Exploring Writing Territories with a Gallery Walk

IMG_8393.JPGAs of August 1, I have returned to the classroom and stepped into the role of Title I Writing Support teacher at Chestatee Academy in the Hall County school district.    This is a new position with all new classes—I am part of the Connections group, and students taking writing classes with me as an academic elective.  I teach six sections of students in grades 6-8 daily; though the nuances of the courses are a little different from one grade to another, all the courses take an inquiry stance on literacy.  I am using a writer’s workshop approach that infuses inquiry with all my students; because the courses are all new, I am building all the content and curriculum map from ground zero.  Thought it feels a little overwhelming at times, I am mostly excited and elated to have this opportunity to be engaged in writing literacies and inquiry with kids daily plus I get to innovate with tried strategies I’ve used previously while implementing new ones I’ve been studying over the summer!

One of our first tasks this week with our writer’s notebooks has been to explore our territories for writing.  I borrowed the idea and resources from Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski at the Two Writing Teachers blog, a wonderful resource for anyone who teaches writing.  Like Sokolowski, I have used Georgia Heard’s wonderful Heart Mapping activity for identifying an initial list of topics for writing, but the territories concept seemed to mesh with my “writing studio” framework I’m adopting and fleshing out over the next 180 days.  We first started with the graphic organizer created by Sokolowski (it is available in her original blog post) because I wanted something accessible for my learners.  We initially began working on these territories on Tuesday of this week; students were given additional time to work on these at home and in class on Wednesday and the beginning of class Thursday.   While some students could easily identify ideas in each territory category,  quite a few struggled, so I thought it might be helpful for them to see what their peers were thinking.  Enter the Gallery Walk!

Yesterday (Thursday), I gave them a few minutes to tweak or add their initial list of writing territories.  I then gave each student four Post-it notes and a Sharpie; I asked them to look at their list and pick the four territories that were most meaningful.  The only restriction was that I wanted them to pick from four unique categories out of the possible.  Once they wrote each territory idea on a Post-it note (one idea per Post-it), they then got up and placed their Post-its on the appropriate placeholder that I created with oversized Post-it chart paper and icons from the Noun Project.    I also modeled for the students how to list the territory idea on a Post-it and place it on the “parking lot” for that idea.

August 11 2016 Agendas (1)

Once students had about 5 minutes to complete this task, they  returned the Sharpies to the Sharpie tub and then picked up an index card from me.  Once everyone had finished “posting” their territories, students were then given a few more minutes to walk about again and read the territory ideas that had been shared.  As they walked about, I asked students to think about the one that struck them in some way as clever, original, interesting, or surprising.

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Gallery Walk

Students then wrote 1-2 sentences to share their reflections; again, I provided some models to assist them in formulating their sentences.     We did a running collection over three periods in the first half of my instructional day and then the second half (post-lunch for me) of my instructional day, so they got to see ideas across multiple classes and grades.  They also had the option of revisiting their territories and adding ideas if they were inspired by something a fellow student had shared.

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Overall, most students indicated they found this to be a positive learning experience.  I liked that we incorporated sharing into our activity in a way that was non-threatening (they were not asked to put their names on their Post-its–this choice was completely optional).  This learning opportunity also gave us a chance to do a Gallery Walk for the first time in a low-stakes kind of setting since this activity is new for many of my students.  These are also the first of our baby steps to growing our academic and social capital as we grow as a community of learners.

One observation I’d like to share is that the territories of special people, favorite places, dreams/hopes, hobbies/interests, and worries/fears had the most responses.  In contrast, there were very few shares of “Wonderings” or “Issues That I Care About.”  I know from watching them work and the questions I received that most students didn’t seem to have much of an awareness of current events or “big topics”, so I’m excited that inquiry mini-studies will be a regular part of our classroom life.  I did see a lot of interesting wonderings on their graphic organizers, but I’m intrigued that few felt comfortable sharing those though it makes sense, especially for this age group, that the more personal topics relevant to their daily lives would be more important or share-worthy for this activity.

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My classes meet for 40 minutes; we needed roughly 25 minutes to complete this task.  If you have students who are experienced with a gallery walk, writer’s workshop, or accelerated learners, you might be able to complete it a little more quickly.

Overall, I am glad we did these learning activities and look forward to revisiting our territories throughout the year!   I will continue to share our work in writer’s workshop and inquiry projects as we move forward into this 2016-17 academic year.  Many thanks to those who expressed interest in these activities on Twitter!

My Summer of Abundant Reading: Musings and Reflections

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This is the first summer since 2012 that has not involved long-distance moves, major family illness, and/or other significant life upheaval.  It has been a godsend to have an extended period of time of self-care that has included regular exercise, plentiful sleep, quiet unhurried reflection time, minimal stress, and lots of reading!  I have probably read more texts (and I use a broad definition of texts) this summer than any other year of my adult life since I was last in graduate school at UGA over 10 years ago.  I have focused most of my text reading on books this summer—-it has felt like a luxury to have time and energy to do so.  Though I love reading, I have been a picky reader as an adult and have struggled at times to find self-selected reads that appeal to me.  I have been surprised by the volume of reading I have done this summer though I feel the gift of time, no professional commitments, my Kindle, a new job, and new connections on social media have contributed to my reading revival.

I have read hard copy versions of some books; however, I have read quite a few books on my Kindle Fire that I purchased last fall.   What do I love about reading on my Kindle?  I can:

  • Read while I am working out at the gym on the elliptical–exercise for the body and mind!  In addition, reading while I am on the elliptical makes gym time go MUCH faster.
  • I can sample many kinds of books thanks to the free preview feature of Kindle books—I am confident that I have tried many more kinds of books through the serendipity of Kindle book browsing than I would if I were physically browsing shelves in a library or bookstore.  This aspect of book discovery is one I find quite interesting and is making me think much more deeply about how readers connect with specific books.
  • I can use the “Blue Shade” feature on my Kindle to help ease eye strain (people seem to love or hate this feature, but I like it).
  • I can easily and seamlessly post updates from Kindle reads to my Goodreads account (and I have used Goodreads much more for book ideas this summer than ever).
  • I can easily highlight and take notes, and then export those for easy reference at a later time if I want.
  • I can add Audible narration when available (and in my budget)—I like this feature even though I don’t consider myself an audiobook person.

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With that said, there are times I want the hard copy of the book to read—this desire mainly occurs with professional books though sometimes I wish I could afford both the hard and copy the e-copy as I am trying to figure out the best method of taking notes on my professional reading that fits who I am as a learner these days.  With my professional books, I often want to flip to a specific section of the hard copy of the book not just for ease of reference, but also because sometimes I just need to SEE it right in front of me.  I still like highlighting and writing out notes by hand, but I do love the ease of highlighting on the Kindle, too.

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Other times a book may only be available in hard copy, but sometimes you also need the hard copy to better appreciate the graphics, art, or photography.

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Here are my summer reads; the ones that I have boldfaced are my favorites:

  • Inside Out and Back Again, Thanhha Lai
  • Hour of the Bees, Lindsay Eagar
  • The Unstoppable Writing Teacher, M. Colleen Cruz
  • Shadowshaper, Daniel Jose Older
  • Road to Tara:  The Life of Margaret Mitchell, Anne Edwards
  • Eruption, The Untold Story of Mt. St. Helens, Steve Olson
  • Georgia, A Novel of Georgia O’Keeffe, Dawn Tripp
  • The Atomic Weight of Love:  A Novel, Elizabeth Church
  • My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout
  • Simple Dreams:  A Musical Memoir, Linda Ronstadt
  • Cumberland Island:  Strong Women, Wild Horses, Charles Seabrook
  • Losing Clementine, A Novel, Ashley Ream
  • Awash, Dawn Lee McKenna
  • Being Mortal:  Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande
  • American Ghost:  A Family’s Extraordinary History on the Desert Frontier, Hannah Nordhaus
  • Lily and the Octopus, Steven Rowley
  • Lab Girl, Hope Jahren
  • The Wright Brothers, David McCullough
  • Sally Ride, America’s First Woman in Space, Lynn Sherr
  • Blue Horses, Mary Oliver
  • The Beekeeper’s Lament, Hannah Nordhaus

As you can see, I read a pretty diverse mix of books including biography, nonfiction, memoir, fiction, and poetry.  I read some things that I normally would have never picked, but I stumbled upon them through my browsing experiences in the Kindle Store and Goodreads; there were also times I discovered books to read (or to add to the wish list) through colleagues on Twitter and Facebook.  Interestingly enough, I have been watching a lot of documentaries this summer, which seems to parallel my growing love for nonfiction.  I am thinking a good bit about the core of powerful stories at these genres of film and texts, but that is another set of reflections for another day.

Being able to sample books on the Kindle or to read a free excerpt online before ordering a hard copy of a book was critical to the choices I made.  Most of the books I read this summer I liked though there were a couple I thought I would enjoy more (they fell flat for me); there were also a couple I found incredibly disappointing and didn’t enjoy at all.  I still have quite a few in progress, and I have a “want to read” list that is a mile wide!

As I mentioned earlier, my summer reading experiences have me thinking a lot more about how people find and connect with specific books as well as the experience of contemporary “browsing” and book discovery.  What is that like in a digital environment compared to physical browsing?  What do those experiences have in common?  How are they different?  What does this mean for our students or our library patrons?  Ourselves?  How and why might it differ for children/teens from adults?  Interestingly enough, I did not go to my local library for any print or digital books, nor did I consult with anyone from my local library for a suggestion or help.  Instead, I relied heavily on Amazon browsing and Goodreads suggestions. However, my reads and “to read” lists not only came from these sources, but as I mentioned earlier, Twitter colleagues.  I also belong to two Facebook groups on teaching reading and writing that have provided lots of great professional “want to reads”; I have also gotten many ideas for children’s books to read from the Coastal Savannah Writing Project Facebook group.  All of these musings have me wondering how might I draw upon my experiences as a reader to help my students during the upcoming school year.

Most importantly, my summer of reading has helped me reconnect with myself in many ways.  To feel the joy of reading I felt as a child has been energizing and has helped me remember why as a child I declared I wanted to be an “author” or writer of some sort (more on that in a future blog post).

Buffy as a Child Falling Asleep with a Good Read
Buffy as a Child Falling Asleep with a Good Read

This summer of abundant reading has also helped me explore genres of writing and topics I like as well as discover new favorites.  On a more personal level, my reading has been therapeutic and helped me in many ways process and cope with the profound grief I still feel over the passing of my mother who has been gone two years but whose absence is still felt acutely in my heart and day to day life.  The act of reading and the actual books I have read (even the ones that seemingly have nothing to do with losing my mother) have all in some way been healing for me.  Many of my reads also have me thinking about new dreams for myself, seeing life in a different and positive way, or contemplating how a particular book might inspire/nurture a friend or future student.  I have re-discovered just how nourishing and sustaining reading genuinely is for me.

What have you been reading this summer?  How do you discover books to read?  What have been your favorites?  Where do you like to read, and what formats of texts do you enjoy?  What are you looking forward to reading next?  How are you helping your students or library patrons connect with books?  I would love to hear your experiences and reflections!

Help #WageHope

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Three years ago today, my world changed forever when I learned that my cherished mother, JoAnn Gunter, had stage 4 pancreatic cancer.  I didn’t even really understand what “stage 4” meant—though I would learn the harsh reality of that all too fast—but I was in utter shock that my mom, who was always regarded as a freak of nature for her youthfulness even at the age of 69, could have such a devastating disease.  I could not fathom that MY mother, the one who never drank or smoke, who exercised faithfully, who had none of the risk factors for this evil disease.   Even now, it still seems incomprehensible.  MY mother, the person who always had my back, my best friend, and my eternal source of wisdom even in the most difficult of times.   Within 10 months, mama was gone—nothing could be prepare me for the void her passing would leave.

I have not yet been able to write about the experience of what it is like to walk such a journey with someone you love more than anything, a roller coaster of fighting one of the deadliest cancers you can get.  For now, I will simply say it has taken me to some of the darkest hours of my entire life and that watching such suffering up close profoundly changes you and the way you see life forever.  Grief is still ever-present for me, but the strength of character and grit my mother instilled in me has kept me moving forward even on days I frankly didn’t want to go any further—and I know that is exactly what she would have done had our roles been reversed.  I try to keep my focus on continually learning from the experiences of the last few years and how I can turn those insights into positive action and energy–to do anything else would dishonor the sacrifices my mother made to give me the life I have and the preciousness of life.

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It seems fitting on this day to share that the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, an organization whose efforts are making difference in the war on pancreatic cancer, is nearing its year-end fundraising goal.   Pancreatic cancer has now surpassed breast cancer to become the third leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States.  I respectfully ask you to consider making a donation of any amount to this organization dedicated to finding methods of earlier diagnosis and more effective treatments for this disease that is one of the deadliest cancers with very low survival rates.  If you would like to make a contribution, please click here.  On behalf of my mother and all those who have been touched by this disease, I thank you for your gracious consideration.