Markerboard Surfaces, Collaborative Conversations, Academic Literacies, and Libraries

Yesterday I blogged about the use of our new markerboard surface tables as a way for students to collaborate and capture their group thinking.   I’d like to briefly share another use of these dry erase surfaces in our library learning studio from last week with our Theory of Knowledge (TOK) students.   This was an activity that came together very quickly Thursday morning and while not tied to a formal research project, threads of inquiry were essential to the learning experience.  The group came to the studio to watch a short clip of a PBS video related to their content/unit of study.  Dr. Glenn and Mr. Byrne developed discussion questions around this segment and composed them on our dry erase surfaces.


After watching a short segment of the video, students had approximately 10-12 minutes to visit each table; students were encouraged to discuss their thoughts and reflections with their peers and then jot down their responses.    We also observed students continuing the conversations around the written responses as they engaged in some truly meaningful and deep dialogue with each other.

tok2 tok3 tok4


Students were able to jump into the activity quickly and confidently and participate in richer, more nuanced conversations (both written and oral) because Dr. Glenn and Mr. Byrne consistently integrate learning/thinking structures as a regular part of classroom life.  As I watched these students immerse themselves into the learning activity with depth and intensity, I could not help but think of the huge participation gap that Jennifer and I have observed the last two years.  We have seen a wide range of academic and social skill sets across multiple content area classes, course levels, and grades; I feel I have struggled to articulate what I’m observing and to contextualize it although the recent readings are helping me to take first steps in doing so.   The academic discourse and social behaviors of the TOK students were reflective of the academic literacy framework I referenced in yesterday’s post; in particular, these students were demonstrating:

1.  Disciplinary literacy: “…the join understanding of discipline-specific literacy features through which knowledge is created and practices are shared” (Kiili, Mäkinen, and Coiro 225).

2  Argumentative literacies:  “As students work to establish themselves as contributing members of a domain-specific discourse community, argumentative literacy practices enable them to consider alternative perspectives, broaden and deepen their knowledge, and make judgement to inform their decision making.  As a result, students are able to identify, evaluated, and produce arguments within a wide range of individual and social literacy events…students are able to effectively composed, evaluate, and learn from arguments by adopting the social practices of the target discipline” (Kiili, Mäkinen, and Coiro 225).

3.  Collaborative literacies:  “…those literacy practices in which two or more person engaged in reading and/or writing together are equally responsible for negotiating meaning through talk.  The goal of collaborative literacy practices is to produce a joint interpretation of a text” (Kiili, Mäkinen, and Coiro 225).  In this case, our texts were previous knowledge and the PBS video segment.

Like many other activities we’ve helped design and/or facilitate this academic year, common threads are woven into learning activities:

  • Writing as a medium for thinking and sharing
  • Collaborative conversations
  • Individual work, small group discussion, and large group share

We then moved to a large group discussion facilitated by Dr. Glenn; students from each table had the opportunity to share their thoughts about the question posed at their table.




Because we ran out of time, the activity was continued into the next day.  Many students captured the ideas on each table with their cell phones as they prepared to leave for lunch.

Reflections:  The Library as Learning Studio and Site of Literacy Practices

While not a formal research type of activity or project, we love working with teachers and students to provide them space and assistance for these kinds of learning opportunities.   So often we call the library the “biggest classroom” in a school, yet learning experiences are often limited to formal research projects and/or storytime.  In many schools, it’s a challenge for teachers and administrators to see the library as an additional learning space that can accommodate many kinds of experiences because the quiet, book-centric model and/or prior experiences dominate their perceptions.  In other school libraries, limited budgets and restrictive physical space hinder the efforts of librarians to sell the library as a studio and alternate kind of classroom.  When our spaces are designed with flexible areas that can be repurposed quickly, mobile furniture, and technologies for multiple modes of learning (low tech and high tech), the library can support a more diverse range of learning experiences and be better positioned to support the growth of academic literacies for all students throughout the school year, not just when it is time for formal or informal research projects.  These learning space design drivers  expand the possibilities of libraries as sites of practice for multiple literacies and can potentially position the library as a “commonplace for interpretation” in exploring, expanding, and theorizing the literacy practices within its learning community (Sumara), hence shifting and expanding the role of the librarian as a sponsor of literacy (Brandt).


Brandt, Deborah. Literacy in American Lives. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print.

Kiili, Carita, Marita Mäkinen, and Julie Coiro. “Rethinking Academic Literacies.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 57.3 (2013): 223-32. Professional Development Collection [EBSCO]. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.

Sumara, Dennis J. Why Reading Literature in School Still Matters: Imagination, Interpretation, Insight. Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum, 2002. Print.
Note:  If you are interested in the “Rethinking Academic Literacies” article, you may also enjoy teacher Gary Johnston’s series of blog posts on this article.

Formulating Research Questions with Birds of Feather Collaboration and Writable Surfaces


We’ve been partnering with Language Arts teacher Sean O’Connor the last few weeks as his students have been engaged in presearch around topics that students identified and developed around motifs and themes of To Kill a Mockingbird.  After participating in the reading frenzy activity, students left with a topic of interest that they wanted to explore further and refine through presearch.  After several days of gathering information and sources to build background knowledge, the students were ready to think about focusing their topics even more by developing a refining research question.    After some conversation, Sean and I thought it would be meaningful for students to collaborate and use the question lenses activity that my friend Heather Hersey shared with me last fall and that I piloted with Sarah Rust’s students.   We felt the question lenses would give our students a way of looking at their presearch information with fresh eyes and alternate perspectives.  Inspired by both Heather and Sarah Ludwig’s adaptation of the activity, Sean and I decided to do our own variation on Sarah’s version of writing around question lenses using our new dry erase tables (we purchased the Expanse and Nebula tables with dry erase surfaces).

We began by introducing the question lenses and activity procedures to Sean’s students:

After showing and discussing the five question lenses and examples [see slides above], we asked students to form “birds of feather” groups around like or similar topics at the dry erase tables. Once students had formed their groups, we asked them to write their topic(s) on the table and to get a variety of dry erase markers we had available.  We gave them about 10-12 minutes to talk and draft at least two questions per question lens for a minimum of ten.   We encouraged them to keep a tally on their pink sheets (every student received one to have as a guide and to record questions they liked for personal keeping) as their groups composed their questions.










Some groups were initially a little quiet and needed some encouragement/nudging from us to help them get their conversations and group thinking going.  Sean is especially gifted at helping students communicate and helping students tap into their cognitive processes as he circulates about and engages in discussions with the students without giving them answers or leading them to a response.

After the question incubation period, we asked each group to look at their questions and come to a consensus about which question they felt was the best one and to be able to articulate why it was the best question.  They then composed their top question on one of our Verb whiteboards.  Next, we did a large group share out of questions and rationales.   As each group finished their brief presentation, they placed their Verb Steelcase whiteboard onto the Verb easel.





Students then had an opportunity to vote for best question of the period by placing a checkmark on the easel with their favorite question.  As we voted, students also finished recording favorite questions on their pink sheets; other students also used this time to photograph their group table.   We asked students to reflect on the questions they had seen both in their groups and from the other groups as we thought about what makes a good research question; this activity was our springboard for helping students either draft their own question or to use one of the questions from their birds of feather topic group  that resonated with them as their focus question for moving further into search. They are now doing additional search and are starting to think about multigenre element products they’ll craft to represent their key understandings and insights.

Two aspects of this activity that we loved are reflected in many of the inquiry driven activities we’ve done this year in helping students move begin or move through presearch:

1.  Writing is a medium for processing ideas and thinking in a visible way.

2.  We move through a continuum of individual, pair/small group, and large group work that ultimately helps students experience learning in a social and collaborative way and that will inform their individual work.

We are always happy to provide students these kinds of learning opportunities for our students, especially for those who may not have had many of these learning experiences prior to high school and/or during their previous high school research/inquiry experiences.  If you don’t have access to dry erase surfaces, you can easily adapt this activity with butcher/bulletin board paper or oversized sticky notes.  While I know there are virtual mediums for doing this activity, I increasingly feel that being “unplugged” and having students do this work in a tactile and physically present way makes the thinking more concrete and gives students chances to interact socially in an academic context that would not happen through a virtual tool.   This face to face modeling and opportunity to practice these skills and grow these cultural, social, and cognitive dimensions of academic literacy is especially important for students whose opportunities to do so have previously been limited (Kiili, Mäkinen, and Coiro).

We’d love to hear from others how you are either helping students develop and refine research questions, using writable surfaces for thinking and learning, or other collaborative work during presearch.  For more photos of the activity with our two classes, please visit the photoset.


Kiili, Carita, Marita Mäkinen, and Julie Coiro. “Rethinking Academic Literacies.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 57.3 (2013): 223- 32. Professional Development Collection [EBSCO]. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.

CU Boulder Symposium Keynote: Literacies for Every Season of Their Lives

Many thanks to my colleagues at UC Boulder for the opportunity to participate from afar in your symposium today! Thank you so much for inviting me to be part of your day of learning and sharing.

Links of Interest:

Mindmapping Our Presearch Notes: Seeing Patterns and Gaps


For the last month or so, I’ve been working with a section of Honors 9th Language Arts (hopefully, another more comprehensive post coming on this endeavor later in the spring).   After completing a class study of To Kill a Mockingbird, the students selected a motif of choice and began presearching a topic of choice related to the motif.   After completing a presearch search term map and arriving at a narrowed topic (which I’ve blogged about earlier this semester), we moved forward with another and more focused round of presearch while using EasyBib to capture information sources and take notes.   After approximately two and a half weeks, most students had a body of notes on their focused topic.  However, after many 1:1 student conferences and a formative assessment of collecting and reading their notes, the teacher and I realized many students were struggling with:

1.  Recording relevant information from their information sources.

2.  Taking notes in “bite-sized” portions.

3.  Being discerning about information that would help them go beyond merely reporting and instead, help them dig into the higher level thinking and questions that we wanted to anchor their inquiry.

After addressing some of these challenges with a mini-lesson and small group or individual conferences, we felt the students needed a more concrete way of discovering the patterns of information as well as the gaps in their notes. We asked students to print out their e-notes from EasyBib and gave them supplies (Sharpies, markers, large/oversized  sticky notes) to help them map out the information they had collected up to that point in their notes.  We discussed some strategies for identifying major topics and subtopics as well a sample mindmap of notes. Students were assigned a working area with a partner so that they had a “research buddy” to help them think through their process as needed and worked on their maps about a day and a half.

We wanted the class to have an opportunity to look at their peers’ maps and provide feedback; we knew our students would need a little scaffolding to provide meaningful peer feedback, so we took a few minutes to review their peer review activity guidelines with them.  We spread out the maps and placed pads of lined sticky notes at each table of notes mindmaps.  We asked students to write their feedback on these sticky notes and to include their name, their feedback, and the feedback category number (see the handout embedded below).  We discussed ideas for meaningful feedback (including a list of idea/conversation starters) that were numbered so that they could include the “feedback category” ID number on the sticky note as an extra layer of clarification.

As students walked around giving feedback, we also instructed them to keep a running record of the maps they were reviewing and quick notes about what they were seeing (see page 2 of the document embedded above).







We initially thought the students could complete the activity in 12-15 minutes, but in spite of our best efforts to be proactive, we had about a quarter of the class that had difficulty staying on task, participating, or making a legitimate effort to provide meaningful feedback.  Because our studio space had been reserved for another activity the following day, we had to adjust our plans to complete the activity in the teacher’s classroom, a space that really was not conducive to the activity or an ideal learning environment for this kind of activity.  However, we had no choice, so we had to adjust as best we could.   I hung some of the maps on whatever wall space I could find; for the rest of the maps, I had students place desks together in pairs and utilized that surface space for the remaining maps.  We thought they could complete feedback within another ten minutes, but some of the very same behavior issues that plagued us the day before were again problematic even after we enlisted the assistance of an assistant principal to conference with some of the students outside of class as part of our efforts to address the previous day’s issues.  However, we stayed the course and tried to redirect students as needed so that we could get as much helpful peer review for everyone as possible.



Once we brought the peer review to a close, students paired up once again with their research buddy and used the Making Thinking Visible learning structure of Compass Points to help students reflect on the mindmapping process and peer review activity.  Each pair received a graphic organizer to complete their ideas they were to share and discuss.


After having 5-7 minutes to discuss and record their observations and ideas, we asked each pair to do a quick share of their notes with the large group.   Students noted effective map organization strategies as well as what constituted “good” or quality information from the notes in the maps.  However, many students noticed that quite a few maps lacked depth of information; others noted that better organization was needed in structuring topics and subtopics. In spite of some of the challenges we encountered, we felt most students truly benefitted from the mapping activity itself as well as the peer review.

When we returned from spring break, we returned maps to the students along with the sticky note feedback others gave from the peer review activity.  We then asked students to think about what they had in their notes and maps that was helpful and what was missing.  Students then had the class period to complete two thinking/reflection exercises:

1.  The question lenses activity that I borrowed last semester from my friend Heather Hersey (and blogged about; also see Sarah Ludwig’s awesome adaptation of this thinking exercise–I would have totally done her version if we had more time in our schedule for this project).  We framed this thinking exercise as a way of addressing gaps or “struggle areas” of their mindmaps and as a means of thinking about next steps for our new round of additional research for the week.


2.  They then had time to complete  mindmapping reflection questions via a Google Survey embedded in the project LibGuide.

We collected the hard copies of the question lens activity; I downloaded the responses from the Google Sheet as an Excel spreadsheet and then ran a mail merge so that the teacher and I both had easy to read hard copies of the student responses.    Common feedback ran along the lines of these statements:

  • The mindmapping process helped me better organize my ideas.
  • The mindmapping process helped me realize I didn’t have enough information about my topic.
  • The mindmapping process gave me new perspectives I had never considered.
  • The peer feedback helped me rethink one of my subections and a new direction for research.
  • Organizing my topics and subtopics was harder than I realized.
  • The mindmap challenged me to make sense of my notes (more intentional thought as opposed to just randomly taking notes).
  • I realized some of the information I had taken notes on really did not fit with my narrowed topic focus.
  • Mindmapping helped me visualize how my pieces of information fit and relate to each other.
  • Writing in short phrases or brief key ideas was challenging for me; I wanted to copy my notes as they were in complete sentences.
  • Mindmapping was challenging because categorizing my ideas and information into subtopics was difficult.
  • The mindmapping process helped me to see I need to slightly change my topic focus from A to B.
  • I realized the notes I have are lacking in meaningful detail.
  • The mindmapping process has allowed me to see/find a deeper personal connection to my overall topic.
  • The mindmapping process has helped me to see I need to go deeper with my information and further develop the topic.
  • The mindmapping processes helped me better see the strengths and weaknesses of my research and better refine my subtopics.
  • The peer feedback helped me to see I need to regroup my ideas on my map.
  • The question lenses activity helped me to look at my project from a different point of view and to rethink what information I should now focus on gathering.

I’m happy the mindmapping activity and peer review provided students the opportunity to wrestle with their notes and the information they had gathered during our first round of presearch.  My hope was that the process would nudge their thinking because it was clear within the first few days of working with the students that they were used to reporting information as opposed to researching, a distinction my colleagues who blog at Letting Go have made in previous posts.  I know that for some students, the uncertainty and our pushing them to think more deeply beyond shallow, surface level work has been uncomfortable, but we have tried to give them as much support as we can to help them develop new strategies and resilience in this inquiry focused project.  I think it is especially important with freshmen to provide and scaffold these kinds of learning experiences, particularly if they have had few or no opportunities to develop these kinds of information literacy skills and processes.

Their teacher and I are proud nearly every student has either had the confidence and persistence to move forward this past week wherever they have been on the spectrum of the quality and depth of their work.  Several have regrouped and have been digging in to act on the next steps they identified from their insights and reflections on their work.   It takes grit on the part of students, teachers, and librarians to grapple with these kinds of challenges, but it is so gratifying to see the individual growth and forward momentum for each student.  They are now starting to sketch out their multigenre products, and we’ll be moving forward with creating those artifacts and the supporting notes narratives/compositions.

Designing Successful Learning Structures for Literature Circles with Sarah Rust


While literature circles are not a new concept, teachers are always looking for strategies to help students successfully interact and develop sustained conversations about texts.   If you are thinking about literature circles for any grade level or subject area, you will want to listen to my interview with Language Arts teacher Sarah Rust as she takes us through her planning and design process with students:

Sample Conversations:

Scenes from a Literature Circle Meeting in the NHS Learning Studio: