Inquiring, Sharing, and Igniting Idea Sparks with 5 Corners

On our third and final day of our Lanier Schools Academy Institute, we participated in a fun and engaging activity that reminded me of the Harvey Daniels written conversation strategies.   Lanier High teacher Brooke Webb and LSTC Rhonda Stroud led us through a variation of the Four Corners learning activity, dubbing ours Five Corners because we had five questions to contemplate in small groups about our district LMS platform, Desire2Learn.  Our essential question was “How can eClass (Desire2Learn) help my students with PBL?”

Brooke and Rhonda ensured we were in mixed groups of grade levels and subject areas by giving each teacher a sticky note numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5.  We then went to our assigned table (1, 2, 3, 4, or 5) so that each group has an established starting point.  Each table had a question for the group to consider; the basic protocol was that you wrote your individual response, and then the group discussed and shared the responses.  We spent roughly 5 minutes at each table before rotating to the next “station’ or table with question.   You could also place a check mark next to responses from your peers that reflected your own practice or experiences.

As we moved through the stations, we could see what other groups had written and shared.  After we added our own responses and placed a check mark next to all answers that applied to our own practice/experience, we discussed the ideas shared from the other groups.  We rotated through all stations until we returned to our station that was our starting point.

We then looked at the responses shared by all groups at our initial station and grouped the responses into categories and tabulated our response to collect data to look for trends and patterns in the responses.  Some groups created simple bar graphs or charts by hand; we had a teacher in our group who was an Excel expert, so she created a beautiful graph for our group.

We then did a large group share out; this part of the activity was especially meaningful as fellow teachers not only shared the data, but teachers had the opportunity to talk about specific responses.  This small and large group work gave us ideas and strategies for using Desire2Learn in our classrooms and was a terrific springboard for the mini-lesson on Desire2Learn presented after the activity by Brooke Webb.  The learning experience and subsequent mini-lesson left me feeling energized and excited about incorporating Desire2Learn into my daily classroom instruction as well as PBL experiences for my students.

After we finished the activity and mini-lesson, Brooke and Rhonda hung up our work as a gallery on the ends of bookcases in the library (our beautiful learning space for the week) so that we could browse the work more closely during our collaborative work time and breaks.

This is another great variation on written conversation strategies that can encourage inquiry and crowdsourcing of ideas and knowledge.  I’m already thinking about how I can use this with my 11th and 12th grade readers and writers come August!  Kudos to Brooke and Rhonda for leading us through a rich and meaningful learning experience!

On a side note, the learning space also facilitated this learning activity.  I felt right at home in our beautiful media center because the Artcobell tables and chairs on wheels supported this kind of learning activity that involved movement as well as small group to large group work.  Over the last three years, I’ve been lucky to work in a library or classroom space where I had this kind of furniture; the one year I did not, I was absolutely miserable and felt stymied by immobile heavy tables and chairs.  These kinds of learning experiences are much easier to facilitate when you have a learning space that supports the design drivers of the kind of learner experience you’re trying to create.  As more schools incorporate inquiry driven and active learning activities, I think it is more important than ever for schools to closely examine their learning spaces and determine what they need to change in common learning areas as well as classrooms to support the vision for learning.

Sharing and Broadening Our Thinking With a Perspective Walk

Today was the first day of our three day 2017 Lanier School Academy Institute, a professional learning experience for returning and new to the Lanier cluster teachers.  This academy provides teachers of all grade levels and subject areas opportunities to talk about project based learning across the Lanier cluster, to unpack how our cluster thinks about PBL, and to share and brainstorm ways we can craft meaningful and authentic PBL experiences for our students (and ourselves!).  I will be joining the faculty of Lanier High this July as an 11th grade English teacher, so I am excited to participate in this three day institute.

This morning we worked in small groups to take an inquiry stance on PBL (project based learning).  We began by sharing PBL experiences we had implemented as teachers and discussed insights, successes, and what we might do differently moving forward with PBL.  Next, we contemplated and discussed these questions about PBL in our small groups:

  • Benefits?
  • Drawbacks?
  • Misconceptions?
  • What’s your perspective?

After we brainstormed our list of ideas for each question, our facilitator, Dr. Kyle Jones of Lanier High, asked us to pull out the one idea from our list of ideas for each question.  He then asked us to distill the idea to its essence and to write each “essential” big idea that stood out to us as a group (consensus!) on a medium sized sticky note.  Each group then shared out their responses for each question; similar responses were “bundled” together by Dr. Jones to be placed in a slice of the perspective walk “pie”.

Once Dr. Jones had placed the responses for the first question in the perspective walk slices, we gathered in large circle around the perspective walk pie.  He then asked us to look at the responses and to step inside the slice that resonated most strongly with us.  You could not “straddle” a pie with a foot in two slices; you needed to choose one that you connected with the most.   Once we had selected a slice, we then turned and talked in our small groups about our ideas and thinking about the response we had selected.  Once we engaged in small group talk, we then had an opportunity for three groups to share out to the entire group.  We repeated this process for each question, and for each round, Dr. Jones asked for volunteers to share who had not previously shared before though you could also add to the discussion if you had previously volunteered to share.

For our last round, we first considered the question, “What is your perspective?” where we picked a perception about PBL that we found most important to address or challenging.  After we discussed this question, Dr. Jones challenged us to think of ways to change that perception, and after small group discussion, we then shared out once more.  Approximately 50 teachers participated in the perspective walk, so this is an activity you could do with a large group or combined classes as well as an individual class.  During our lunch break, Dr. Jones took each group of responses and hung them on the mobile dry erase board that is our “parking lot” of ideas (more on this tomorrow).

I found this activity to be powerful because I got to hear so many interesting ideas from my fellow teachers, and the small and large group conversations gave me food for thought and pushed my thinking as well as “idea sparks” for the upcoming school year.  This is an engaging activity with tremendous synergy that is participatory and builds on the power of crowdsourcing ideas and the social aspect of learning.  I cannot wait to try that this activity with my new students this fall!

I hope to do some additional posts about our thinking and other great learning activities we’re engaging in this week in our institute.  Kudos to Dr. Jones and all the Lanier cluster teachers for such a provocative and fun morning of thinking and sharing today!

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”?

Student Writers See, Think, and Wonder with Visual Writing Prompts

Many educators use images as  prompts to stimulate student thinking, inquiry, and discussion.  I have drawn inspiration from great educators like Nancy Steineke, Smokey Daniels, and Gretchen Bernabei.  I have also used Visual Thinking Strategies though in hindsight, I should have been using them more for our Writer’s Notebooks.

We’re currently in a writing unit of study with argumentative writing.  My 6th grade students are exploring arguments for and against the instruction of cursive writing in schools.   Earlier this week, they read two great articles from NewsELA ( a resource that has been a godsend for me this school year).  Today, I wanted to set the stage for the next article we’re going to read together from Scholastic Scope about the benefits and challenges of cursive writing.   I felt like they needed a concrete way to connect to the idea that cursive writing is very personal and often associated with personal connections to others as well as cherished memories.

I decided on the fly to use a photo I took of something I found in the overflowing storage tubs and drawers that held thousands of recipes belonging to my late mother.  Regular readers know I was extremely close to my mom and anything I have of hers with her handwriting makes her feel closer to me somehow.  As the students arrived, I asked them get their Writer’s Notebooks; I then projected this photo with my LCD projector:

We did three 5-7 minute “bursts” of writing with a modified See, Think, Wonder thinking structure:

  • See:  First, I asked students to write down everything they saw in the photo.
  • Think:  I asked students to think about why the photo might have significance or importance based on what they had seen and noticed.
  • Wonder:  I asked students to write what they were wondering about the photo and what they saw; they could use a “I wonder…” sentence stem or simply write a question.

Students then  broke into pairs of their choosing, and we did a Turn and Talk.  Next, we did a “lightning round” whole class share–each student got to choose one talking point from his or her “see” writing, “think” reflections, and list of wonderings.  My co-teacher Heather Blaker and I were impressed by the depth of thinking we saw from many students; what really struck me, though, was that my students who usually struggle with their writing were the ones who absolutely “rocked” this learning activity with exceptional depth to their thinking and noticings.

Once everyone shared, I then did the “Big Reveal” and told students the story of the photo and my connections to it as well as the meaning the objects in the photo had for me.  I then asked students to consider why the cursive handwriting held such significance and if they thought the significance of these handwritten recipes would be the same for me had they simply been typed.  We then ended class with students volunteering to share what they wrote, and several shared their own stories of having handwritten notes and other kinds of writing from relatives that held deep meaning for them.

This is not a new strategy by any means, but I was just so struck by the engagement and thinking of my students, especially those who usually struggle.  Students, even my shy ones, were also eager to share their writing and participate in discussion.  I am thankful my administrators support a literacy and writing studio where writing , student interaction, and student discussion (small and whole group) are valued.    As we approach the state Milestones testing window in a few weeks, I can’t help but wonder how my students might do if they had the opportunity to have at least one visual writing prompt like the one we used today.   I hope the developers of our state test will consider adding this kind of prompt, especially since students are so often judged, sorted, and evaluated on the basis of their test scores.

Today was also a reminder that I need to embed visual prompts more frequently for our notebook time, and I’m now thinking of how they can enhance the ongoing inquiry units in progress for all of my students in grades 6, 7, and 8.

How do you incorporate visual writing prompts into your writing or Language Arts classroom?