By Popular Request: Hooch Learning Studio Library Makeover Update

I have received numerous requests since last August to provide an update on the library design project at my last school, Chattahoochee High.  Though the district budget and architects did not allow for all the design elements on my wish list, the finished makeover definitely took the space to a whole new level.  Below is a presentation on the design elements I wanted;  I created this presentation in response to the initial design plan that was presented last February:

While all my ideas didn’t make the final cut, our media coordinator and my principal went to bat for our library space and persuaded the district design team to implement many of my design changes to the original plan.  In addition, I am thrilled lots of Steelcase product made the final cut!

My friend and fellow English teacher Briana Harrison was kind enough to send me these photos last fall of the newly renovated space.

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As you can see, the space is more open, brighter, and student-friendly.  Instead of heavy, dark drab furniture, the space is now filled with furniture designed for active learning experiences and is so much lighter and brighter!  It is like night and day from the dark, drab space I lived in for a year and that was so very difficult to use for teaching and learning.  This space is now designed to be more than a study hall; it is welcoming to many kinds of learning experiences.

I am proud of what I contributed to the design of the space and all the hard work that I, my assistant Carol Olson, and our parent volunteers did with the weeding project, the packing up of materials, and other prep work that went into making this space a reality.  Of course, there are additional design elements I would have worked to incorporate had I stayed on for another year, but the renovations that were completed over the summer were truly transformative and remarkable.

Staff were asked to reflect on the impact of the renovation; Ms. Harrison was gracious enough to share her reflections with me about the new and improved library space:

The old media center was useful as a space for students to spread out and work; however, that’s about where the usefulness ended. The outdated style and limited flexibility to personalize learning that the old media center offered was not always conducive for my students to learn and collaborate effectively.

The new media center invigorates my students. From the bright colors to the various seating and collaboration spaces, my students feel like they can accomplish so much more from this new space. I am able to individualize learning in this new space: students can work collaboratively in the new study rooms with options to work on white boards or use their tablets to project on the tvs; other students can work individually in the new chairs with desk space; there is even a space for me to work with small groups while the rest of the class is focused on other work.  We love our new space to work and learn!

I am thankful for the opportunities I’ve had to learn about library redesign over the last four years in both Gwinnett and Fulton County School Districts.  I’ve learned so much, especially from my friends and colleagues Jennifer Lund and Holly Frilot.  These experiences have truly impacted the way I think about libraries and challenged me to think about what constitutes meaningful library programming in different schools and learning communities, especially when the role of media specialist here in Georgia is being co-opted into something entirely different than what most media specialists would prefer.  Though I’m not around to enjoy the renovated spaces I contributed to, I am thankful that students and teachers have the opportunity to benefit from the vision and design work that I helped lead and implement.

Introducing Our Zine Topics with Informational Heart Maps

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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.

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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:

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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!

Introducing Zines with a Noticings Gallery Walk

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We are kicking off a new unit of study in the War Eagle Writing Studio as we begin to explore different kinds of informational writing.  I decided that zines would be an appealing point of access for my writers; students will be making and crafting their own zines on a topic on which they are experts.  Our zine making will be the first “bend” in this unit of study and is my modification I’m making to a Calkins Units of Study for Writing Workshop.  Our focus will be on crafting informational/descriptive zines or “how to” zines.  I have never crafted zines before with students, but this choice was inspired by the work my friend and fellow English teacher Kyle Jones has done with his high school students.   Thanks to DonorsChoose and the generous donations from friends and colleagues, we now have the crafting supplies we need to do our zine making!

Two of the most inspiring professional resources I’ve discovered in 2016 are Writing with Mentor Texts by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell, as well as their blog, Moving Writers ( a blog that should be on anyone’s “must read” list).  The blog posts by Marchetti and O’Dell, as well as their team of classroom teachers sharing their innovative and insightful ideas for teaching writing, provide me a near daily menu of ideas to contemplate and strategies to try in the War Eagle Writing Studio.  One post from earlier this fall, “3 Simple Exercises to Help Your Students Read Like Writers,” inspired an activity I did with students this past week to introduce zines to my middle school writers.

I set up 9 “stations” around the room with excerpts of zines or mini-version of zines I found on the web.  Finding zines with age-appropriate content was especially difficult; I hope more middle school colleagues will share examples of student work and that students will have more opportunities to publish their zines through the web whether it be a PDF version or a web-based zine.  Using post-it notes chart paper, I labeled each station and taped on the pieces of zines or mini-versions of zines for students for our “noticings” gallery walk.

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Students first received a copy of a graphic organizer:  this simple handout identified each station and gave students space to record:

  1. Two noticings
  2. An interesting fact (content) the student learned through the zine at each station

After showing students some pictures of zine collections, I introduced the gallery walk by orienting the students to the locations of each “station” and explained to them that we would be moving around quietly in a random order to examine the zines or pieces of zines and capturing our noticings (we’ve done noticings activities before, so I did not need to review that concept again).  I also reminded them that they needed to channel their energy into writing and thinking and to keep only 2-3 students per station so that everyone would have plenty of room to work.   I also reviewed a list of questions to prompt noticings and kept these posted during the gallery walk.

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Students then took their graphic organizers and began visiting the stations.  Some classes needed the one class period to capture the noticings while my sixth graders needed a day and a half of class time to do this activity.  Every single class was focused on their inquiry work and engaged; even my classes that sometimes struggle with these kinds of learning activities were really into the activity!

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I followed up this activity by giving students to share their noticings with a Turn and Talk activity; students worked in small groups to share their noticings with a focus on four categories:  fonts/typography, use of visuals and text together, types of writing in the zines, and materials used to create the zines.    We then finished up with individual reflections in a Writer’s Notebook prompt that asked students to contemplate these four questions:

1. How would you define a zine?
2. What qualities did you notice about the zines today?
3. What questions do you have about zines right now?
4. If you could create a zine on any topic, what topic would you choose? Think about something you know a lot about or feel passionately about in your life.

Next week we’ll begin brainstorming what we know about our topics and begin thinking about how we might organize and “chunk” our ideas for specific pages in our zines.  We’ll then sketch out our own heart maps on our topics (inspired by the new book from Georgia Heard and this post in the Heart Maps Facebook group).    I then hope to try Angela Stockman’s wonderful strategy for identifying craft moves in mentor texts (for us, informational and how to writing in zines) to help students really be intentional and purposeful in crafting their zine compositions. Angela Stockman calls this “making the study of mentor texts more actionable.”

If you have crafted zines with middle school writers, what advice would you and your students give?  What strategies did you try?  I’d love to hear specific strategies you used to help students craft authentic zines with effective use of text and visuals.

When the Ponies, Unicorns, and Rainbows Finally Come: Welcome to Believeland or Growing Writers in the War Eagle Writing Studio

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The first twelve weeks of school have been a roller coaster in the War Eagle Writing Studio.  I’ll share more about our struggles and successes in a blog post I’ll publish this weekend, but over the last few days I’m observing signs that my students are growing as writers.  This week we’ve been inquiring into”Where I’m From” poems with mentor texts and “noticings” activities (another blog post in the making); we began working on our brainstorming list for ideas with a graphic organizer on Wednesday, and most students began drafting yesterday or today.

I’ve been struck by how so many students, especially my 6th and 7th graders, have been writing with a very deliberate and noticeable intention and purpose the last few days.  I began thinking about the parallels of intention and process in art studio work and writing studio work after my friend and fellow teaching colleague Dorsey Sammataro (did I mention how amazing she is?) showed me a video in early September created by one of her AP Art Studio students, Megan Dammann:

In our writing conferences and observations I’ve made of students thinking and writing over the last two days, I’ve been struck by how focused and invested students have been in their writing.  There is a new intensity I’m seeing as they think and write.  Many students now are talking about their writing process, what they are thinking about in their current drafts, and/or next drafts instead of merely asking if their draft “is good” when they talk to me about their work.  They also seem more responsive to my questioning I’m doing in our writing conferences (thank you Carl Anderson) as I try to ask them questions to prompt their thinking rather than tell them what I think.  Our writing conferences are starting to shift to conversations about process and decision-making by students; they have never been about how I would suggest they “fix” anything, but I see students now are starting to articulate their own thinking more clearly and in deeper ways.

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How do you assess and capture intention and process with your writers?  How do you celebrate that and make it more visible in your classroom?  I would love to hear what others are doing.

One class in particular, my 4th period group of 7th grade writers, has been especially invested in the poetry unit we’ve been doing for the last six weeks.  Earlier this week, they were asking about doing another poetry reading.  Today our principal, Jennifer Kogod, dropped in to visit and took time to chat with every writer and read his/her work.  As a teacher, nothing thrilled your heart like having a principal who is a literacy advocate who interacts with the students; for the students, her presence clearly conveyed to them that our principal genuinely cares about their work.  As we continued to conference and draft the last half of class, two of my male students said, “I wish I could stay in here and work on my poems the rest of the day!”  One asked if he could get permission from his last period teacher to come and work in my room; I told him I would email her and that if he had completed all his work and she was fine with the request, I was fine for him to join my last class of the day which is a 6th grade section of writing workshop.   The other student wanted to know if he could come in before school and work on his poems!

I KNOW, RIGHT?!?!

The class then wanted to do an impromptu poetry reading, so that we did.  The two students, Ben and Ryland, shared their drafts in progress.  Ben then asked me if I could text the video I made of him reading his poem to his mother (and I did).  His 6th period teacher graciously agreed to let him join us, and he helped me kick off my class by reading his poem in progress to my 6th graders.

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I cannot tell you what this kind of cross-grade pollination does to a teacher’s heart—I literally felt like we were all soaring as he shared his draft, his advice for my 6th grade writers, and how he went about the process of getting his first draft composed.  How amazing is this kind of participatory learning where the novices become the experts and share that expertise they are growing?  He then worked on his poem for a little while before breaking off to conference with 6th grade writers and serve as a writing buddy to listen to drafts and share glows and grows to those writers.

I am sure we’ll move and back along this continuum of growth throughout the year, but I feel like I’m seeing many of my students finally start to turn an important corner as writers and learners.  I am seeing my students to think more deeply about process and to work with more intention.   I can’t measure any of this growth with a test, and I need better ways of documenting that though I’m still figuring that out.  All of my classes were so engaged in their writing—-today is the first day I can truly say that about every single section–all six of them—and it is truly music to my ears.  It’s the kind of day I thought about all summer as I looked forward to returning to the classroom and this opportunity to teach writing all day.  I’m excited to be part of this journey as a teacher AND a learner with my students, and I can’t wait to see where we go next together.  The fact I’m sharing this with you on a Friday night probably speaks to how epic of an experience the last few days have been.   Welcome to BELIEVELAND!