Exploring Writing Craft with Noticings + See, Think, Wonder

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Because so many of my Creative Writing SOAR students indicated they were interested in writing longer pieces of fiction, I thought it would be both fun and meaningful to do an activity to help us explore writer’s craft and ways that writer’s begin works of fiction.  We began last Friday by taking time to read the first chapter (or chapters) of these works:

  • The Sun Is Also a Star, Nicola Yoon
  • The Secret Hum of a Daisy, Tracy Holczer
  • Goodnight June, Sarah Jio

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After students read the excerpts, they jotted down their noticings and questions using the graphic organizer below.

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We worked on this part of the activity for about 30 minutes last Friday and finished up during the first ten minutes of class this past Tuesday. Students then formed groups of three, and we reviewed the See, Think, Wonder strategy and discussed how our ideas could come from the individual activity and/or collective discussion.  Although some groups needed a little nudging to get the conversation going (they were sitting silently and not conversing or trying to do the activity without talking), all groups eventually warmed up and engaged in some meaningful discussions.  Groups worked for about 20-25 minutes, and then each group presented their ideas using their See Think Wonder poster they created.  Afterwards, each group hung their poster on the wall in the classroom.  We ended with a short discussion about each work; nearly every student wanted to read at least two of three texts!

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Today, I provided printed copies of interviews with each of the authors so that students could read more about each writer’s craft and approach to writing in the author’s own words.  Today we also did a final wrap-up activity to pull together our noticings as we try to read like writers.  


I borrowed this idea for synthesizing our noticings  from Allison Marchetti and asked students to complete this statement:  “Writers of fiction…”.  Here are the responses from my creative writers:

  • Create new worlds
  • Are quite descriptive
  • Use flashbacks
  • Partially base their work on their lives or life experiences
  • Use good “hooks”
  • Start in the middle of a story to get you to ask questions
  • Make you want to read more
  • Tie in their culture to their story
  • Have a lot of emotion behind their words
  • Can write in ways that are open to multiple interpretations
  • Provide backstory for characters without telling you the details directly (through actions, how others see that character)
  • Use descriptive details you might not expect
  • Use everyday situations and scenarios
  • Sometimes write in first person
  • May shock readers by starting with unexpected or startling events
  • Create a picture in the reader’s mind
  • Provide different points of view
  • Make you wonder if the story is actually real
  • Leave you hanging on the edge of a cliff at the end of a chapter
  • Make you feel gratitude or identify with a character/event
  • Use words to make the emotions REAL
  • Leave the readers with questions
  • Give the main characters conflicts to resolve or solve
  • Enhance something seemingly small to emphasize a point or scene
  • Connect readers to the characters
  • Develop characters really well

I will take this list and with help from the students, craft a poster that we can hang in the room as well as mini-version for them to put in their writer’s notebooks.  I think I will try this approach to introduce poetry and some genres of creative nonfiction works to the students in the upcoming weeks as they seemed to really enjoy it. How are you introducing genres of writing to your students?  How do you help your writers read like writers?

Visual Thinking Strategies + Interactive Writing Notebooks FTW

 

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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).

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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.

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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.

SOARING Into Art History and Artists with Inquiry

Art History and Artists-1Twice a year, our school offers students the opportunity to participate in a pathfinder academy known as SOAR.  Students can choose “courses” in one of the three pathways:  STEM, Health and Wellness, or Arts and Culture; they can also earn a certificate in one of these pathways.  You can learn more about our pathway academies program here.

Teachers volunteer to sponsor or “teach” a SOAR class; in addition, our amazing coordinator Janelle Bowker polls students for topics they’d like to see added the SOAR menu.  Students get to vote on their top choices, and Ms. Bowker works diligently to place students in one of their top picks.  Because many students indicated an interest in art history and artist, I decided to take on that topic even though I know very little about it.  Because our courses are designed to be inquiry driven, it is not necessary for you the teacher to be an expert; I think not knowing a lot about a particular topic allows more space for students to step up as the experts and to position teachers and student as co-learners.   My interest in taking on this topic comes from my work with Dorsey Sammataro and her art students last year, so I am hopeful this SOAR course will be fun for all of us!

We just began our first meeting this past Friday, August 26; we will meet twice a week (Tuesdays and Fridays this semester) until November 17 when we have our culminating Day at the Museum where students showcase their products/learning artifacts.   My game plan is to incorporate the elements of students designing their own inquiry projects using the principles and learning structures I learned at the wonderful inquiry workshop in Santa Fe I attended this past January (you can learn more all about that experience here).   Students will have opportunities to read an assortment of texts (traditional and multimedia) to build some background knowledge before we begin brainstorming topics, forming birds of feather groups, and then helping students draft their own inquiry project plans.  I am excited to see where the kids go with their work and the kinds of learning products they choose to create.

We kicked off the first day by asking students to individually share what they knew about art, artists, and art history on index cards.  I then had students form groups by counting off students in groups of four where they introduced themselves and shared their thinking.  Groups then created a T-chart of “what we know” and “what we want to know” to get a preliminary list of questions or ideas out there though we certainly will grow those questions/wonderings.

IMG_8593Not only did this activity spark some thinking, but it gave me an opportunity to see how students work in groups since many don’t have much experience at this age.    Though some students were very conformable doing this simple activity with others, I could see that some students were definitely struggling and needed some support.  Based on what I observed, I will definitely incorporate some of the community building activities and scaffold social skill interactions using strategies from Harvey Daniels, Nancy Steineke, and Sara Ahmed.

Once students finished their charts, we did a group share out—not only was this a great opportunity for the groups to hear from each other, but it was a teachable moment about respectful listening and the power of community thinking.  Here is what my students devised in roughly 25 minutes:

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As you can see from the work, some students were more comfortable than others in working together with others, but I am appreciative that nearly every student made the effort to participate, especially since students are in mixed grade levels (6, 7, and 8) and were for the most part with students they didn’t know—those are big steps for middle schoolers.  The charts also reveal that quite a few students may have thought our course was about how to make art (even though the course description was very clear about our focus); though it is not, they can certainly develop as a mini-inquiry project to piggyback on the larger themes of art and artists.

I’m excited to see how our inquiry work unfolds and develops!  Stay tuned as I will post updates and share our journey of learning with you.

Revving Up Student Thinking with Choice and the Reading Un-Frenzy

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Last year, Jennifer Lund and I had the pleasure of doing a reading frenzy with Language Arts teacher Sean O’Connor and his students.   The concept of a reading frenzy comes from teacher and speaker Nancy Steineke.  The basic premise of the activity is to give students a series of texts, allow them to skim and read fairly quickly, and then rate/rank the articles/texts they have read from most favorite to least favorite.  This activity is a springboard to helping students either choose a topic or find a focal point for a topic they’ve already identified as an area of interest.

When ESOL teacher Amy Balogh approached me about helping her students with research, she wanted them to have a positive experience and to develop key skills rather than trying to blast them with too much information.  We had great fun brainstorming and thinking together; ultimately, Amy decided to approach the research unit as a series of mini-inquiries infused with modeling mini-lessons as well as some light information literacy instruction with me.  Because she has been implementing a writer’s workshop approach all year, she decided to use some of the mini-lessons and writing/mini-inquiry assignments from Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling and Mentor Texts as the inspiration for her instructional design.

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Amy decided to begin with the “5 Things You Can Do” inquiry/writing/research assignment.  Each class brainstormed and decided on a top topic to explore as a class.  Using a LibGuide as our “home base”, we decided to introduce the students to two of our Gale databases,  Opposing Viewpoints in Context and Kids InfoBits, as our starting points for research.  The students *loved* the search interface, but they especially loved the ease of citation of the articles with EasyBib.  Their favorite feature, though, was the Gale integration with Google Drive.  Students were super impressed with the ability to download articles directly into Google Drive for annotating or just having a digital copy of the text; they also loved the highlighting and note-taking feature and the ability to download those highlights and notes into Google Drive.  This mini-lesson gave students some search tools and strategies to begin their group inquiry into their class issues like current debates around gun control and gun violence.  Amy used shared documents in Google Drive to model the writing assignment from Gallagher in which they investigate the issue and then develop 5 solutions or “things you can do” about the issue.  This mini-lesson gave the students some solid starting points for search, but because the students’ bigger challenge is reading and understanding informational text, we didn’t want search to be the focus of their learning experiences as we moved forward with new mini-inquiries that we wanted to use to “spiral” up the depth of student thinking.   We both agreed that working with the information–reading, synthesizing, and then creating their own writing based on their research interests were the priorities.  With these learning needs in mind, I felt a slowed down version of Nancy’s “reading frenzy” would be a great way to scaffold students to these goals.

Our next step was for students to choose a topic to explore individually or with a partner.  Students brainstormed a diverse range of topics, and I pulled together text sets on each topic.  “Texts” in each set could include articles from the web, articles from different databases, podcasts, and/or videos; for digital texts, students could use the media center iPad to watch/listen to their those texts.  These texts would be a springboard to helping students then craft their own “5 Things You Can Do” mini-paper.  Topics included:

  • How to sleep better
  • How to eat more food in a restaurant (two ideas:  eating contests and getting the most for your money while dining in a restaurant)
  • Decreasing junk food in schools
  • How to have a good day
  • Time management
  • Taking care of a dog
  • Growing plants
  • Traveling on a budget
  • How to get rich
  • How to avoid major life mistakes; making smart life choices
  • Healthy eating/nutrition

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We gave the students two days to muck around with their text sets.  I told students they could read the articles in any order, and they were also welcome to explore other text sets if something caught their eye.  Each student received a green sheet to record his/her articles and how they would rate the article on a scale of 1-10.  We asked students to read the articles of their choosing from their set(s) of interest and to annotate the texts as they read.  We used Nancy Steinke’s text annotation codes as a supplement to the annotation strategies they had already learned earlier this year with Ms. Balogh.  In addition, I provided students different kinds of sticky notes they could use to jot down notes and highlighters.  They immediately jumped into their sets and immersed themselves in the readings!

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Normally, students would scan and skim the articles in a shorter time frame and rank the articles based on their interest in the topics within that set; they would then begin engage in presearch and begin developing an inquiry plan around that topic.  For us, our “slowed down” version of Nancy’s reading frenzy structure was to help students confirm an interest in the topic and/or further refine a focal point and narrow the big topic to a more specific scope.  We did give students an opportunity to rank their favorite articles at the end of Day 2; this ranking was helpful in identifying the kinds of articles students found most helpful or interesting.

Two things really struck me about this first round of the slowed down reading frenzy with Amy’s students.  First, they were incredibly engaged and involved with their texts—whether they were discussing the articles, reading intently and annotating, jotting notes on the sticky Post-It pads, or asking Amy specific questions about a text for clarification, the students were soaking up the text sets.  Secondly, the camaraderie among the students in each class was inspiring to observe.  Amy has clearly cultivated a classroom culture of care and empathy, and the students really function as a true learning community.  Whether they were helping each other with a text, sharing an idea, or thinking through an idea with a partner,the rapport was genuine.  In many ways, the feel of the class is reflective of the practices of participatory learning; I think this culture of learning is so vital for meaningful learning experiences.

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For our second mini-inquiry, Amy introduced the problem-solution writing task from Kelly Gallagher’s book and modeled this in person using a shared Google Doc with the students.  Once again, students generated topics of personal interest, and I put together text sets to get them started:

  • Cosmetic surgery–blepharoplasty or double eyelid surgery–with young people, especially in Korea
  • Bees in danger of extinction
  • Teens – body image
  • Teens – grade pressures
  • Drugs and teens/the heroin epidemic in the “Triangle” in metro Atlanta
  • Teen dependency/ over-dependency on phones
  • Hours in a school day, changing the start time of the school day in relation to teens needing more sleep; also decreasing school day
  • Time management
  • Improving school cafeteria; better school cafeteria design
  • Bullying and teens
  • Teens and suicide
  • Poor/poverty and education – in US
  • Refugee crisis – Syria – US
  • Personal debt
  • Getting into college–admissions policies for Georgia schools

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With both “slowed down” reading frenzies, there was always 1-2 students who were still struggling with a topic; sometimes they were able to think of something on their own, but other times, they discovered a path to a topic by exploring the existing text sets.  Again, we gave students two complete days to immerse themselves in the text sets; they also had choice in where they wanted to sit and the table/seating arrangements.

Reflections

Here are some of the grows and glows about the activity from Ms. Balogh’s students:

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As you can see, the students felt the activity helped them move forward with the information they needed to dwell in the thinking, composing, and idea development processes they did in their mini-papers.  As one student pointed out in the “grows”, we definitely need to add some nonfiction and/or informational texts in print, particularly ones that are more varied in reading levels so that there is something for all learners.  This area of development is one of our collection goals for 2016-17.

Amy shared these reflections on the work we’ve done for the last month:

My struggle in the past with the ESOL students and research is that it’s challenging to find articles that are both “scholarly” and are at an accessible reading level. Also, it is difficult for the students to skim articles when searching for them to see if they are actually helpful. This activity eliminated problem.  I’m more concerned with them actually READING good articles that help them, instead of spending a lot of time trying to FIND articles to read.  My favorite quote from this activity was when one student said, “this really made me think.”

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with Amy and her students over the last few weeks, and it has been joyful to see the students happily engaged with their topics.  I am deeply appreciative that Amy puts student curiosity and choice at the center of the learning experience; clearly, that focus has yielded student growth.  She has supported students with regular modeling of writing and thinking processes, and I am happy I could be part of fostering learning experiences to scaffold students’ engagement with their topics.   Now that we have a solid foundation established, we can begin looking to 2016-17 and thinking about ways to fold in more mini-inquiries throughout the year so that we can build search skills as well as informational text reading strategies.  I am looking forward to further collaboration with Amy and her students and new opportunities for us to provide learning experiences that will help students grow not only their reading and writing literacies, but their digital and information literacy skills as well!