Literacy

Informational Text Write Around Text-on-Text with Biology/Chemistry Classes

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My co-librarian Jennifer Lund and I are continuing our efforts to introduce written conversations strategies to students and teachers across content areas here at Norcross High.  Yesterday we had the pleasure of collaborating with Science Department Chair Logan Malm and her 9th Accelerated Biology/Chemistry students. Logan teaches three sections of this course that meets for approximately an hour and half daily.   Our collaborative efforts began when Logan, who was in the library working on a video project with her classes, saw our write-around text on text activity with Emily Russell’s Language Arts classes and became interested in how to incorporate that technique into her subject area.  Jennifer and I were excited by the prospect of partnering with Logan for the write-around text on text activity since this would be our first attempt to use it with 9th graders and in a non-Language Arts content area class.

Logan’s classes are currently finishing an ecology unit and preparing to transition to a new biochemistry unit with a focus on molecules and enzymes.  She decided to use the write-around text on text strategy as a way of  helping students  link the prior knowledge from the ecology unit of study to information they are about to learn in biochemistry.  She selected three National Geographic articles with a focus on enzymes:

Since two of the articles did not offer a print friendly option, I took them and converted them into single page printouts with Word; the third article I was able to keep at one page thanks to the print friendly option.  After checking with Logan about the number of students and groups, Jennifer and I prepped for the write-around by printing the copies of each article, getting our colored butcher paper for each group,  taping each of the three articles on every sheet of butcher paper, and writing the names of each group member on their sheet of butcher paper with the articles. Because Logan wanted to build a conversation around the concept of enzymes, she decided to use the same articles for each group and have them respond to the entire article since all three were fairly brief.

Photo by B. Hamilton

Photo by B. Hamilton

At the beginning of each class, we did a similar mini-lesson on how to participate in a write-around; however, we did make modifications to the “idea/writing sparks” for conversation to be more reflective of the informational texts.  After distributing colored markers and Sharpies, we cued the students to begin reading and writing.  We honestly did not know what to expect in terms of depth of responses, how long the students might write, or how easy/difficult it might be for them to engage in a sustained participation since this was our first effort with informational text in the context of a science class unit; the students also did not have any previous scaffolding for this activity like Emily Russell’s classes.  Because the class is a hybrid course that covers elements of two classes, it meets for roughly an hour and a half daily; we decided to see if the students could engage in the writing for at least 25 minutes (Emily’s students wrote for about 20 minutes).  We were pleasantly surprised in several ways:

1.  Each class wrote approximately 30-33 minutes; some could have continued writing had we not called time!
2.  Most of the written conversations were rich and nuanced just as the literary conversations had been.   Although the content was more academic and subject specific in nature, the written discussions still felt very conversational.  We also noticed students using more visuals/graphics/drawings as part of these conversations.
3.  The trajectory of energy and momentum to the conversations paralleled those of Emily’s classes—it is akin to a crescendo in music where the sound builds in loudness and intensity.  We saw the written conversations building in those same ways.
4.  Like Emily’s classes, students enjoyed using hashtags as part of their written conversations.  I think #maggot was one of the more popular hashtags of the day.

We all participated as co-learners in the process as well, which gave us an opportunity to model for students as well as “listen” and respond to their ideas.  Since we had the longer block of time for class, we were able to give students more time for the small group discussion/share/reflection that we incorporate after the silent writing time.    We also did a slight variation on the small group share reflection format and utilized the “3-2-1” strategy this time.  After discussing their responses as a small group for about 15 minutes, Logan then facilitated the large group conversation.    We began the large group discussion with each small group reporting their reflections, insights, and questions;  some of the questions students posed included:

  • How did the deep sea shrimp evolve to primarily consume wood in an environment completely devoid of it?
  • Can scientists alter human enzymes to be better suitors for utilizing new resources?
  • Has the maggot healing been put into effect since its discovery?
  • What happens if the wood “goes away” for the shrimp and the trees/nectar “go away”  for the ants?
  • Is the tree and the ant more than one symbiotic relationship?
  • Are the ants able to think and care for themselves? Do they have the freedom to choose what happens to them?

Finally, the large group conversation then culminated with discussions around the key concepts in the articles (natural selection, enzymes, mutualism, adaptation) and questions that Logan posed to students.

Write Around Informational Text

Just as we’ve seen before with other groups, each class definitely had a unique vibe that was reflected in their work.   Two of the classes were very strong in terms of the quality of responses and interaction in the written and oral conversations.  A third class that is strong in creativity shined a bit more in the small and large group discussions than in the written conversations; some of the students in that particular class are very bright but not quite as mature right now as some of their peers.  While they struggled more to engage in sustained written conversations, we feel that they still benefited from the experience and that this activity can be a means to help them grow their skills in participating in this form of group think.  Overall, all three sections were delightful, and we are deeply appreciative of Logan’s willingness to share her classroom with us and for the opportunity to learn together.

Students seemed to feel positively about the experience as well.  One constructive suggestion we had from several students was to perhaps mix up the articles a little more.   One student recommended having three articles on the butcher paper for half the tables/groups, and then to use a different set of three articles for the other half.   While the focus of using the same articles at each table and giving students a chance to move about and respond to those was to help students make the connections to concepts of ecology and enzymes, we definitely think that the student suggestions are ones we’ll use in the future.  We also think that self-selected articles (like we did with the literary conversations) are another option to explore in content area write-arounds.

As I mentioned earlier, Jennifer and I were happy to see students engaging with informational text in a deep and engaging way through the write-around.  We both continue to feel a bit awestruck by how such a simple learning structure yields such powerful impact and dialogue with students; each time we have the chance to co-facilitate the written conversation strategies with teachers and students, the more excited we feel about the possibilities.  We are also delighted that Logan shares these sentiments in her post-activity reflections:

Impressions – LOVED this activity. It was really special watching the students write about scientific topics and develop questions based on their thoughts and the thoughts of other students. I enjoyed seeing them question the validity of certain claims, argue in favor of/against scientific ideas using their prior knowledge and create questions that they had after reading each article. This activity gave me a chance to see my students in a way that I have yet to observe. They had an opportunity to act like true scientists, and didn’t even know it! Overall, this was a wonderful activity that I will be doing again!

We look forward not only to working with Logan and her students again, but we also are happily anticipating working with other teachers and their classes, too.   Jennifer and I are delighted to contribute to our learning community and to foster these kinds of literacy practices that situate literacy as meaning making across content areas and units of study.   Our next efforts with write-around strategies will be on Valentine’s Day with Jeff Cerneka’s Health classes–stayed tuned!  In the meantime, I invite you to view the photoset from the this session here.

Collection Weeding as Dendrochronology: Rethinking Practices and Exposing a Library’s Sponsors of Literacy

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The Impetus to Weed our Print Collection

Since early September 2013, my colleague Jennifer Lund and I have been working on a large-scale and aggressive weeding project for our entire collection.   This initiative was driven by two factors:

1.  We recognized our collection was dated in many areas, and we also knew other areas were in demand and might need to updated, replaced, and/or expanded.  We also have been working with faculty and students to foster a greater inclusion of reading choice for students and to support a pilot of dedicated independent reading time in classes, so having a vibrant collection with titles of interest to teens is even more important.

2.  Our plan to reframe the library as a learning studio through multiple mediums would require us to rethink what it means to develop a print and digital collection in a more strategic way.  Additionally, we knew we would need to shift areas of the collection to be located more strategically in the physical space and to remove some shelving to open up space for other modes of learning.

Our intent was not to devalue the importance of a print collection, but instead, we wanted to rethink how we approach collection development to better meet the needs of our students and faculty and to better support the library as a learning studio.  We also felt that getting “knee deep” into the collection would allow us to see patterns of usage that sometimes aren’t readily visible with traditional reports.  We first began by generating a report in Destiny ( hat tip to Jennifer Helfrich, our Coordinator, Media Services & Technology Training for helping us remember the steps for this report:  Reports>Library Reports>Collection Statistics – Summary; at the bottom of the page the report lets you limit by time frame and number of checkouts) to sort the books by call number and to indicate how many times each book had been circulated within the last three years; we also included the copyright year in the report.   We felt these metrics and parameters would give us a starting point for consideration as we worked through the weeding process.

It is easy to judge libraries and librarians with larger and/or dated collections as “bad” or “ineffective.”  While this judgement may be warranted in many cases, I think there are just as many instances where weeding can reveal some of the larger and powerful influences that might hinder a librarian’s effort to continually craft a relevant and meaningful collection.  Before I delve into our experiences and reflections, I’d like to offer some thoughts on how collections fall into disarray and decay.

Reasons Why School Libraries in Georgia Often Have Large but Irrelevant and/or Poor Print Collections

Here in Georgia, there has been a longstanding fear held by many school librarians to take a bolder approach to weeding for a variety of reasons.  In the past, accreditation standards from SACS required a certain number of books per FTE count; that rule disappeared several years ago for Georgia K12 schools.  Another factor, the cuts to funding from the state for school libraries, especially after expenditure controls were removed a few years ago, also exacerbated fears that if one really weeded everything that needed to go, then there would not be money to replace those books and/or there might be backlash from the community over shelves that were not as full.  Even when expenditure controls were in place, many districts flaunted the law and did not give the full allotment to the school libraries.   Additionally, smaller schools were and are penalized for their size—in my first school library job, we had fewer than 400 students and in spite of receiving our state full funding, we received a very small amount (if I recall correctly, about $2000) that was woefully insufficient to update a collection that included a book with the statement, “One day man will go to the moon” (true weeding story from 2001-2002).  Schools with lower enrollments rarely receive appropriate funding levels to develop print and virtual collections.

I have long felt school districts should set aside additional monies on a yearly rotating basis to help school libraries, especially those in older schools, have the appropriate monies to update their print collections and now digital collections (yes, eBooks age, too!).   However, with the loss of expenditure controls, very few districts get their full allotment; I felt very lucky when I was at Creekview High to get my full funding allotment every year.  It troubles me that so many school districts in our state say they value reading on their websites and in their professional learning events, yet they don’t give their school libraries their full allotment.  Instead, districts repurpose that money for school libraries into other areas to make up for other budget area shortfalls (welcome to the era of local control in Georgia); this practice is now legally sanctioned since our state legislature removed the expenditure controls for these monies a few years ago.   Some districts also have some rather interesting rules about what can be purchased with that state money even though the state places very few restrictions on what materials qualify or quantity—I know several media specialists who are hassled about purchasing eBooks; in some school districts, you can only purchase print materials and eBooks for the collection and not equipment or other items like computers , equipment, or 3D printers that are essential to a larger scope of “collection.”  Others impose bizarre practices like having everyone do three orders a year—each order from a certain book vendor or jobber even if that vendor (who might be more specialized) doesn’t carry materials relevant to that age group or reading interests.

Other factors influencing weeding practices:  in some schools and districts, school librarians simply have lacked the authority to make these kinds of decisions without having to do excessive paperwork to justify every weed.   Finally, some school librarians were and are so short-staffed that they simply have lacked the time and energy to engage in a thoughtful weed of their collections, particularly if they are under pressure to focus time on technology, if they have been reduced to the managers of “stuff” in the building, if the school admin does not understand the importance of weeding, or if they are so swamped with instruction (a good problem to have!) that weeding goes to the bottom of the triage list.

Even though the literature on thoughtful weeding practices emphasizes it’s better to remove the “junk” so that people can see what is “good” on the shelves, many school librarians fear there won’t be support from building or district level administration if there is indeed an outcry as to why you are “throwing away books” or parents angry that you’ve suddenly removed materials, while poor, that count for Accelerated Reader points (gasp!).  The cumulative effect in older schools, including ones that might have moved to a newer building but were forced to bring over part of the original collection, has resulted in large collections that have books that are outdated, are in poor physical condition, and are no longer relevant to the curriculum and/or the community of learners.

This backstory and resulting effects are important to consider when we think about equitable access to quality libraries and learning experiences, particularly for students already marginalized and attending schools that lack equitable access to both quality collections in many mediums as well as rich learning experiences collaboratively co-facilitated by librarians and classroom teachers.

First Strike:  Fiction

Jennifer Recording a Book to Reorder

Jennifer Recording a Book to Reorder

We began our efforts in Fiction in late September since this is the area that gets the most usage with our students.   We printed sections of the bigger report we generated with the weeding metrics we incorporated and had our student aids highlight all books that had not circulated in three years in that section and then pull the titles out to the edge of the shelf so we could more quickly identify candidates for weeding.  We then loaded up a cart with a laptop to access Follett Titlewave to add replacement titles or additional titles by an author for a new order we would develop as we worked through Fiction, a notepad for any handwritten notes, and sticky notes to place on any books we might pull but might want to relocate or re-catalog if we felt they didn’t fit in Fiction.  We initially were cross-checking books against the printed report to verify circulation stats; however, we eventually abandoned this practice because the books at Norcross have stickers on the back where the due date is stamped upon circulation.  By looking at this sticker , we can  just look at that rather than the report to get a sense of a book’s circulation history.  We also realized the process would be far more time consuming than we anticipated at the beginning because we felt it was important for us to

1.  touch every book together and discuss its use in the media center and reasons why it might have been purchased (student request, unit of study, award winner, etc.)
2.  collaboratively decide and debate whether a book should stay, go, or be replaced (and if additional copies were needed) .

Although it would have been easier to have weeded books on the basis of those circulation parameters we established along with copyright date, that would have been misguided and frankly wrong.   We knew that every book had a “story” in how it came to be in the fiction collection, and it was important for us to weigh each book’s merits together—at times, we felt very uncomfortable about this as we questioned what “power” we might be wielding and if there were more democratic or more participatory ways to do so.  At the same time, though, we felt it was our responsibility to lead the process using our expertise while consulting with our community if we could not come to a confident conclusion.   This weeding project has been  a wonderful opportunity for me a newcomer to get to know the collection, a chance for Jennifer to get reacquainted with the collection firsthand, for us to get to know each other better, and to think aloud as a team as we discussed each book—what kids thoughts about it, why someone might have ordered it, why it was ordered with certain funds, how past and present purchasing policies influenced a book’s selection, and how a book might have once fit into a unit of study or special project.   We’ve had many moments where we have literally laughed out loud, felt surprise at some of our discoveries, and been outright baffled by purchases in the distant past.

Aftermath in Fiction

Aftermath in Fiction

While Jennifer and Adria ( previous NHS school librarian and a fellow UGA alum) had weeded sections in the past, Jennifer and I both agree that doing a wholesale weeding where you feel there is administrative level support to be aggressive with the weeding is a very different experience from weeding sections for the purpose of maintenance and updating.  We both also feel that this experience and approach can also be a great bonding experience for colleagues–whether you’ve known each other a long time or for just a short time, the conversations that emerge in the weeding process are often springboards to other conversations about philosophy and practice!  Through this weeding experience, which is still in progress, we also have had lengthy conversations about conventional wisdom related to collection development and traditional weeding practices—this kind of reflective practice is valuable for revisiting beliefs and questioning what you think you know and being more intentional with your practice.  As we Tweeted some of our weeding insights (we noticed that our teens did not seem to read many of the Printz winners), we involved thinking from our peers outside of our building and engaged in some truly thoughtful conversations and debates with other school and young adult librarians about the purposes and values of award winners and how to contextualize the purpose of those awards in purchasing decisions.  In late December, Jennifer shared this poignant reflection:

I thought I knew how to weed. I was wrong. I’ve weeded this very collection several times, but this time was different. I guess I just never realized how powerful this process can be and how beneficial it is to intimately know your collection.

In our efforts to embrace many mediums for learning, I think our profession has inadvertently devalued weeding and portrayed it in a narrow way depicting it as a gatekeeping, menial task.   Perhaps this is not so obvious when you have the luxury of starting with a new or newer collection, but this realization hits you square in the face when you take on the challenge of sifting through layers and years of history in a large and somewhat dated collection like ours.   I think Jennifer’s reflection is not only a testimony to weeding as a learning process for us professionals, but it also reminds me how important it is to work hands-on with your collection both through weeding and inventory—tasks that are sometimes viewed as drudgery or as of late, written off as an insignificant practice not worthy of our efforts in some circles of school librarianship, a perspective I think is short-sighted.  The reality of trying to balance our roles as instructional designer and partner, information expert, instructional leader, and program administrator can definitely make people feel that weeding and inventory are not at the top of the priority list in the grander scheme of our work; however, these are responsibilities that are related to our larger scope of work and impact both physical pace, collection development, and people’s perception of what libraries are about.  Carving out time to do this sort of work ultimately helps us contextualize the work of our other roles in our schools and the ways a library might function as a hub of learning.

We completed Fiction in late fall; even before we finished weeding that section, we noticed circulation statistics increasing in this area and students selecting books in the collection with lower circulation jumping off the shelves because of greater visibility after the weed.  We are now preparing to move the fiction books from their current location to the rotunda where seating and reference books are housed; we’ll be using the “fiction nook” physical space as a new learning studio within our larger library studio once we remove the shelves and receive our new furniture we’re in the process of ordering (thank you Gwinnett County Public School District Foundation and Principal Will Bishop for your financial support of our library as learning studio).

Nonfiction:  A Work in Progress

We began tackling 000-599 of Nonfiction in November and thought we could finish it by mid-December; we actually just completed this section about a week and a half ago.  We thought the weeding of nonfiction would go more quickly, perhaps because of the date/relevance/timeliness issue that is often a major metric in this area, but we found ourselves tackling it in the same painstaking manner as we did the fiction books.  We definitely had lengthier and more involved conversations about how these texts relate to curriculum and the shifts that come with focal areas of study as faculty members leave or change curricular areas, state and district standards change, and how testing impacts project-based, inquiry driven learning.  The rise and availability of digital content on a particular topic through web resources, databases, and eBook acquisition also are factors in the use (or lack thereof) of nonfiction print materials.  Although it was very easy to choose many books for weeding, there were just as many that received in-depth review and discussion before made a final decision together.  We also were able to identify pockets of this part of the collection that needed updating and began a new book order to address these needs; in some instances, we decided to weed the print copy of the book and replace it with the eBook format in our Gale Virtual Reference Library.

It was also in this section that we found some of the more interesting and outrageous discoveries.   While terrible book covers were a common find with our older fiction titles, we found more antiquated books in nonfiction. Whether it was a retro style bibliography card, a book on how to deal with hijackers (written prior to 9/11), or even a book that clearly was something in the vein of a former librarian’s personal tastes, we caught more glimpses of policies and influences driving collection purchases at different points in the school’s history.  We also discovered many finds from the 1980s and 1990s that were outdated in terms of factual accuracy and no longer related to the curriculum; the design, length, and style of these texts are markedly different from contemporary nonfiction titles.  We were also struck by how dreadfully unattractive many of the covers were!  We also discovered many texts that seemed to be a better fit for an academic collection and could only surmise that they were purchased for projects in the distant past, perhaps when teachers felt they could devote more time to research projects and in-depth exploration of a topic over an extended period of time with their students.  Other books may have been purchased in the past to target a student demographic that is no longer part of our student population.   It is in this section Jennifer and I have had multiple conversations about the shifting sands of curriculum and how we can balance that reality with student interests and passions related to nonfiction topics.  We also found several inconsistencies in cataloging and other cataloging choices we plan to amend in order to place the book in a section that will make more sense to our students.  Other decisions we made in this process:

  • We began selecting books that might be better suited for “coffee table” style display rather than on a shelf that is clearly not designed to accommodate or showcase it size and content.
  • We have marked books, like test prep for ACT, SAT, and AP, to be pulled out of nonfiction into a special collection that will be more visually and physically accessible to students since there is demand for those kinds of print materials.
  • Thinking about new signage and visualizations for the end panels to better indicate what might be find within a Dewey section.
  • Exploring ways to retrofit our shelves to be more aesthetically pleasing and more conducive to discovery of books through browsing.
  • Researching how we might retrofit our shelving to be mobile and how to add casters to the bottoms of our shelves that have metal foundation panels.  This conversation is part of an ongoing conversation about the need for contemporary shelving in high school libraries and what features can make our print collections more accessible.

We’re gearing up to resume weeding in February; we’re juggling those efforts with some new and exciting collaborative projects with classes.  We’ll resume with 600s and hope to complete the remaining sections of our collection by the end of March.

Weeding as Process to Expose Sponsors of Literacy

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Since this fall, I’ve been thinking the dendrochronology, the cross-dating and study of tree rings as a means to discover influences in a tree’s growth in any given year (climate or stress), as a metaphor for weeding and how looking at a cross-section of collection can expose past and present sponsors of literacy in a library community.  According to the University of Arizona Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, the purposes of dendrochronology research are:

1.  to put the present in proper historical context
2.  to better understand current environmental processes and conditions
3.  to improve understanding of possible future environmental issues

I would propose that the purposes of weeding a collection of any kind are similar in nature.  If we view weeding as  more than just the removal of materials and instead conceptualize it as a process of inquiry and discovery,  we can then begin to peel back layers and explore policies, philosophies, and other forces that have shaped not just the collection but the culture of learning and literacy practices in both the school and the library; we may also see clues that can reveal how library and literacy practices have influenced the “environment” of learning in a school and vice-versa.   Who and what have been privileged over time, and where is that visible or invisible in the collection?  The process of weeding a collection can help us  better understand the sponsors of literacy and learning that have shaped past and present practices and hopefully give us insights to more effective, thoughtful, and strategic decision making and practices for the future.  Additionally, it could be interesting to contextualize and situate weeding practices and insights as a form of ethnography of objects.  I lack the research methodology knowledge at this time to speak more knowledgeably on this prospect, but I think it’s an interesting thread to pull for the future.

If we think of weeding as one means as a way of exploring sponsors of literacy and learning in and through a library, we might consider these influences that can act as sponsors in both positive and negative ways:

  • Purchasing policies—values reflected in formats that may or may not be privileged, limitations or lack thereof  for number of copies one might purchase of a title, and how certain funding sources may dictate or limit what can be purchased with those monies as well as rules for purchasing and how the authority of individuals involved in purchasing may approve or validate (or not) certain kinds of materials and content.
  • Popular trends in terms of content, topics, and publishing.
  • Beliefs of library staff, faculty, students, administration (building and district level), and community about reading. 
  • Funding trends, funding sources, budget histories.
  • Book challenge policies and history within a school district  and how those might influence content selected for purchase.
  • How mediums for purchasing (purchase card, purchase orders, rules related to budget audits for districts) might influence what is bought from different vendors.
  • Bid pricing policies and vendors approved for librarians to use in purchasing.
  • Personal and professional values of librarians (see Mark Dressman’s Literacy in the Library); beliefs about what children/teens need and/or should read; beliefs about purposes and roles of the library in a school; use of physical space and how it is impacted by print collections.
  • Identifying information about a book (example: funding source) included in processing; relevance of placement in collection, visibility of circulation history of a text to a patron.
  • Corporate influence in imprints or types of books pushed/marketed toward certain groups.
  • Collection practices taught at any given point in history.
  • Percentage, identification, and arrangement of fiction, nonfiction, reference, biography, story collection, etc.
  • Physical location of specific areas of collection and what values may be conveyed by placement.

Just as tree rings might show conditions of drought or flood, I encourage you to think of these “environmental conditions” in my working list above as forces that influence the ways libraries function as sponsors of literacy through their collections.   What clues of the past can we see through weeding to better understand the present and move forward more intentionally into the future?  How can weeding illuminate these sponsors of literacy and help us to elevate the positive influences while mitigating or stopping the negative ones that have impacted collection, library services and instruction, and the larger school culture?  I’m interested in what these sponsors of literacy look like across multiple school libraries in our state and nation and how they impact practices that may privilege or silence children and teens along lines of race, class, and gender, particularly when we look at school libraries that serve children and teens who may be marginalized by poverty and geography.

Final Thoughts and Wonderings

  • While my post is situated in a school library context and comes with its own unique challenges, I suspect that our experience translates to a large degree to weeding practices in public and academic libraries.  How might we thoughtfully share our experiences and rethink as well as develop new practices together?
  • This experience only reinforces my belief that libraries are not the neutral spaces we portray them to be and that looking at our work and practices through a lens of sponsors of literacy is important to elevate our awareness of our positional power.
  • How will practices of weeding print collections inform practices of weeding other kinds of collection in the not so distant future?  Whether it is a virtual collection of eBooks, a guitar collection, a seed library, or something else, no collection can be static.
  • How do we negotiate the challenges of doing this time-intensive work with other pressing areas of our work in our libraries and learning communities?
  • How do we begin to address the challenges I outlined at the beginning of this post to address factors that create and/or exacerbate stagnant collections?
  • How might we make collection development and weeding practices more participatory, organic, and nimble, especially in the face of mounting budget cuts in multiple kinds of libraries?
  • How might the metaphor of tree ring study and weeding as one way of unpacking sponsors of literacy and accumulating layers of history reframe other practices of our profession?
  • What data visualization methods might also help us expose patterns in collection and weeding data/statistics?

As you can see, this experience has exposed new insights for us while leading to new lines of professional inquiry.  I’ll continue to dwell in these ideas as Jennifer and I jump into the next phase of  our “Great Weeding Process” once more in another week and hopefully complete our work by the end of March.

Writing Around Text on Text Effort 2: Unplugged Conversations for Inquiry, Participation, and Social Construction of Meanings

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This past Friday, my fellow librarian Jennifer Lund and I had another opportunity to help facilitate written conversations about texts using the strategies we learned in the Harvey Daniels workshop we attended in December 2013.    Emily Russell, a teacher and Language Arts Department Chair we’ve collaborated with regularly this past year, and her students have been reading the memoir The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.  When she came to us for ideas for helping students transact with the text and their peers, we shared some of the strategies from the Daniels workshop as well as the write around text on text strategy we did with Darryl Cicchetti.

One of our reflections from our work with Darryl is that we think it would helpful to scaffold the write around text on text strategy by first giving students the opportunity to do the “silent literature circle letters.”  In this strategy, students can work in pairs or small groups of 3-4 (no more than 4) to have a conversation about a text or question through timed letter writing.  You can begin by having students write silently for 3-4 minutes and then swapping letters ( which can be written on notebook paper or large index cards) and writing again for bursts of 3-4 minutes.   Depending on how many people are in a group, this could go back and forth between pairs or you could simply write around the small group until everyone had a chance to respond to each other.  This can then be followed-up with small group discussion about the ideas and points they wrote on paper before moving to a large group share.  Emily did this with her three classes at the beginning of the week before coming down to the media center on Friday to do the write around text on text.

On Thursday, students used the same template we used with Darryl’s classes to have students identify a passage that stood out to write2them as well as questions they had about that chunk of text.  Some students chose brief and specific  passages; others chose large extended sections spanning 2-3 pages.  Most students chose something in the middle about a paragraph or so in length.  At the end of each period, Emily sent those down to the media center along with a roster of groups she selected to help us organize for Friday.  Just as I did with Darryl, I made copies of the passages on colored paper and then affixed them to large sheets of butcher paper.  Because our copier machine has been broken for two weeks, I used the ScannerPro app and then exported the PDFs of the passages to Evernote for printing.  This process moved fairly quickly although it would have been faster if I had access to a printer configured for Airprint.  The other aspect that was different this time was using colored butcher paper—that had been my original intent for the first time with Darryl’s students, but because I didn’t specify colored paper, our library student helpers assumed I wanted white paper.  This time I was sure to go with them and to be specific about colors I wanted.  While that sounds like a minor point, Emily’s students immediately commented about the colors and that they liked that when they first entered the library on Friday.  One other thing I did differently out of necessity with time constraints that come with doing prep work for more sections—I simply wrote group names on butcher paper with a black Sharpie instead of making the pretty group nametags in PowerPoint that I did last time.

This time we met in our area of the library that has eight rectangular tables and a screen for project rather than the rotunda area we used with Darryl’s classes.  We felt this would help us get groups together more quickly and help us avoid dealing with the horrific acoustics that plague our rotunda area of the library (as in a whisper echoes loudly across the entire space—it is akin to being in a cave when you are trying to talk to someone in this part of our library, a problem we’re working to address or at least mitigate). write4 As Emily’s students arrived, she, Jennifer, and I instructed them to find their table by looking for their name on the butcher paper on the tables; we also had the group rosters up on a slide we projected onto a screen.   We reviewed the instructions for the write-around text on text, took time to answer any questions, and then instructed students to jump in as we told them we’d write for about 10-12 minutes, and we’d alert them when time was up.  Just as we did with Darryl’s classes, we circulated among the groups, observing, photographing, and videoing; we also answered any questions students had, and Emily also jumped in and actively participated in the written conversations with students as well.

In reality, each class actually wrote for 20 minutes!  Because they were so into what they were doing, we did not want to break the flow.  It was interesting to note some differences in how these students engaged in the activity compared to our first group with Darryl.

  • None of the classes seemed confused about the directions and immediately jumped into the activity.  Because we had the hindsight of offering this kind of scaffolding and had already seated the students by their groups, we think these steps helped minimize any confusion.
  • There was less oral conversation doing the write-around time (which Daniels advocates as silent writing time) and less socializing; when students did converse, it was done so in a quiet manner and was related specifically to the text or the activity.
  • Students were able to write for a longer sustained time period (roughly 20 minutes vs. 10 or so minutes).
  • Students wrote more responses directly to the text as well as to each other; we have not yet coded the responses for every group yet (this will take some time as there are approximately 25 groups total to code), but I suspect from what I read and saw Friday that we’ll see some different patterns in terms of response type, volume, and depth from our first group in December.
  • Students seemed very organic in their work—on their own, each class began drifting to other tables and seemed intentional in trying to make their way to every table at least once.  We did not tell them to do this; in fact, with Darryl’s students, we had asked them to focus just on their group (this decision seemed practical at the time since each group was reading a different book whereas Emily’s students had this common text/book).    It was truly fascinating to  see them make their way around to each table; many also revisited tables to do follow-up responses other peers might have left.  Consequently, we saw more of a trajectory in the written conversations that reflected more of a dialogue between various students.
  • Out of three classes, there were only two students I observed who seemed to struggle with full engagement.  I was honestly struck by how focused and intent students seemed during the quiet write-around piece of the activity.  There was definitely a synergy of thought that was truly awe-inspiring to just stand back and watch.

These differences in my mind are not “bad” or “good”,  but in many ways reflect not just the difference in scaffolding, but to a larger degree, the fact that Emily’s students as a whole have had more opportunities in their past K-9 experiences to engage in group or collaborative activities.  Students who are tracked into what are considered “lower” level courses are often confined to write5solitary activities involving worksheets and silence; hence, when they are given the opportunity to do more interactive and collaborative work, teachers have to be patient in helping students work through the learning curve students experience as they learn the social and academic skills they need for these kinds of participatory learning experiences.   I am thankful for teachers like Darryl who want to disrupt that norm and give these students the same kinds of learning opportunities as “Honors” or other “higher” level classes.

We then gave students time to debrief and process in small groups when the 20 minutes was up.   We told them they could talk about one or more of the following:

  • The written conversations and specific pieces of those conversations on the butcher paper at their table
  • Ideas and conversations they had read at other tables
  • New insights, questions, or understandings from the process of reading others’ ideas

Each group appointed a recorder to capture the “big ideas” from the small group discussions that lasted about 5-7 minutes.  Emily and I walked about and listened in to each group; Emily used what she heard to help lead the big group discussion we then had the last 10 minutes of class, a time in which they tied together both ideas as well as literary aspects of the text that were highlighted in student written conversations.

Every class had an overwhelmingly positive response to the activity.   There was even a class in which students remarked aloud to both Emily and me that “we should be doing this more often!”  At the end of class, students shared what they liked about the write around text on text activity while asking ( very enthusiastically) if this was something they could do more regularly!   Other feedback from the students:

  • They enjoyed and appreciated hearing many student voices, something that sometimes gets silenced in traditional class discussions.
  • They liked being able to see different perspectives on their book; several remarked how the written conversations helped them see something they had not noticed about the book.  Others commented their perspective on a character or issue in the text had changed after reading the opinions and responses of their peers.  They were beginning to understand learning is social and how meaning can be constructed together.
  • Students liked the freedom in being able to move about and respond at their own pace during the write-around.
  • Students were focused on ideas, not grammar or spelling.
  • Everyone had opportunities to contribute to the discussion.
  • Students remarked that this activity was one that helped them think more critically and deeply.
  • Students were surprised by how fast the period seemed to go and that they had written as long as they did.
  • Some students remarked they loved the “freedom” of the space of the media center and being able to participate in the activity without feeling “confined” by the space constraints and seating arrangements of the traditional classroom (a point which we feel supports our vision of transforming our library into a learning studio for teachers and students!).

write3As I have reflected now on this second effort and experience of doing written conversations with students, a few thoughts have resonated with me over the weekend:

  • Activities that put inquiry and participation at the heart of the learner experience are the ones that will truly capture students’ minds and trust.  Sometimes this involves using technology; sometimes it does not.
  • Over the course of Media 21, Susan and I became more selective and strategic about our incorporation of technology as a medium or tool for learning; we saw that students often needed the “offline” experience of learning how to participate in a community of learners in a space that was not so public online and provided immediate, face to face feedback.  These experiences so far at NHS seem to parallel those with Creekview students.
  • These kinds of conversations that don’t involve technology or dialogue in an online space can be a scaffold for more public conversations; however, I increasingly worry about the fine line in not imposing a medium for learning that might not work for teen learners vs. how to respectfully their comfort level and skill in participating in virtual learning spaces.  I plan to revisit Shall We Play?, an outstanding document that addresses this very challenge of helping students cultivate new media literacies and the four Cs of participation.  I think their pedagogical model of scaffolding those 4Cs in both low-tech and high-tech contexts will help me better think how to negotiate these questions and challenges as we hope to expand our work with teachers and students to grow these conversations.
  • These questions and reflections in these excellent posts from Lee Skallerup (It’s About Class:  Interrogating the Digital Divide) and Jackie Gerstein (Is There a Digital Divide or an Intellectual-Pedagogical One?) also reflect my thinking and work from the trenches.  These are definitely worth your time to read and to ponder as I worry that schools and libraries are doing a lot of shallow pedagogical work just for the sake of saying they are “integrating technology” and embracing “digital learning” (what the heck do we even mean by that?).  I fear the emphasis on “technology integration” is trumping sound, thoughtful instructional design in too many classrooms and libraries.

I hope to do a follow-up post in the next ten days or so to share our findings of coding the student work.  For now, though, I hope that this post will be helpful to those interested in these strategies.    This past Friday was one of those magical days with students and teachers in which you get to watch learning in action–watching ideas blossom like a bud unfurling its petals still evokes pure joy after 21 years of teaching.  In a climate in which high stakes testing increasingly informs the experience of school and undercuts teachers’ autonomy in determining the most effective ways their students learn, I’m grateful for teachers like Emily and Darryl who put their students’ needs first and are willing to give them time, space, and opportunities to be active agents in their experiences as learners.   If you’d like to see more scenes from Friday, please visit my photo set housed here.  In addition, here are two videos (I promise to film from the horizontal perspective next time!) from Friday:

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

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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.