By Popular Request: Hooch Learning Studio Library Makeover Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 The outdated style and limited flexibility to personalize learning that the old media center offered was not always conducive for my students to learn and collaborate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

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

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

Learning About Creative Writing with Real World Experts: Jenny Sadre-Orafai

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We are indebted to Jenny Sadre-Orafai, Associate Professor in the Department of English at Kennesaw State University, for her time today in our “virtual visit” with a creative writing expert! We appreciate how she took time to really think about the questions sent to her from the students, and how thoughtfully she shared her expertise with us. I learned so much today as a writer and teacher, and I know my middle school writers did, too! I am so pleased my SOAR Creative Writers had this opportunity to learn about writer’s craft, poetry writing, and literary journals.

Dr. Sadre-Orafi took great care and time to answer each of the student questions:

• What is your favorite writing genre?
• Did you want to be a writer when you were younger?
• What’s your writing process like?
• How much do you write in a day?
• What do you find most difficult about writing?
• How do you deal with writer’s block, especially when writing poems?
• What do you think it takes to be a professional writer (career)?
• What inspired you to write?
• Who are your favorite writers and why?
• Do you have favorite writing topics? If so, what are they?
• How did you figure out your passion?
• How do you get ideas for writing?
• Where is your favorite place to write?
• What are literary journals?
• Does creative writing get easier as an adult?
• What made you choose to write creative nonfiction instead of fiction?
• What advice do you have for aspiring poets?
• What advice do you have for someone who is interested in writing for a career and choosing a college and major?
• How often do you write?
• Where do you grow up and did your childhood influence your writing in any way?
• Do your life experiences influence what you choose to write about?
• Did you choose your career or did it choose you?
• Do you ever feel “powerful” because you are in control of a piece of writing like a poem?
• What is creative nonfiction?

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Some of the insights and “take aways” we gained from our virtual visit include:

  • To be a writer, you must be curious.  Soak in everything around you.  Think of yourself as a being with antennae and pay attention to everything around you.  Notice and observe!
  • If you want to be a poet, read as much poetry as you can; Dr. Sadre-Orafi specifically recommended we read contemporary poetry (yay!).
  • Very few people become “professional” writers, but majoring in English or a similar field can allow you to use your writing talents and find pathways into related career fields.
  • Literary journals are a great pathway to publication, especially for poetry.
  • A professor once told her that there is no such thing as writer’s block.  If you find yourself getting stuck for ideas, physically remove yourself out of your comfort zone if possible.  For example, walk down a different street or hallways.  A change of scenery or placing yourself in the unfamiliar can help you notice things around with you fresh eyes.

Thank you to Dr. Tony Grooms of the Creative Writing program at KSU for connecting us with Dr. Sadre-Orafai, and thank you to our tech expert Greg Odell for helping us connect through Zoom!  We will be connecting with three more faculty from Kennesaw State this month and in early March; we look forward to learning through these upcoming virtual visits.

Exploring Writing Craft with Noticings + See, Think, Wonder

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Visual Thinking Strategies + Interactive Writing Notebooks FTW

 

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After attending a session at NCTE on reflective notebooks with Dr. Susan James and then doing some additional research on interactive writing notebooks over the holiday break, I decided to implement a hybrid version this semester with my War Eagle Studio writers.  I love the idea of using the right side of the notebook to present content and using the left side for students to reflect, write, and/problem solve based on the mini-lesson and content for that day.  I am hopeful this approach might help us use our writer’s notebooks in a more robust way that will give students some meaningful structure yet still have enough flexibility to stay true to a traditional writer’s notebook.

While browsing the wonderful Ethical ELA blog yesterday, I came across a post about visual thinking strategies by Dr. Sarah J. Donovan.  You read more about VTS here, but this page on VTS and a description of how a Fulton County teacher used VTS with her students in their writing notebooks, I just knew I had to give this strategy a try with my students.  I plan to use both photography and artworks as our discussion starters, but I felt starting with a current event photo would be the best choice for our kickoff effort with VTS in our interactive writing notebooks today.  I decided to use the photo from the “Dabbing in Congress” prompt from the New York Times library of picture prompts.

When students arrived today, I had made mini-versions of the photo with our prompt, “What do you see?  What do you notice?”  I reviewed instructions for gluing or taping the photo prompt into their interactive writing notebooks (this was our first entry!), and then projected the color photo onto the board with Google Slides.  I told students to look at the photo and write down everything they saw; students could list their noticings as a bulleted or numbered list.  I encouraged them to keep their pencils moving as much as they could and to keep digging for any detail they saw even if it didn’t seem significant.  After 5-6 minutes, we then stopped and every student shared at least one noticing/observation; I recorded these in a Google Document as I wanted to see patterns of observation.  I was astonished by the level of detail as well as students’ enthusiastic participation in the activity; even my 8th graders, who have been my most challenging group of learners this school year, were full of energy and excitement.

During our first round of sharing, I used the protocol of VTS by asking each student to share:

  • What do you see?  What’s going on in this picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?

The “What makes you say that?” question was especially powerful in drawing out student responses and nudging them to further explain their answers or go back to the photo for “textual” evidence and details.  After the first round of sharing, I asked students to look at the photo more closely and to see if they could find at least two new noticings or things they didn’t see before.  This was a shorter time period of observing and brainstorming–roughly two minutes.  This piece of the activity comes from the third part of VTS facilitation, “What more can we find?”  I was beyond impressed by the breadth AND depth of noticings by students in every single grade level (6-8).

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We did one more share aloud with these noticings.  I then read them a short news story about the actual event and showed a short video clip.  We then pulled together the VTS activity with the actual facts of the event to talk about the teen’s actions, his father’s response, and why/when dabbing might be considered appropriate or inappropriate.   It was one of the best discussions we’ve had this entire school year!

Finally, I then presented students two choices for writing and responding to our activity:

Option 1:

Write an opinion paragraph. State whether or not you think it was appropriate for the teenage son, Cal Marshall, to dab at his father’s Congressional swearing in ceremony. Support your opinion with at least two reasons and explain your ideas.

Option 2:

Write a mini-story (1-2 paragraphs) about what happened in this photo from the perspective of one of the following characters in the story:
*Speaker of the House Paul Ryan
*Dad, Representative Roger Marshall
*Son, Cal Marshall (age 17)

I asked students to use the left side of the notebook to begin brainstorming and then writing their selected piece. While it was not my intent in designing these prompts, both are similar in nature to the kinds of written responses/constructed responses they might see on the Georgia Milestones test in April.

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We’ll finish our writing tomorrow, and students will volunteer to share an excerpt or all of their writing tomorrow in class for a class share-aloud.  I have our school’s awesome wireless microphone speaker system on standby so that we can elevate the level of sharing (the kids love it), plus it helps my more soft-spoken students share with their peers.

 

I’m excited to hear their writing tomorrow and to explore the possibilities for our hybrid interactive/reflective writer’s notebooks.  I also plan to make the VTS a weekly part of our writing/thinking routine as the kids were incredibly engaged with this method; I think it will also be a wonderful way to grow our powers of observations and attention to “textual evidence” and details as writers.  Are you using VTS or interactive/reflective notebooks with your writers?  I’d love to hear what you are doing and how it is impacting student learning.