literacy

First Efforts at Written Conversations Strategies: Write-Around Text on Text

A collaborative post by Darrell Cicchetti, Jennifer Lund, and Buffy Hamilton

Background

Original photo by Buffy Hamilton

Original photo by Buffy Hamilton

Earlier this month, my colleague Jennifer Lund and I attended a half day workshop sponsored by our Gwinnett County School District.  We spent a Saturday morning with the smart and funny Harvey “Smokey” Daniels, who engaged us in a variety of strategies for helping learners transact with text more deeply while building writing fluency.  Through his presentation as well as our hands-on exercises based on his new book, The Best-Kept Teaching Secret:  How Written Conversations Engage Kids, Activate Learning, and Grow Fluent Writers K-12, we came away energized with concrete and meaningful strategies we felt we could apply right away in a variety of ways with teachers and students across multiple subject areas.  One of the variations of written conversations that Jen and I really liked was the write-around, a strategy in which “Small groups of kids write and exchange notes about a curricular topic for several rounds—maybe 5 to 15 minutes of sustained writing–and then they burst into out-loud talk that’s rooted in their extended written rehearsals” (Daniels 155).

As soon as we returned to work on Monday, we immediately approached Language Arts teacher Darrell Cicchetti, a teacher we’ve collaborated with all semester to support the Independent Reading (IR) piece of his 10th grade classes.  Students read for an entire period every Wednesday and have free choice over their self-selected texts.  Thanks to a grant we received from the Norcross High Foundation for Excellence, we were able to purchase multiple texts by YA Author Paul Volponi for student formed literature circles as part of a culminating virtual author visit with Volponi (whom we highly recommend!).  We felt two of the written conversation strategies we learned in the workshop, the Write-Around Text on Text and Silent Literature Circle Write-Around, would be great structures for helping students dwell in Stripling’s recursive model of inquiry and to scaffold their efforts to build conversations for learning.  Although the class we chose for our first efforts had experienced some difficulty in small group work in the past, we all felt optimistic in trying these strategies with the students.  In this post, we’ll share our planning, process, assessment, and reflections on our first efforts at the write-around text on text strategy.

Write-Around Text on Text:  Prep Work, Implementation, and Reflections

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Definition and Planning

Harvey Daniels defines the text on text variation of a write-around as “what happens when you have several kids annotate the same copy of a text at the same time, jotting down their responses in the margins.  Quite naturally, students start reading other people’s comments and want to give their classmates a written high five, ask a clarifying question, or throw down a tough challenge” (184).   Essentially, you take a copy of a piece of text, affix it to a large piece of butcher paper or sticky note poster, and provide different colored markers or Sharpies for students.   Students work in small groups to literally “write around” the text and engage in their annotations and responses to each other as they compose; each student uses a different colored pen so it is easy to distinguish each student’s written responses.

write-around-prep1

Template for Gathering Student Selected Passages from a Text

We first began preparing by creating a template (we recommend installing Rockwell and Bebas Neue fonts to see the document properly) for students to select a favorite passage they wanted to share and discuss from their chosen Volponi book.  We did this so that we would have time to copy the page for each student selected passage, mark it, and then affix it to the butcher paper for the write-around activity.  This document also included a space for students to pose five questions they were thinking about related to their book; we felt these questions could be a “safety net” for the silent literature circle write around activity if they were struggling for a conversation starter.  Darrell then returned these templates and included a roster of groups by book so that we would know how many sheets of butcher paper we’d need to prepare as well as any other organizing materials.  I chose to do the copy the passages on different colors of paper since our butcher was white, and I thought it would help differentiate each passage since we actually included 3-4 passages per piece of butcher paper since we wanted the students to write-around each group member’s selected text.

Once the colored copies of the pages were made of each student selected text, I took a black Sharpie and marked off the passage with brackets.  If students selected only a sentence, I went ahead and marked off the paragraph around it to help students see more context.  I then trimmed them with our paper cutter and organized piles of texts by group.  Next, I took large sheets of butcher paper (2-3 feet) and laid each one on a table in our rotunda area.  I then taped each passage onto the butcher paper, usually working a triangular pattern so that students would have room to write around each piece of text on the butcher paper.  I also created little “nametags” of group rosters using PowerPoint and taped those to each piece of paper so we would not lose track of which group owned each write-around. The other prep work involved writing up simple and direct instructions for students to frontload the activity.  We knew they would need start-up instructions and wanted to include visuals with concise steps to try and mitigate confusion.  Since the students had little prior experience with text annotation, we also printed copies of possible conversation prompts in case students experienced any difficulty thinking of how to engage in the written dialogue once they were at the tables with their groups.  Finally, we included rosters of each group so that it would be easy to quickly get groups to their writing tables.  I incorporated all of these elements into a PowerPoint that I showed at the beginning of our session in the library; I also used the slides to print out the group nametags and copies of the writing prompts.

Implementation:  Our First Efforts
Students Writing Around Text on Text

Students Writing Around Text on Text

It took about 10-12 minutes to review the introductory directions and to show students examples of how they might annotate their text.  We also encouraged them to use both written dialogue as well as any visuals/drawings they wanted to draw as part of the write-around composition.  Once students got to their tables and selected a pen, we told them we would take about 10 minutes to write as quietly as we could; I used my iPhone as my stopwatch.   Once I gave them the verbal “go”, they were off and writing.  At first, they looked a little hesitant, much like a wobbly newborn deer standing on its legs for the first time.  However, they soon jumped in and began “writing around”!  Darrell, Jen, and I walked around listening and observing.  At times, we redirected some of our “social butterflies” who might have strayed from their groups; we also monitored for students who appeared to be stuck in neutral and helped nudge them back on track as needed. As we observed, listened, photographed, and videoed the activity, some students occasionally asked for clarification or just wanted a little verbal assurance that they were working in a constructive direction.  It was exciting for us to see them moving around, ruminating deliberately, and interacting with the texts as well as with each other in positive, constructive ways!  Once time was up, groups sat down at their tables to  “debrief”  reflections on the process.  We gave each group a response sheet to record their three big take- aways from the activity; we encouraged them to think on what ideas seemed most important or interesting.  Some groups appointed a scribe to record their reflections; in other groups, each student wrote his/her ideas.  We had planned on doing a large group share, but we ran out of time.

Students Writing Around Text on Text

Students Writing Around Text on Text

Although Daniels recommends the writing period of the activity as a silent one, a hallmark of the write-around process, this might be difficult in some situations.  While we encouraged our students to write as quietly as possible, we found they felt comfortable with some level of verbal conversation, most of which was actually related to their texts or affirmation from peers in their small group that they were moving through the process as we had outlined in the instructions.  While our students were initially a little tentative in their confidence about their first efforts, we saw them becoming more comfortable as they moved deeper into their writing.  For these students, this kind of student facilitated, visible, and public literacy practice was somewhat risky since most of their school literacy practices have tended to be private, solitary, and teacher dominated. Here is a short 90 second raw footage video clip of the write-around with text on text in action:

Assessing Student Work

We honestly did not have any kind of rubric or preconceptions as to what to expect for this first effort. Because this particular group of students had experienced difficulty working in groups or collaboratively earlier in the semester, we were just hoping they would participate and have a positive experience working in small groups.  Since this was a first effort, we were more interested in student responses than actually “grading” content or participation.  Instead, we wanted to focus on looking at students’ written responses and seeing the types of written conversation they composed.  The plan was to code student responses and tally the number of responses in each category to get a sense of the types of written conversations and to get some baseline data that we could work from to track the trajectory of responses over the course of the next 18 weeks as we hope to fold this structure for learning into Darrell’s classroom life.

The three of us first looked at the student work together after class the day of the activity.  After debriefing on what we had observed in action and our first quick look at their work, we felt we needed the weekend to process it all.  When we returned the following week, we devised some broad categories of student responses.  Initially, the categories included:  questions, opinions, annotations of text, response to text, drawing/graphics, and off topic.  However, as I began making the first “deep” pass at looking at student work yesterday, I had a couple of realizations.  After looking at the first group’s efforts,  I realized that  all the responses were really a form of annotation; however, I felt it was important to keep a category of explicit traditional types of annotation.  Secondly, I felt a bit sheepish when I realized very quickly we needed a category for “response to peer”.    After tweaking the document, I was ready to dive into looking at the student work.

Coding Student Work

Coding Student Work

My plan was to attach sticky notes to each response and label the sticky with the category abbreviation as I coded.   Initially, I attached the coded sticky notes and recorded the number of responses for each category.  After I had coded two groups of student work, though, I realized I needed to be a little more intentional in my tallying process  to avoid getting confused as to what responses I had counted and which ones I had not.  I started recording by clusters of text and then began adding check marks to the sticky notes as I recorded the responses.  It took about an hour to code eight groups; I then tallied the overall results.  It was fascinating to me to not only look at individual annotations by students, but I also enjoyed seeing patterns within specific groups as well as the larger picture of overall responses.

Final Tally of Responses

As you can see, the dominant student talk included responses to text, questions, and opinions.  Within individual groups, some conversation was primarily one category; only one group’s responses consisted of mostly graphics or drawings.  We were not surprised by these patterns, and this coding process helped us to see that students will need additional modeling and opportunities in how to respond to peers to grow their fluency in developing written conversations.  We were very pleased to see that many developed thoughtful questions and that many made clear connections back to the text in their responses.  This student work, as well as feedback in interviews we are doing with Darrell’s students, underscore the importance of choice for readers engaging with texts, particularly for students who have not felt a sense of passion or success as readers.

Reflections and Next Steps

After having the opportunity to take a more deliberate pass at coding the student work and looking at the results, Darrell had a chance to talk with us about his insights and how he might move forward with using this strategy in his classroom.  Here some of Darrell’s reflections and next steps for second semester in January:

  • “Flip” the conversations by rotating groups during a write-around to spark responses within a given period to “jump-start” written discussions.  By “flipping” and moving to other write-arounds from peer groups, less confident students might have a schema or jumping off point to jump into the conversation–think of it as a little nudge to give them a starting point and help them get momentum.
  • Consider doing write-arounds over a two-day period so that there is a bit of break in the “flipping” of groups. Because some students are very defensive about any response to their work, splitting the write-around into two days might provide some degree of anonymity when groups rotate and defuse any possible confrontations. While we’ll work with students to develop strategies for sharing, receiving, and acting on constructive criticism, we know now this is a real issue for several students and feel that a “breather” in the write-around until they build their capacity to draw positive energy from tensions in ideas.
  • Clarify the annotation category to hone in on student conversation that relates to specific literary talk (i.e. theme, symbolism, figurative language).
  • Help scaffold students’ tactics for challenging someone’s opinion or idea in a positive way.
  • Student self-selection of texts for the write-around activity itself is important for building buy-in from students.

Jennifer and I are looking forward to our continued work with Darrell and his students.  We were absolutely thrilled with the overwhelmingly positive feedback from the students about the activity—we felt like they enjoyed it based on our observations, but their written feedback more than confirmed our instincts.  We hope to report back to you all in the spring the data we are collecting and updates on the ways students are engaging with text and each other through this and other write-around strategies.  We also feel these strategies will be a seamless medium for collaboration with content area teachers as they strive to meet curricular and schoolwide literacy goals; we also see applications for using this and other write-around strategies in the context of information literacy instruction.  Jennifer also has some terrific ideas on using written conversation strategies from the Harvey workshop to invite participation and grow conversations in professional development activities and meetings!  We are now working on a proposal to offer PD to our faculty on this specific strategy and then grow that work as we hopefully have the opportunity to help teachers and students pilot other strategies for written conversations in both print and digital mediums.  We look forward to seeing how we can grow our efforts to be collaborative partners and instructional designers with our learning community second semester!

References:

Daniels, Harvey, and Elaine Daniels. “Write-Arounds.” The Best-kept Teaching Secret: How Written Conversations Engage Kids, Activate Learning, Grow Fluent Writers, K-12. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Literacy, 2013. 155-91. Print.

New DML Post: Narratives and Metanarratives of Libraries as Sponsors of Literacies

I have authored a new post that is part of a larger ongoing series I’m composing and researching for DMLCentral.  In this second post, I do some additional foregrounding of inquiry and reflection that will inform research and exploration of how this concept plays out in different kinds of libraries and communities.  These concepts and the fieldwork I hope to do resonate deeply for me, and I hope they will for you, too.

Thinking, Wondering, and Blogging at DMLcentral

I’m delighted to share that I have joined the blog team at DMLcentral-–I’m humbled and honored to write and think in this learning space as so many people who are part of the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub have inspired my work and pushed the boundaries of my thinking.  My first post, “Literacies and Fallacies“,  is now up if you would like to read the first of what will be a series.  If DMLcentral is not already one of the resources in your learning network, I hope you’ll consider adding this collaborative blog and curated collection of free and open resources that will offer you multiple perspectives, research, and and provocative ideas to contextualize your thinking about learning environments, ecosystems, and the dynamics that inform them.

Dear FCC and ALA: Do You Really Not Get It?

So I get up this morning to find this story in my inbox courtesy of Bobbi Newman, a fellow member of the ALA/OITP Digital Task Force.  My initial reaction to the content of the article isn’t fit to print here, but I have a few thoughts I’d like to share:

  • This is the year 2012.  Digital literacy should be an essential literacy integrated into inquiry and content area study in grades K-12 by school librarians as well as classroom teachers. School librarians do more than check out books; we do our very best to collaborate with classroom teachers and students.  At a time in which school librarians are being cut from public schools, does it not make more sense to use the funding to  increase and grow a digital literacy corps of school librarians to meet children at their point of need where they already are?
  • The economic crisis of public schools combined with existing misperceptions of what contemporary school librarians should be doing to contribute to their learning communities has resulted in unprecedented erosion of the profession of school librarianship.  For ALA to not advocate with FCC to utilize and grow our ranks as people who already have this expertise is incomprehensible.
  • The concerns raised by school librarians was never about thinking our jobs were being “usurped.” Instead, we questioned why the FCC would not utilize an existing corps (school librarians) and expand it at a time in which we are being hacked down left and right as public schools grapple with budget cuts.   Why should children be asked to stay after school to learn an essential literacy in isolation?
  • Our public librarians are also an existing corp of digital literacy experts.  Again, why not provide funding to grow their staff and services to build upon their existing efforts to work with learners of ALL ages?  Or to help public and school libraries develop partnerships to do community outreach to parents?
  • It’s insulting for the FCC to say that they don’t need the services of librarians, but they’d love to hire someone else to utilize our learning spaces for this endeavor.  Do you think we only check out books?  That we’re not already teaching digital literacy?  That librarians aren’t qualified to be your digital literacy corps?   Why not use this funding to elevate and grow libraries and schools as partners in cultivating digital literacy for their communities?
  • Digital literacy is more than computer literacy—see Project New Media Literacies.
  • While these are dated from 2009, perhaps the FCC and ALA should reread Recommendation 6 and Recommendation 7 from the Knight Foundation.
  • Josh Gottheimer, FCC’s senior counselor to the chairman, is quoted in the article as saying the effort is to close the participation gap and that ““It’s their choice [schools], if they so desire, to be part of this process.”  Do you not get the public school system can be the conduit of closing all kinds of participation gaps for many kinds of literacy?  Isn’t the public school system supposed to be a cornerstone of democracy and point of access for everyone?  At a time in which public school funding is being cut and districts are in budget crisis nationwide, it seems it would be more prudent to fully fund public schools rather than forcing schools to spend money on unfunded mandates and to waste millions of dollars on standardized testing.

I rarely write blog posts in the heat of emotion, but the blatant disconnect in the statements in this article absolutely astonish and infuriate me.  Not only is this disconnect between what the FCC perceives as a need and solution and what public schools and public libraries can offer a disturbing red flag, but I’m also deeply troubled by these statements in the article:

School librarians reacted so strongly to the story that representatives of the American Library Association (ALA) reached out to some bloggers to help clarify the role the ALA has had with the FCC over the proposal to help quell concerns.

I read these words and wonder if  my service on the ALA/OITP Digital Literacy Task Force has been in vain and why I’m paying hundreds of dollars of years to belong to an organization, ALA, that felt compelled to “quell” concerns.  Clearly, ALA does not see that the arguments we’ve outlined as ones to take up with the FCC or to understand digital literacy is a component of libraries’ (school and public) to provide lifelong learning for our communities at their points of need.  And what exactly WAS ALA’s role with the proposal if it wasn’t to encourage the FCC to do more than merely use libraries as physical space to provide training? Did ALA not speak up for its members and tout our expertise and the work we’re already doing that could be expanded with this funding?

The thousands of librarians who are the frontline at ground zero of efforts to provide services and instruction in many kinds of literacies to our communities are acutely aware of what the needs are in our communities and the possibilities for meeting those needs if given appropriate staffing to expand and exceed a vision for learning.   To read these kinds of statements is to feel that yet another government agency, the FCC, fails to understand what we do in spite of our efforts to share our work.  In spite of the spin to put a positive bent to this issue, I feel cannibalized and betrayed by our very own flagship professional organization, ALA ; I am rethinking if I want to continue to pay to belong to an organization that doesn’t seem to really understand the work we do or the intensity and complexity of issues those of us in the trenches of librarianship deal with on a daily basis and that are undermining the potential and promise of the profession.

Post Semester 1: Media 21 Students Reflect on Digital Composition and Participatory Learning

In November and December, I wrote two rather lengthy reflective posts about efforts to help students take a more explicit inquiry driven, participatory stance on literacy and learning as well as digital composition; these were preceded by an October post about the use of the Fishbowl approach to giving students more ownership of class conversation and for developing their own lines of questions/inquiries/points for exploration with peers.

This unit of study, which began with our book tasting in September 2011, was an extended inquiry into student selected issues that included child soldiers, treatment of women in the Middle East, immigration laws,  the impact of HIV/AIDS in Africa, racial profiling, fear and prejudice in a post 9/11 world, and genocide.  At the end of the semester, Susan Lester and I asked our students to reflect on their learning experiences with a series of questions and class time to compose their responses.  Embedded below is a summary of student responses and some additional questions (that piggyback on those from the December blog post) for next semester.    Susan and I are meeting this week together to brainstorm and explore the implications of this feedback as well as new strategies for learning and how to tweak some existing learning strategies; we’ll also meet  with our students in class this week to discuss the feedback and to invite student opinion on their ideas for addressing some of the challenges as well as celebrate the progress and accomplishments of first semester.  I’m excited to see how we can work together as a community of learners to build on our successes and find ways together to address some of the student identified challenges of these approaches to learning.

I’m interested in any thoughts or patterns you may notice, or if you are doing similar work, any ideas or insights you might have to share that will help all of us expand our thinking and improve the learning experiences we’re trying to create with our students.