Crowdsourcing Our Knowledge With a Conversation Hotspots Gallery Walk

During the month of March, my period 6-3 (6th grade Writing Connections) selected drones as a topic they wanted to explore.  Over roughly 10 days, we read roughly 6-7 articles on the uses of drones; as we explored each article, we tracked the benefits and drawbacks to using drones as part of our front loading work for writing an argumentative essay.

I wanted students to have a way to talk about the pros and cons and see each other’s thinking, so I set up what I called “Conversation Hotspots” gallery walk after we had finished reading all of our articles and compiling a master list of pros/cons for drones.  I used pastel colored lined chart paper to set up 8 “hotspots” around topics from articles like drones and firefighting, drones and privacy issues, drones and farming, and drones and airplane safety.  Next, I assigned pairs and gave each pair a starting conversation hotspot.  Each group had 2 minutes to share a pro or con on that topic.  We then rotated to the next station where the next group had to either add a new pro/con statement OR clarify a statement that a previous group may not have written in specific terms.  While two minutes is a short time, it seemed to be just right for the students to review what others had written and to add something new.

After rotating to all the stations, each group eventually landed at their original station.  Each group then shared out the collaboratively built list of drones pros/cons with the rest of the class; this large group review/share also gave us an opportunity to add any ideas that may have been missed in our first pass during the gallery walk, and students could also update their individual pro/con lists.

The overall response to the activity was positive from the students.  The activity seemed to particularly resonate with one of my 6th grade students.   About six weeks ago, I got a new student who was very scared and anxious. He has had a chaotic young life and outside of band, very little academic success. He has also had a difficult time socially because he looks like a high schooler even though he is in 6th grade. He let me know right away he hated writing. Since arriving, I have watched his confidence grow and been proud of my students who have made him feel welcome. Flash forward to the end of our class today after we finished our Conversation Hotspots Gallery Walk. He came up to me and said, “Ms. Hamilton, are we doing this again tomorrow because this sure is FUN!!!!” I nearly cried hearing the joy in his voice and seeing his smile. That is something our state Milestones test can NEVER measure.

I love gallery walks because they get students sharing knowledge, talking with each other, fact-checking information, and an opportunity to physically move about the room (an aspect that is important for wiggly middle schoolers!).  How are you using gallery walks in your classroom to create “hotspots for conversation”?

Introducing Zines with a Noticings Gallery Walk

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We are kicking off a new unit of study in the War Eagle Writing Studio as we begin to explore different kinds of informational writing.  I decided that zines would be an appealing point of access for my writers; students will be making and crafting their own zines on a topic on which they are experts.  Our zine making will be the first “bend” in this unit of study and is my modification I’m making to a Calkins Units of Study for Writing Workshop.  Our focus will be on crafting informational/descriptive zines or “how to” zines.  I have never crafted zines before with students, but this choice was inspired by the work my friend and fellow English teacher Kyle Jones has done with his high school students.   Thanks to DonorsChoose and the generous donations from friends and colleagues, we now have the crafting supplies we need to do our zine making!

Two of the most inspiring professional resources I’ve discovered in 2016 are Writing with Mentor Texts by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell, as well as their blog, Moving Writers ( a blog that should be on anyone’s “must read” list).  The blog posts by Marchetti and O’Dell, as well as their team of classroom teachers sharing their innovative and insightful ideas for teaching writing, provide me a near daily menu of ideas to contemplate and strategies to try in the War Eagle Writing Studio.  One post from earlier this fall, “3 Simple Exercises to Help Your Students Read Like Writers,” inspired an activity I did with students this past week to introduce zines to my middle school writers.

I set up 9 “stations” around the room with excerpts of zines or mini-version of zines I found on the web.  Finding zines with age-appropriate content was especially difficult; I hope more middle school colleagues will share examples of student work and that students will have more opportunities to publish their zines through the web whether it be a PDF version or a web-based zine.  Using post-it notes chart paper, I labeled each station and taped on the pieces of zines or mini-versions of zines for students for our “noticings” gallery walk.

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Students first received a copy of a graphic organizer:  this simple handout identified each station and gave students space to record:

  1. Two noticings
  2. An interesting fact (content) the student learned through the zine at each station

After showing students some pictures of zine collections, I introduced the gallery walk by orienting the students to the locations of each “station” and explained to them that we would be moving around quietly in a random order to examine the zines or pieces of zines and capturing our noticings (we’ve done noticings activities before, so I did not need to review that concept again).  I also reminded them that they needed to channel their energy into writing and thinking and to keep only 2-3 students per station so that everyone would have plenty of room to work.   I also reviewed a list of questions to prompt noticings and kept these posted during the gallery walk.

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Students then took their graphic organizers and began visiting the stations.  Some classes needed the one class period to capture the noticings while my sixth graders needed a day and a half of class time to do this activity.  Every single class was focused on their inquiry work and engaged; even my classes that sometimes struggle with these kinds of learning activities were really into the activity!

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I followed up this activity by giving students to share their noticings with a Turn and Talk activity; students worked in small groups to share their noticings with a focus on four categories:  fonts/typography, use of visuals and text together, types of writing in the zines, and materials used to create the zines.    We then finished up with individual reflections in a Writer’s Notebook prompt that asked students to contemplate these four questions:

1. How would you define a zine?
2. What qualities did you notice about the zines today?
3. What questions do you have about zines right now?
4. If you could create a zine on any topic, what topic would you choose? Think about something you know a lot about or feel passionately about in your life.

Next week we’ll begin brainstorming what we know about our topics and begin thinking about how we might organize and “chunk” our ideas for specific pages in our zines.  We’ll then sketch out our own heart maps on our topics (inspired by the new book from Georgia Heard and this post in the Heart Maps Facebook group).    I then hope to try Angela Stockman’s wonderful strategy for identifying craft moves in mentor texts (for us, informational and how to writing in zines) to help students really be intentional and purposeful in crafting their zine compositions. Angela Stockman calls this “making the study of mentor texts more actionable.”

If you have crafted zines with middle school writers, what advice would you and your students give?  What strategies did you try?  I’d love to hear specific strategies you used to help students craft authentic zines with effective use of text and visuals.

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.

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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!