Sean O’Connor Rocks the Write-Around for Collaborative Student Thinking as Part of Presearch and Topic Development with Literary Research


Last year Language Arts teacher Sean O’Connor was one of our first teachers to help us pilot written conversation strategies that we had learned about from Harvey Daniels.  After attending a Reading the City institute with Daniels, Nancy  Steineke (among other notable literacy leaders) this past January, Sean returned even more energized about the possibilities of written conversation strategies for inquiry and learning.  He decided to incorporate and modify the write around learning structure as part of the pre-search process for his AP Literature students who were beginning a literary research paper; not only did he utilize the LibGuide we created for the assignment, but he wanted to use our Learning Studio area in our library as the space for  the written conversations come to life.

After two days of some initial pre-search, students came to the Learning Studio with some general themes or topics in mind.  Sean tells us the game plan he designed to facilitate their next steps:

Below, watch our video story of what this form of inquiry centered learning looked like with one of his three class sections.  The energy, the depth of conversation, and the engagement the students exhibited in wrestling with ideas and thinking together was exciting and joyful to watch.

Part 1:  First Steps:  Jot Down Ideas You Have For Your Research

Part 2:   Responding to Each Other’s Topic with Large Post-Its and Pens

Part 3:  Forming Birds of Feather Groups by Topics

Part 4:  Talking, No Writing

Part 5:  Post-Conversation—Noting Key Ideas, Narrowing Topic/Research Topic/Thesis Statement and Next Steps Post Collaborative Thinking


The collaborative thinking and how students played off each other’s input and the group conversations to help them move from Point A to Point B as part of the presearch phase and topic narrowing continuum/process was what made this activity so authentic and meaningful to students.  As Sean said, “My original timeline for the project is shot, but that doesn’t matter.  The students learning in this way is what counts.”   Jennifer and I are thrilled that we can be part of this kind of mindset and collaboration with teachers like Sean and his students.  We are excited to see how they build on Friday’s activity in our Learning Studio and their next steps with their research project!  A heartfelt thank you to Sean O’Connor and his students for allowing me to film and photograph their work.

Additional resources:


Toward More Strategic Searching with Presearch Strategy Mapping


Earlier this week, I shared how we used Think, Puzzle, Explore as a fun and meaningful learning structure to ignite student interest in a topic and to build prior knowledge as we started a unit of study on sustainability with 11th grade AP students.  Those of you who work at the high school level and with AP courses know that carving out sufficient time for research projects can be a challenge when so much of the course hinges on the AP courses as well as other state or district assessments administered in the spring of the year.  We know that helping teachers feel comfortable in devoting more in-class time for research projects often happens in baby steps; like many of you, we always are excited when we co-plan a research unit and are able to incorporate learning activities we know will grow students’ information literacy skills.

As we negotiate concerns and tensions about budgeting time and the constraints that inform those challenges, we also have conversations about how to slow down inquiry processes.  How can we provide students time and opportunity to dwell, wrestle, and grow as searchers who can develop effective strategies and techniques for finding information and using that information to narrow a topic?   How do we help students learn techniques for cropping and focusing a topic area?  While we have been advocates for pre-search for a long time, we are excited that we seem to be getting more of our fellow teachers excited about this aspect of research and inquiry processes as well.

In reflecting on our inquiry work with Sarah Rust last semester, I wondered if there might be a better way to get kids to think more intentionally about their search terms and to build some prior knowledge for an initial round of topic focus prior to the work with modified KWLs and annotating I’ve done during pre-search and then mindmapping with both Sarah and other projects I did with teachers while at Creekview High in the past.   After revisiting the work of my colleague Tasha Bergson-Michelson and a great post from friend and colleague Carolyn Foote, I decided to adapt Tasha’s search strategy mapping technique for our sustainability research unit with Linda Katz and Elizabeth Hollis.  After running my ideas by Jennifer and doing a little brainstorming together, we decided we would adapt Tasha’s technique to help students map their first round of pre-search strategies to help them find a path to a more focused topic area of sustainability.  I actually went through the process and worked for about two and a half hours off and on doing search and creating a model I could use as a think aloud with students this week on the first day of formal instruction in the library.   I began with the topic of urban garden (food sustainability) and wound my way to a more focused topic of food justice.  My first version I did in a freehand fashion, but I replicated it using Mindmeister to show students what their maps might look like if they used a free online mindmapping tool.  I felt it was important to draft models related to their area of study and that would hopefully be accessible to our students.  Here are my drafts:

Pre-search strategy retro style


pre-search strategy map with tech-page-0

This past Monday, I modeled the process for students each period while sprinkling in some search strategies and tips for specific databases; this part of the lesson took about 10-12 minutes.  I showed them how I began by skimming and scanning 3-4 articles from sources like databases, search engines, and TED videos.  For each place I searched, I noted key vocabulary words, terms, and concepts that seemed important and/or new to me.  I showed them how I then incorporated new terms into my running list of search terms/phrases I was trying out and how that helped me discover new articles.  I shared how my discovery process kept building on each search effort and what I was getting from the reading and how that led me from a topic of urban gardening to a more focused topic of food justice.

We encouraged students to skim and scan at least three articles from three sources to find vocabulary, terms, and concepts that could help them grow their search terms; just as I had done in the think aloud modeling, I told them to keep a running list of search terms/phrases they were trying . Because we did not want to overstructure the mapping process, we told students to not worry about citation or identifying specific articles or web resources although they certainly could capture permalinks/bookmarks/URLs for resources that seemed notable.  We provided students plain and colored paper (they love choices) as well as Sharpies for those who wanted them.  We made sure students also had access to digital and hard copies of my drafts so they had a tangible model to see once we finished the lesson.  While we were not able to secure the same timeline Tasha uses with this approach, students did have a day and half to work on the maps in the library (the submission deadline established by the teachers was the end of class on Tuesday) although some students might have benefited from an additional half or full day to work on their search and maps.   We, along with the classroom teachers, told students to use Monday evening to try and make progress on their maps and search as well.

Yesterday, we spent the entire period with Katz’s classes since she was away due to a death in her family.  We were available to answer students’ questions or to serve as a sounding board when they wanted feedback or needed to think through their ideas; Ms. Hollis interacted with her students in the same way.  Since Jennifer and I had not worked with Katz’s students prior to this project, we felt we needed them to also complete some sort of quick reflection on their search/mapping work to submit with their maps.   We devised a “lightning reflection” to help students to share a little of their process and to help us better understand what we might be seeing in their pre-search strategy maps:

lightning reflection

We asked students in each of Katz’s classes to complete this form and then attach it to the mapping work they had completed at the end of class yesterday.  Jen and I then struggled to think about an effective yet fast way to give them some helpful feedback today since we had anticipated returning the maps either today or Thursday.  After much trial and error (and some additional revising to add some comment checkboxes related to the search term notes—we noticed after assessing one set of student work, some students were noting more facts than terms and vocabulary, and it was time consuming to write the comment repeatedly), we crafted this form thinking the checklist and “green, yellow, red” status indicators would help students think about next steps in class this week.

After looking at their green reflection sheets and maps, I spent this morning completing the feedback form and providing written comments as needed.   Jen assisted me in this process, and we enjoyed seeing patterns of their thinking as well as gaps as looking at student work helps us to better understand what students know at this point and where they may need additional help or instruction.

student work

Ms. Hollis was able to share these completed forms with Katz’s afternoon classes today and start a conversation about the feedback that Jennifer and I will finish tomorrow as we help the students more forward with additional pre-search now that most have come to a point where they have narrowed their topic and can continue searching and gathering information before they do some mindmapping of what they have found.   We also plan to share some of the exemplar work with students tomorrow to both celebrate the interesting ideas and thinking of our students while giving those who might need more scaffolding some additional models to examine.  You can see a sampler of these exemplar maps embedded below:

While we will probably do a little fine-tuning with our next efforts, but overall we are very pleased with the quality of work and thinking we saw from our students!  We’re excited that this strategy worked the way we hoped it would and impressed by how the students used the strategy to move from Point A to B in a thoughtful and more deliberate way with their search strategies and terms/phrases.   It was also exciting to “feel” the student interest in their topics and their discovery process as some of them made some really interesting moves from broad topics to more focused subtopics.  We cannot wait to see where they go next as they refine these newly focused topics! If you are using this technique or something similar, we’d love to hear how you are incorporating it into inquiry and research processes with classes.

Igniting Inquiry with Think, Puzzle, and Explore



Earlier this month, my colleague Jennifer Lund and I met with Linda Katz and Elizabeth Hollis, two of our 11th grade Language Arts teachers, to plan their upcoming research unit on sustainability.  We wanted to do something fun and interesting to introduce the range of topics to students that would engage them and not begin with them just browsing the resources on the project LibGuide.  We initially considered using the write-around strategy, but with so many sections of classes and possibilities for topics/subtopics, we felt the prep work involved was a bit overwhelming for the time we had available to get the materials together.

We decided to use another strategy, though, that involved thinking and writing called Think, Puzzle, Explorea routine for learning that “sets the stage for deeper inquiry.”  Since many teachers are utilizing strategies from Making Thinking Visible, we felt this would be the perfect learning structure to introduce 11th graders to sustainability topics.  With Think, Puzzle, and Explore, students are asked to reflect and share:

1. What do you think you know about this topic?

2. What questions or puzzles do you have?

3. How can you explore this topic?

Prep Work


We decided to choose eight areas of sustainability and to find an article of interest for each that students could read and respond to individually and collectively as a group.    After we searched and selected articles on eight different topics, we made sets of five for each table so that each student could have a copy to read and mark up or annotate.  Our Library Science student helpers gathered multiple sheets of butcher paper and helped us attach the three “Think, Puzzle, Explore” labels Jennifer crafted for each sheet of paper.  These labels Jennifer created served both as a reminder prompt to nudge students in their responses and as a placeholder for each column where students would record their responses.  We were not sure how quickly the sheets of paper would fill up with student work, so we had extra sheets of butcher paper and labels in case we needed them.  Initially, we thought all six classes could compile their answers on one sheet, but we realized after two classes we definitely need to rotate the response sheets.  During our one period off, 3rd, we finished the prep work for the butcher paper sheets to be used later in the day.  We were grateful we had extra supplies and copies as we discovered two classes could easily fill up a sheet of butcher paper with their thinking.


We began by introducing the procedures for the activity and explaining the logistics and purpose of Think, Puzzle, Explore to the students.  Our goal was for students to sample at least two tables/topics to hopefully fuel their interest and pique their curiosity.

Once we finished the introductory procedures review, students had about two minutes to select a table; for the most, we limited each table to four students.    We also reminded students to choose their tables by topics and not the safety zone of friends!


We gave students about five minutes to quietly read as much as they could of their articles (some were longer or more textually complex than others) and strongly encouraged them to mark up/annotate their articles to have some talking points for collaborative conversation.  Some students also jotted notes in a notebook during this part of the activity and/or during the collective discussion that followed.


Once the five minutes were up, we had students discuss their responses and then collectively compose their responses to “Think, Puzzle, and Explore.”  The discussion and collective composition took anywhere from 5-8 minutes.




We then repeated this process a second time and had students choose a different table and topic.   Once we had completed both rounds, each group got one of our Steelcase Verb dry erase boards, and each member contributed their takeaway reflection, reaction, or big question as the ticket out the door; each student put his/her initials by his/her reflection or question.


Curating the Student Work and Reflections

As classes transitioned, Jennifer and I quickly tidied up tables and captured student work with a digital camera and our iPhones to curate and share with all classes and teachers.    It was a day that was energizing (and a little exhausting) as the work and pace were pretty intense, but we were really pleased with student responses and participation.  We got verbal feedback from several students about how much they enjoyed the activity and for several, the process had given them some topics to think about for subsequent investigation that we’re now starting this week.

In the spirit of crowdsourcing our thinking, we collected all of the “big takeaway” responses and linked to each album on the LibGuide (scroll toward the bottom of the middle column to view by period).  We also had our Library Science students transcribe all of the responses from the butcher paper sheets; I then captured all of them using my scanner app on my phone and uploading the PDFs of the scans to Google Drive, which it made it easy to then send to SlideShare and download the PDFs to my PC for transfer to the LibGuide.   We did consider providing laptops and shared Google Docs for students to record their thinking, but our experience with our students has been that the tactile  aspect of composing and experience seeing each other’s thinking on physical paper is powerful; in hindsight, we felt we made the right choice.

Not only did we build prior knowledge through this activity, but we accomplished our goal to engage students in collective thinking and build/play off each’s other ideas (as it turned out, pairs of classes back to back).  Think, Puzzle, and Explore also provided students a medium to learn a little about a topic and tease out some initial thoughts  Now that we have all of their work uploaded, students can visit it if they want to revisit any initial thinking from last week or use it as a brainstorming tool to further investigate one of those topics although they certainly can go in other directions.

Overall, the four of us felt the activity was successful and a nice bridge to our pre-search this week.  I could also see this structure being used in combination with the pre-search mapping we’re piloting this week ( a blog post coming soon on that and many thanks to our colleague Tasha Bergson-Michelson for inspiration on pre-search strategy mapping) if students were going to be composing group papers or if time permitted “birds of feather” collaborative work once students had an initial topic in mind.   We definitely hope to use this learning structure again as a springboard to inquiry and research.

For your viewing:

Designing and Scaffolding Multigenre Projects and Compositions


I’ve been remiss in not following up on our end of the semester learning activities and experiences from our extended inquiry project with Language Arts teacher Sarah Rust.   If you haven’t had a chance to read my series of posts about our collaborative efforts or would like a refresher, you can catch up with all of the posts here.  In my last series post, I discussed different types of formative assessment we were using to evaluate student progress, processes, and products, including their research design proposals.  I’d like to share with you briefly some of the structures, resources, and activities we used over the subsequent three weeks (excluding our Thanksgiving break) to help our students compose their multigenre projects.

multigenre2-workAs students submitted their research design proposals, both Sarah and I provided them written and verbal feedback through 1:1 conferences as well as the individualized feedback we crafted using mail merge and Word docs.  These processes took approximately five days of class; students that were not meeting with us were either moving forward with additional research or starting to craft elements of their projects.  One of the tools we gave students to help them manage and organize all the pieces of their projects was this project planner/checklist.  I have found over the years that checklists, while seemingly simple, are powerful tools to help students stay organized and on track.

We also gave students concrete examples of finished project (both virtual and Word docs) templates to look at as well as hard/print copies my past students had created; students could browse the physical copies that we kept in folders in the library workspace.  In addition, we had virtual and hard copy examples of specific multigenre products created by my previous students as well as examples we found through the web.  We also built in days to do small group work on skills and project elements; some of these included:

  • Guided instruction for students who wanted to publish their work as a WordPress site.  We showed students 3multigenrehow to register for a free account, how to set up pages for each project element, how to establish a static homepage, and how to craft a customized menu so that the navigation reflected the order of the project pages we had established in the guidelines.  We also provided reinforcement for students with video tutorials that we made and published on the project LibGuide.  This instruction was probably one of the more intensive days since establishing the project website structure was essential early on for the students and helping them feel comfortable with multiple new skills at once.  To their credit, both classes did a fantastic job following our step by step guided instruction and getting their project sites set up.  Subsequently, they caught on to skills like editing pages and adding multimedia content very quickly—I was impressed by how they took initiative to self-help and to then show their peers a skill they had taught themselves.
  • 1:1 help for students who chose to publish their work as a Word document (most students published virtually with WordPress, and we had one student who published his project as a Google Doc).   Again, we provided reinforcement with customized video tutorials we published to the project guide.
  • 1:1 and small group conferencing with students who wanted feedback on project elements as they drafted.
  • Whole group instruction and discussion about how to craft the notes pages (please scroll toward the bottom of the page) since these elements are the ones I’ve found students have struggled with most in the past and to help our students have a clearer idea for our expectations in terms of content and parenthetical integration of sources.
  • Most students had mastered citation of sources using our EasyBib tools (including the awesome direct export of citations), but I was on standby to provide clarification or help students cite non-database sources.

We essentially had about 10-12 days of working class time for the projects; we were able to meet students at the point of need as Sarah and I served as “on-demand” help and shared our different areas of expertise in terms of content oriented questions and technical-related inquiries.  As we neared the finish line, we showed students how to submit their project information via a Google form; students who published via Word emailed their projects to me, and I uploaded their projects as PDFs to SlideShare. As students submitted their work via the Google form and email, I then added their content to our multigenre project blog (hosted at WordPress) and organized projects by period.

Rust Multigenre Inquiry Projects Fall 2014 via kwout

In my next post, I’ll share how I used Google Sheets and a nifty mail merge app to record student project notes quickly and seamlessly assessment notes with Sarah Rust.  New posts are also coming soon featuring student interviews about their projects as well as some final reflections from Sarah and me on our inquiry adventures with our students!  Finally, Jennifer Lund and I will be doing planning period professional development next week for our faculty and hopefully finding new partners in different subject areas to pilot different interpretations of multigenre projects.

Musical Chairs + Book Tasting Rocks!


Upon returning from our holiday break, Jennifer Lund and I had a request from one of our Language Arts teachers to schedule her classes for the popular book tasting activity.  We faced two challenges:  the teacher wanted to do the activity in two days (a time challenge), and we had a significant number of books checked out that would make it hard to do the activity with the category oriented version we’ve done for the last year.    We decided to mix it up and put a new twist on it by incorporating elements of the “musical chairs peer review” activity that Sarah Rust and I adapted last semester from our colleagues in New Jersey.

The basic organization included having 35 seats and assigning a book to each “seat.”  We used the same open square seating arrangement that we used for the activity with Sarah and made “placemats” of different colors with numbers to help the students clearly see where to sit when the music stopped.  We placed the books on the placemats ahead of time being sure to vary the types of books so that consecutive seats didn’t have the same kind of text.   We kept a healthy supply of “replenishment” books on a cart nearby so that we could replace any books that were checked out (we observed that at least ten books were picked by students for checkout with each class; others might have noted a book from the session for future reading if they were already engaged with another book for Independent Reading (held in most Language Arts classes each Wednesday) time.


While this version of book tasting does not have the degree of choice as the other interpretations of the activity, we felt this version would hopefully expose students to different authors and types of books they might not normally choose.  Once students had placed their bookbags out of the way, we gathered at the “square” and reviewed the procedures for the activity; we also explained the modified book tasting “ticket out the door” we designed to help them make notes and assess the books they would explore.  The review form, as you can see below, gave us the flexibility to do up to four rounds of the activity within a period depending on the time learners needed to interact with each book; we made our copies on bright yellow paper.  Please feel free to download and modify this document:

These are the “placeholders” we printed on different colors; please feel free to download and use.

For each round prior to starting the music and movement, we asked students to push in their chairs and to make sure the book was on the placemat.  Once the music began, students walked around the square; we also told students they were welcome to dance to the music as they walked about the table.  A few helpful logistical hints on this aspect of the activity:

  • Be sure to mentally identify at least 2-3 students as your points of reference; doing so for each round will help you make sure that students don’t stop at a chair/book they’ve previously visited.
  • Encourage students to move at a moderate pace and to not allow large gaps between students or groups of students to develop as they move around the table; otherwise, it can be slightly chaotic when the music stops and students are trying to find the closest seat/book.  This potential challenge seemed to happen more with smaller classes than larger groups.
  • Vary the length of the music although we tried to have students go around the square at least 1.5 to 2 times per “musical round.”
  • Use a variety of music although we primarily used contemporary songs and/or retro songs with an upbeat or dance-oriented rhythm.  As you would with any activity, make sure you choose songs with lyrics that are appropriate for your audience.  We got positive feedback from several students on the songs we played.

Our overarching goal was to give the students a fun and meaningful point of access to sample at least three to four books and give them an opportunity to preview different kinds of books.  The first effort at this version of book tasting involved five sections of college-prep classes that varied in size from roughly 25-35 students per period.  The first three classes in the morning seemed generally receptive to the activity though the playful nature of what we were doing seemed a little unfamiliar to some; however, most students seemed to enjoy it and several showed excitement about the books they had discovered.  The afternoon classes seemed a little less into the activity although many of students put forth a positive effort.  In this first effort, we noticed that students needed verbal scaffolding for each round to help them know what to do as part of the review process even though they had their evaluation ticket form to guide them through it; some classes needed reminding from the teacher to be a little more specific in the open ended response section.   Depending on the students’ prior experiences as learners, you may need to provide gentle prompting like we did to help students in the activity.  Throughout the day, we received enthusiastic and positive feedback from the teacher as well as an assistant principal who was present and observing several sections.

Word quickly spread that day throughout the Language Arts Department about this version of the book tasting, and we received a flurry of requests from other teachers to schedule time to do this version of book tasting.  We were already scheduled with classes coming in for research, so we were not able to accommodate everyone right away; however, we were able to schedule five sections of Honors 9th Language Arts that we worked with yesterday.  The students in each class seemed to genuinely enjoy the activity and seemed a little more engaged and energized.  We noticed that they were very observant of the book covers as they walked around the table and some did their best to pace themselves so that they might be lucky enough to land at a book of their choice, behaviors that were charming but that we also did not see with the first group on a large scale.  They also needed no verbal scaffolding and were more detailed in their responses.   One modification their teacher incorporated that we loved was that she walked around and responded to their comments either in writing on their tickets or through a quick quiet verbal conversation during the activity.  We definitely would encourage others to adopt this effective strategy that she used with her students.

One thing that stood out to us was that the Honors classes seemed to have  more of a “book/literacy/reading” kind of cultural capital as students in “advanced” classes that are not as prevalent in the “college-prep” classes.  While we want to be very careful to avoid broad generalizations based on class categories, these observations are consistent with other literacy behaviors Jennifer and I have observed over the last eighteen months.  We’re currently  thinking and reflecting on what we’ve seen in the context of scholarly literature/research to better contextualize what we’re seeing and to think about how that might impact our instructional design and work with teachers.  We hope to share more on this later in the year once we’ve had time to dwell more deeply in our questions.

We hope that this variation on book tasting will be helpful for you as we feel it is scalable for any age group.  Please let us know if you try it out and how your students respond to it!

Update 3:25 PM 1/15/15:  If you can’t see the embedded documents on SlideShare, the PDFs are below: