—here is a sampler:

  • The Holocaust
  • Playing the piano
  • Solving two step equations
  • A wide variety of sports (soccer and baseball were especially popular)
  • Pancakes
  • The moon
  • Growing roses
  • Favorite states
  • Cosmetics
  • How to survive your first year in band class
  • How to care for pets (parakeets, hamsters, cats. roosters and chickens)
  • Photography
  • The Alabama Crimson Tide football team
  • A variety of different cars
  • Fingerboards/Tech Decks
  • Hunting
  • The ocean
  • Favorite animals
  • Specific video games
  • Baking cakes
  • Caring for your saxophone

Thanks to the generosity of friends and colleagues who funded our supplies through Donors Choose, we had all the supplies we needed for zine crafting.  The only thing we did not have that would have enhanced the project was a printer in my classroom.  Because our students do not have access to printers through the Chromebooks, I had to print every single item they needed, a task that became overwhelming and time-consuming at times.  The print jobs students needed usually included pages of graphics they wanted to cut out and use as well as text they wanted to type and print.  I think the quality of some projects might have been even better had we had our own classroom printer and on demand access to color and black and white printing.  I would not do this project again without a printer in my room and student access to printing.

Last but not least, I am reconsidering how to structure the zine gallery walk differently to get the students more engaged in giving meaningful “glows” and “grows” to each other.  Even though students have had opportunities to do this activity throughout the year, several still struggle with participating thoughtfully and providing fellow writers useful feedback.

The zines that are fully completed will now go to our media center for display so that other students have an opportunity to browse and enjoy them.  If you teach middle school, especially struggling ELA learners, I’d love to hear strategies you’ve tried with your zine unit of study.

Introducing Our Zine Topics with Informational Heart Maps


Like many of you, I’ve been a big fan of Georgia Heard and her work for years.  Earlier this fall, I purchased her new book, Heart Maps: Create and Craft Authentic Writing; I also joined the Facebook group for the book where other educators are posting their students’ heart maps.  It was in this Facebook group that I found an inspirational mentor text for our my students from a mother who was using the tool with her son:

Screenshot from the Georgia Heard Heart Maps Facebook Group
Screenshot from the Georgia Heard Heart Maps Facebook Group

I printed 10 copies of each photo and put them in my trusty neon shop ticket pouches so students could have copies at their desk to work from (as well as a projected copy on the whiteboard) for our noticings activity.  I also downloaded one of the nonfiction/informational templates that you can access online if you register your book with Heinemann.


I did different variations of how we approached the noticings with each grade level, but essentially, we brainstormed in small groups what we noticed about the organization of information, the information itself, and the visual qualities of the “mentor text” heart map.   After we discussed our noticings as a large group, we generated a list of the design and organization elements we wanted to incorporate into our heart maps of our zine topics.  Since our plan is to use these as the first content page in our zines to introduce the reader to our topic, we used our zine project planner we had already completed to help us set up our categories or labels for the outer parts of the map; students then aligned a nugget fact they loved most about that subtopic on the corresponding inner part of the map.

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We used our #makerzine project supplies funded so graciously by our friends and DonorsChoose to begin crafting our heart maps.  Once students completed their heart maps, they cut them out and glued them onto a piece of colored paper of their choosing.  Here is a sampler of our student created zine topic heart maps from students in grades 6-8:








The students have been incredibly enthusiastic about creating their heart maps; students who have been reluctant writers or not always engaged have been engrossed in their work.  We are now finishing our zine covers and working on our first content pages of our zines.  I’ll have a new post up later this week to talk about how we’re working toward crafting those pieces of our zine projects.    Have you used heart mapping for informational writing?  I’d love to hear from you if you have or are currently using this tool with your writers and learners!