Growing Understanding of Genre Through a Poem Reading Frenzy


About ten days ago, I planned and implemented a “poem reading frenzy” for my middle school writers as part of my efforts to expose them to many kinds of poems, especially since the genre is new to them as readers and writers.  Like many of you, I think giving our students to read like writers and an opportunity to notice qualities of a genre of writing is essential in a writing studio.  The “reading frenzy” idea comes from my friend and fellow colleague Nancy Steineke; the basic premise of this activity is to give students an opportunity to read, explore, ponder,  and rank texts, such as informational articles or in this case, poems.

My Original Plan for Learning

When I planned the activity, I picked 8 poems for each grade level (grades 6, 7, and 8); I thought that I had picked a solid range of texts that would be on their reading level and expose each group of students to different styles of poems.  My game plan was:

1 .  Distribute the packets of poems to each student; each student would have the opportunity to read the poems quietly to himself or herself.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

2.  Rank the poems from favorite to least favorite using the form below.


3.  Do some light annotation of the student’s favorite poem using the model I provided to each table group of students; this model was housed in my “shop ticket” pouches.  I made extra copies of all the poems so that students could have his/her own copy to mark up and annotate.  In addition, I kept these “noticing” prompts on the board for annotating:


4.  Use the FSLL method of noticing qualities about a poem; I asked students to choose any talking points from the list of questions provided and complete the blank FSLL chart on the back of the “ranking” handout. I provided a completed example in the “shop ticket” pouches along with the example of the annotated poem.

Below are the examples I gave table groups to share and use for reference in my neon shop ticket pouches:




My day started with my 8th grade classes.  Since we had previously done some light annotation and used the FSLL method a few weeks ago in small groups, I started the class period with a quick overview and review of our annotating strategies and FSLL method.

*An important note about the FSLL method—this method is a strategy I discovered in June 2016 in one of my Facebook groups for the Heinemann Units of Study.  I am embarrassed to say that I am not able to backtrack through all the discussions to give appropriate credit to the teacher who posted her photos of her students’ work using this method, and since she never posted a blog post over the summer with a link to any additional details, I don’t have anything to point you back to for more details.  However, I developed my own original graphic organizer for the FSLL method based off the photos she posted of student work; you can see the guiding handout and a blank graphic organizer below:


Adjusting the Activity by Responding to Student Needs

By the end of my first class (Period 8-2), I realized three important things I didn’t anticipate but probably should have:

  1.  The students were struggling with reading and understanding the poems even though I thought I had picked accessible reading levels and short, readable poems.  I should have anticipated they might need them read aloud since they were still newbies to the genre and the ways we read a poem, especially when the thought carries across multiple lines.
  2.  Even though I thought I had been VERY clear about the ranking system in my written and oral instructions (1 is the favorite poem, 8 is your least favorite—rank them 1 to 8), at least 3/4 of the class did not understand these instructions.
  3. The students were spending an inordinate amount of time copying the titles of poems into the ranking chart.

As a result, they barely even made it to annotating their poems and needed a second day of class to complete the activity, something I thought would doable in one period.

At the end of period 8-2, I quickly decided to punt and make some adjustments for the 6th and 7th grade classes:

  1.  Revamp the ranking template/handout to  include the names of the poems so students would not have to write them down.  Here is an example of how I did this for 7th grade:

2.   I decided to read aloud each poem 2x to help students really “hear” the poems and hopefully better understand each one.

3.  I reminded students that we didn’t have to completely understand a poem to appreciate or enjoy it.

These adjustments seem to make a big difference, especially for my 6th graders.   My 6-3 class clapped enthusiastically every time I read a poem from their packet, and they were eager to rank their choices!  Each student got to take a copy of his/her favorite poem to mark up/annotate; they also were quite earnest in their efforts to choose two points of “noticings” for their selected poems.   I was surprised and impressed that of all my classes, this class had the greatest spread of “favorite poems”—-favorites tended to lean toward 2-3 poems in all my other classes in every grade level/section.

For my 6-6 class who needs a little more scaffolding, we read the poems together, and they got to annotate/mark up each poem.  Because these activities took the entire period, I modified the assignment for them and didn’t ask them to do a FSLL chart, especially since they did a lot of this work orally in our individual to pair to group share during class.   Like my 6-3 students, this class seemed to take great delight in hearing and discussing the poems.

Another part of the activity that was a big hit with both classes:  I included a two-voice bilingual poem and asked a student to volunteer with me.  The class LOVED hearing another student read the poem with me since both my student volunteers took on the Spanish speaking part and showed off their linguistic expertise! Both 6th grade classes LOVED the activity and thoroughly enjoyed a diverse range of poems.

Even with the modifications, the my efforts to do this activity with 7th grade were challenging because we had to move to a different location so that our new writing studio furniture could be set up since it had arrived mid-day.  If you’ve taught middle school, you know that any disruption of the normal routine usually results in unusual behavior or student difficulty in staying focused.   Though the circumstances were not ideal and probably impacted the quality of the learning experience, my 7th graders were able to finish their annotations and begin their FSLL charts in class; they completed these on a subsequent class day.

Below is the rubric I created to assess their work; I made some slight modifications for my 7th graders and 6-3 class, but you can see the basic elements I looked at in their annotations and FSLL responses in this 8th grade assessment rubric:

Looking Ahead and Additional Modifications

I am planning on doing a modified version of this activity again with my students next week as we look at “Where I’m From” poems (a post will be forthcoming on this poem study).  Here are a few things I’ll be sure to do:

  • I will reduce the number of mentor poems from 8 to 4
  • I will read all the poems aloud
  • We’ll annotate using a modified write-around text on text activity where students can do collaborative annotations (I’ve blogged extensively about this strategy from Harvey Daniels and Nancy Steineke in the past)
  • We’ll use a graphic organizer to capture and record our noticings about these kinds of poems

I am hoping that with these adjustments, my 7th and 8th graders will be as enthusiastic about the activity as my 6th graders were.  What additional modifications would you make, or how are you doing reading frenzies with your middle school or upper elementary age students?

SOARING Into Art History and Artists with Inquiry


Art History and Artists-1Twice a year, our school offers students the opportunity to participate in a pathfinder academy known as SOAR.  Students can choose “courses” in one of the three pathways:  STEM, Health and Wellness, or Arts and Culture; they can also earn a certificate in one of these pathways.  You can learn more about our pathway academies program here.

Teachers volunteer to sponsor or “teach” a SOAR class; in addition, our amazing coordinator Janelle Bowker polls students for topics they’d like to see added the SOAR menu.  Students get to vote on their top choices, and Ms. Bowker works diligently to place students in one of their top picks.  Because many students indicated an interest in art history and artist, I decided to take on that topic even though I know very little about it.  Because our courses are designed to be inquiry driven, it is not necessary for you the teacher to be an expert; I think not knowing a lot about a particular topic allows more space for students to step up as the experts and to position teachers and student as co-learners.   My interest in taking on this topic comes from my work with Dorsey Sammataro and her art students last year, so I am hopeful this SOAR course will be fun for all of us!

We just began our first meeting this past Friday, August 26; we will meet twice a week (Tuesdays and Fridays this semester) until November 17 when we have our culminating Day at the Museum where students showcase their products/learning artifacts.   My game plan is to incorporate the elements of students designing their own inquiry projects using the principles and learning structures I learned at the wonderful inquiry workshop in Santa Fe I attended this past January (you can learn more all about that experience here).   Students will have opportunities to read an assortment of texts (traditional and multimedia) to build some background knowledge before we begin brainstorming topics, forming birds of feather groups, and then helping students draft their own inquiry project plans.  I am excited to see where the kids go with their work and the kinds of learning products they choose to create.

We kicked off the first day by asking students to individually share what they knew about art, artists, and art history on index cards.  I then had students form groups by counting off students in groups of four where they introduced themselves and shared their thinking.  Groups then created a T-chart of “what we know” and “what we want to know” to get a preliminary list of questions or ideas out there though we certainly will grow those questions/wonderings.

IMG_8593Not only did this activity spark some thinking, but it gave me an opportunity to see how students work in groups since many don’t have much experience at this age.    Though some students were very conformable doing this simple activity with others, I could see that some students were definitely struggling and needed some support.  Based on what I observed, I will definitely incorporate some of the community building activities and scaffold social skill interactions using strategies from Harvey Daniels, Nancy Steineke, and Sara Ahmed.

Once students finished their charts, we did a group share out—not only was this a great opportunity for the groups to hear from each other, but it was a teachable moment about respectful listening and the power of community thinking.  Here is what my students devised in roughly 25 minutes:




IMG_8601 IMG_8602

As you can see from the work, some students were more comfortable than others in working together with others, but I am appreciative that nearly every student made the effort to participate, especially since students are in mixed grade levels (6, 7, and 8) and were for the most part with students they didn’t know—those are big steps for middle schoolers.  The charts also reveal that quite a few students may have thought our course was about how to make art (even though the course description was very clear about our focus); though it is not, they can certainly develop as a mini-inquiry project to piggyback on the larger themes of art and artists.

I’m excited to see how our inquiry work unfolds and develops!  Stay tuned as I will post updates and share our journey of learning with you.

Revving Up Student Thinking with Choice and the Reading Un-Frenzy


Last year, Jennifer Lund and I had the pleasure of doing a reading frenzy with Language Arts teacher Sean O’Connor and his students.   The concept of a reading frenzy comes from teacher and speaker Nancy Steineke.  The basic premise of the activity is to give students a series of texts, allow them to skim and read fairly quickly, and then rate/rank the articles/texts they have read from most favorite to least favorite.  This activity is a springboard to helping students either choose a topic or find a focal point for a topic they’ve already identified as an area of interest.

When ESOL teacher Amy Balogh approached me about helping her students with research, she wanted them to have a positive experience and to develop key skills rather than trying to blast them with too much information.  We had great fun brainstorming and thinking together; ultimately, Amy decided to approach the research unit as a series of mini-inquiries infused with modeling mini-lessons as well as some light information literacy instruction with me.  Because she has been implementing a writer’s workshop approach all year, she decided to use some of the mini-lessons and writing/mini-inquiry assignments from Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling and Mentor Texts as the inspiration for her instructional design.


Amy decided to begin with the “5 Things You Can Do” inquiry/writing/research assignment.  Each class brainstormed and decided on a top topic to explore as a class.  Using a LibGuide as our “home base”, we decided to introduce the students to two of our Gale databases,  Opposing Viewpoints in Context and Kids InfoBits, as our starting points for research.  The students *loved* the search interface, but they especially loved the ease of citation of the articles with EasyBib.  Their favorite feature, though, was the Gale integration with Google Drive.  Students were super impressed with the ability to download articles directly into Google Drive for annotating or just having a digital copy of the text; they also loved the highlighting and note-taking feature and the ability to download those highlights and notes into Google Drive.  This mini-lesson gave students some search tools and strategies to begin their group inquiry into their class issues like current debates around gun control and gun violence.  Amy used shared documents in Google Drive to model the writing assignment from Gallagher in which they investigate the issue and then develop 5 solutions or “things you can do” about the issue.  This mini-lesson gave the students some solid starting points for search, but because the students’ bigger challenge is reading and understanding informational text, we didn’t want search to be the focus of their learning experiences as we moved forward with new mini-inquiries that we wanted to use to “spiral” up the depth of student thinking.   We both agreed that working with the information–reading, synthesizing, and then creating their own writing based on their research interests were the priorities.  With these learning needs in mind, I felt a slowed down version of Nancy’s “reading frenzy” would be a great way to scaffold students to these goals.

Our next step was for students to choose a topic to explore individually or with a partner.  Students brainstormed a diverse range of topics, and I pulled together text sets on each topic.  “Texts” in each set could include articles from the web, articles from different databases, podcasts, and/or videos; for digital texts, students could use the media center iPad to watch/listen to their those texts.  These texts would be a springboard to helping students then craft their own “5 Things You Can Do” mini-paper.  Topics included:

  • How to sleep better
  • How to eat more food in a restaurant (two ideas:  eating contests and getting the most for your money while dining in a restaurant)
  • Decreasing junk food in schools
  • How to have a good day
  • Time management
  • Taking care of a dog
  • Growing plants
  • Traveling on a budget
  • How to get rich
  • How to avoid major life mistakes; making smart life choices
  • Healthy eating/nutrition


We gave the students two days to muck around with their text sets.  I told students they could read the articles in any order, and they were also welcome to explore other text sets if something caught their eye.  Each student received a green sheet to record his/her articles and how they would rate the article on a scale of 1-10.  We asked students to read the articles of their choosing from their set(s) of interest and to annotate the texts as they read.  We used Nancy Steinke’s text annotation codes as a supplement to the annotation strategies they had already learned earlier this year with Ms. Balogh.  In addition, I provided students different kinds of sticky notes they could use to jot down notes and highlighters.  They immediately jumped into their sets and immersed themselves in the readings!


Normally, students would scan and skim the articles in a shorter time frame and rank the articles based on their interest in the topics within that set; they would then begin engage in presearch and begin developing an inquiry plan around that topic.  For us, our “slowed down” version of Nancy’s reading frenzy structure was to help students confirm an interest in the topic and/or further refine a focal point and narrow the big topic to a more specific scope.  We did give students an opportunity to rank their favorite articles at the end of Day 2; this ranking was helpful in identifying the kinds of articles students found most helpful or interesting.

Two things really struck me about this first round of the slowed down reading frenzy with Amy’s students.  First, they were incredibly engaged and involved with their texts—whether they were discussing the articles, reading intently and annotating, jotting notes on the sticky Post-It pads, or asking Amy specific questions about a text for clarification, the students were soaking up the text sets.  Secondly, the camaraderie among the students in each class was inspiring to observe.  Amy has clearly cultivated a classroom culture of care and empathy, and the students really function as a true learning community.  Whether they were helping each other with a text, sharing an idea, or thinking through an idea with a partner,the rapport was genuine.  In many ways, the feel of the class is reflective of the practices of participatory learning; I think this culture of learning is so vital for meaningful learning experiences.

IMG_6247 IMG_6263IMG_6261IMG_6258IMG_6266IMG_6244



For our second mini-inquiry, Amy introduced the problem-solution writing task from Kelly Gallagher’s book and modeled this in person using a shared Google Doc with the students.  Once again, students generated topics of personal interest, and I put together text sets to get them started:

  • Cosmetic surgery–blepharoplasty or double eyelid surgery–with young people, especially in Korea
  • Bees in danger of extinction
  • Teens – body image
  • Teens – grade pressures
  • Drugs and teens/the heroin epidemic in the “Triangle” in metro Atlanta
  • Teen dependency/ over-dependency on phones
  • Hours in a school day, changing the start time of the school day in relation to teens needing more sleep; also decreasing school day
  • Time management
  • Improving school cafeteria; better school cafeteria design
  • Bullying and teens
  • Teens and suicide
  • Poor/poverty and education – in US
  • Refugee crisis – Syria – US
  • Personal debt
  • Getting into college–admissions policies for Georgia schools


With both “slowed down” reading frenzies, there was always 1-2 students who were still struggling with a topic; sometimes they were able to think of something on their own, but other times, they discovered a path to a topic by exploring the existing text sets.  Again, we gave students two complete days to immerse themselves in the text sets; they also had choice in where they wanted to sit and the table/seating arrangements.


Here are some of the grows and glows about the activity from Ms. Balogh’s students:

Slide2 Slide1

As you can see, the students felt the activity helped them move forward with the information they needed to dwell in the thinking, composing, and idea development processes they did in their mini-papers.  As one student pointed out in the “grows”, we definitely need to add some nonfiction and/or informational texts in print, particularly ones that are more varied in reading levels so that there is something for all learners.  This area of development is one of our collection goals for 2016-17.

Amy shared these reflections on the work we’ve done for the last month:

My struggle in the past with the ESOL students and research is that it’s challenging to find articles that are both “scholarly” and are at an accessible reading level. Also, it is difficult for the students to skim articles when searching for them to see if they are actually helpful. This activity eliminated problem.  I’m more concerned with them actually READING good articles that help them, instead of spending a lot of time trying to FIND articles to read.  My favorite quote from this activity was when one student said, “this really made me think.”

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with Amy and her students over the last few weeks, and it has been joyful to see the students happily engaged with their topics.  I am deeply appreciative that Amy puts student curiosity and choice at the center of the learning experience; clearly, that focus has yielded student growth.  She has supported students with regular modeling of writing and thinking processes, and I am happy I could be part of fostering learning experiences to scaffold students’ engagement with their topics.   Now that we have a solid foundation established, we can begin looking to 2016-17 and thinking about ways to fold in more mini-inquiries throughout the year so that we can build search skills as well as informational text reading strategies.  I am looking forward to further collaboration with Amy and her students and new opportunities for us to provide learning experiences that will help students grow not only their reading and writing literacies, but their digital and information literacy skills as well!

The Culture of Inquiry-Driven Learning in Art Classes: Inspiring the Possibilities for Research and Composing Literacy Practices


Last fall  I had the pleasure of spending a good bit of time with Dorsey Sammataro’s art classes during the first nine weeks of the semester.  One of the things that struck me about her classes was the inquiry-driven approach that felt like a real-world workshop because there is shared ownership of learning by the students.   In late October, I was really thinking about how her approach to teaching and learning reflected the ideals of inquiry-driven learning and how could her art classes inspire how we approach research projects.

While I’ve been busy with other projects, assignments/initiatives, and working with other academic classes, Dorsey and I have continued to muse and think together.   Earlier this month,  I had the chance to observe Dorsey’s 1st period students, and this experience crystallized the possibilities of learning I want to see happening as part of our instructional program.  At the same time, it really brought to the surface a lot of the frustrations I have felt in recent years as I’ve tried to elevate my work and role as an instructional designer.   If you’ve taught in a high school, you know that these learning environments are often the most difficult to frame from an inquiry stance on learning and literacy.

I thought it would be helpful to share the aspects of the learner experience I’ve seen in Dorsey’s classes since starting here last August.  Dorsey provides learning structures, but students ultimately make choices.  Some elements I’ve observed include:

  • Students set learning goals—short terms and long term.
  • Students engage in multiple “drafts” and passes at art work.
  • Student have freedom to “fail” because failure is viewed as positive and part of the learning experience that values experimenting and mistakes.
  • Students keep idea books/sketchbooks that they share and serve as a place to pen ideas for immediate use or to revisit at a later time.
  • Students do regular peer review and discussion of their works; collaboration is encouraged and an integral part of daily life in these classes.
  • Students engage in frequent reflection and self-assessment.
  • Formative assessment is integral in these classes as is time to actually engage in the craft of creating art.
  • There is always something to learn from completed projects even if they did not turn out the way students planned or if they are not completely successful in the eyes of the student.

dorsey-art-1 dorsey-art-2

As I have been drafting this post, I was taken back to the roots of my interest in an inquiry stance in learning:  READ 8100 (Inquiry Based Literacy) with Dr. Bob Fecho at the University of Georgia.  I could write an entire post about this life-changing course, but instead, I’ll point you to some reflections I composed (2002!) in response to a reading on Paulo Freire. Here are some of the qualities of a learning space that takes an inquiry stance on learning (this list was compiled by my classmate Sharon Murphy Augustine, and I incorporated them into my response):

  • DIS-ease. There are many questions raised without answers
  • Establishes more than the teacher as validator of knowledge/work
  • Feeling of responsibility to yourself and the class
  • Recognizes classroom as a complicated, non-laboratory place filled with complex, caring human beings
  • Fights culture of school that wants THE right answer
  • Doesn’t hide what is occurring in class and makes class part of determining what is occurring.
  • Patience- doesn’t give up too quickly and realizes community/learning/inquiry doesn’t happen overnight.

Unlike the banking concept of education,  Freire says,  “For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and reinvention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other”(72).

Of course, these qualities dovetail with those of participatory learning spaces, something I’ve written and spoken about extensively over the last few years.   You can search my blog if you are interested in reading more, check out my pieces in print, or view my presentations.

One of the regular learning structures of Dorsey’s class is peer critique—students have an opportunity to share a completed piece of work and share the successes as well as the struggles.  It’s a fantastic reflective experience for the student sharing as well as the peers providing feedback.

Funky Focus Dorsey Art Review

Here is a sample set of reflection questions that Dorsey uses when students are ready to share out individual projects with the larger class:


Students write or type a narrative based on these questions to help them think about the verbal/oral discussion with the group.  Over a series of a couple of days, each student has an opportunity to share these reflections with the group, and classmates then provide on the spot feedback.  It’s a relaxed conversation, and I’m always struck by how articulate, candid, and invested students are in their work and assessment of their work.

So what does the exemplary work of an art teacher have to do with me as a school librarian?

What I see in Dorsey’s art classes invites us to rethink how we see literacy practices like research projects and writing assignments.  What if more teachers approached research and writing the way Dorsey’s artists approach their work?  What if students had more say in topic selections?  What if the processes of topic selection, developing questions, investigating, wrestling with information, drafting, and composing final products (whether a paper or alternative forms of expressions/composing/creating) were valued as much as the end product (usually a traditional paper)?  What if formative assessments were integrated and valued as much as the summative assessment?  I think we would see deeper learning, higher quality of work, authenticity, and more excitement because students would be taking responsibility for their learning rather than the experience being completely teacher driven.   It’s hard to be emotionally invested in something when you have little to no input or voice.

I’ve been lucky to experience this sustained, inquiry-driven approach with different teachers in recent years, but these experiences are often the exception, not the norm.   I become giddy when I get to help co-design learning experiences where we can go deep and kids are not rushed through some of the most important life skills they will acquire and take with them wherever they go.  I relish these opportunities to do deep dives and give students choice and ownership of their learning as well as meaningful learning structures to scaffold that decision making.  I worry about the consequences of these kinds of literacy practices are increasingly commonplace and  limit kids to certain kinds of assignments that are often couched in “college and career” readiness rather than a broader mindset of life readiness where literacy practices are evolving as people move through different careers and personal experiences.  Many of you teachers, librarians, and students are weary of research assignments that feel formulaic and artificial.    I have always aspired to be someone who helps grow a learning environment of inquiry and curiosity and meaning making like Dorsey does in her classrooms.  As a teacher and librarian, I worry about the practices I’ve seen in recent years with research assignments and how it seems increasingly marginalized at the high school level.

Maybe it’s my life and professional experiences of recent years, maybe it’s part of being this far in my career with only a few years left to go, or maybe it’s the culmination of these factors and more, but whatever the case, I feel a sense of urgency to be a catalyst and team in player in a larger learning environment that dares to re-imagine not only research and literacy practices in academic areas, but also the public school learning experience from an inquiry, participatory lens.   The art studio experiences that Dorsey and her students live and breathe serve as inspiration for how we might rethink the dominant research and composing practices and framework.  I am looking forward to continued collaboration with Dorsey, art teacher Donna Jones, and their students as we all learn from each other.