Inquiry

Markerboard Surfaces, Collaborative Conversations, Academic Literacies, and Libraries

Yesterday I blogged about the use of our new markerboard surface tables as a way for students to collaborate and capture their group thinking.   I’d like to briefly share another use of these dry erase surfaces in our library learning studio from last week with our Theory of Knowledge (TOK) students.   This was an activity that came together very quickly Thursday morning and while not tied to a formal research project, threads of inquiry were essential to the learning experience.  The group came to the studio to watch a short clip of a PBS video related to their content/unit of study.  Dr. Glenn and Mr. Byrne developed discussion questions around this segment and composed them on our dry erase surfaces.

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After watching a short segment of the video, students had approximately 10-12 minutes to visit each table; students were encouraged to discuss their thoughts and reflections with their peers and then jot down their responses.    We also observed students continuing the conversations around the written responses as they engaged in some truly meaningful and deep dialogue with each other.

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Students were able to jump into the activity quickly and confidently and participate in richer, more nuanced conversations (both written and oral) because Dr. Glenn and Mr. Byrne consistnetly integrate learning/thinking structures as a regular part of classroom life.  As I watched these students immerse themselves into the learning activity with depth and intensity, I could not help but think of the huge participation gap that Jennifer and I have observed the last two years.  We have seen a wide range of academic and social skill sets across multiple content area classes, course levels, and grades; I feel I have struggled to articulate what I’m observing and to contextualize it although the recent readings are helping me to take first steps in doing so.   The academic discourse and social behaviors of the TOK students were reflective of the academic literacy framework I referenced in yesterday’s post; in particular, these students were demonstrating:

1.  Disciplinary literacy: “…the join understanding of discipline-specific literacy features through which knowledge is created and practices are shared” (Kiili, Mäkinen, and Coiro 225).

2  Argumentative literacies:  “As students work to establish themselves as contributing members of a domain-specific discourse community, argumentative literacy practices enable them to consider alternative perspectives, broaden and deepen their knowledge, and make judgement to inform their decision making.  As a result, students are able to identify, evaluated, and produce arguments within a wide range of individual and social literacy events…students are able to effectively composed, evaluate, and learn from arguments by adopting the social practices of the target discipline” (Kiili, Mäkinen, and Coiro 225).

3.  Collaborative literacies:  “…those literacy practices in which two or more person engaged in reading and/or writing together are equally responsible for negotiating meaning through talk.  The goal of collaborative literacy practices is to produce a joint interpretation of a text” (Kiili, Mäkinen, and Coiro 225).  In this case, our texts were previous knowledge and the PBS video segment.

Like many other activities we’ve helped design and/or facilitate this academic year, common threads are woven into learning activities:

  • Writing as a medium for thinking and sharing
  • Collaborative conversations
  • Individual work, small group discussion, and large group share

We then moved to a large group discussion facilitated by Dr. Glenn; students from each table had the opportunity to share their thoughts about the question posed at their table.

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Because we ran out of time, the activity was continued into the next day.  Many students captured the ideas on each table with their cell phones as they prepared to leave for lunch.

Reflections:  The Library as Learning Studio and Site of Literacy Practices

While not a formal research type of activity or project, we love working with teachers and students to provide them space and assistance for these kinds of learning opportunities.   So often we call the library the “biggest classroom” in a school, yet learning experiences are often limited to formal research projects and/or storytime.  In many schools, it’s a challenge for teachers and administrators to see the library as an additional learning space that can accommodate many kinds of experiences because the quiet, book-centric model and/or prior experiences dominate their perceptions.  In other school libraries, limited budgets and restrictive physical space hinder the efforts of librarians to sell the library as a studio and alternate kind of classroom.  When our spaces are designed with flexible areas that can be repurposed quickly, mobile furniture, and technologies for multiple modes of learning (low tech and high tech), the library can support a more diverse range of learning experiences and be better positioned to support the growth of academic literacies for all students throughout the school year, not just when it is time for formal or informal research projects.  These learning space design drivers  expand the possibilities of libraries as sites of practice for multiple literacies and can potentially position the library as a “commonplace for interpretation” in exploring, expanding, and theorizing the literacy practices within its learning community (Sumara), hence shifting and expanding the role of the librarian as a sponsor of literacy (Brandt).

References

Brandt, Deborah. Literacy in American Lives. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print.

Kiili, Carita, Marita Mäkinen, and Julie Coiro. “Rethinking Academic Literacies.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 57.3 (2013): 223-32. Professional Development Collection [EBSCO]. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.

Sumara, Dennis J. Why Reading Literature in School Still Matters: Imagination, Interpretation, Insight. Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum, 2002. Print.
Note:  If you are interested in the “Rethinking Academic Literacies” article, you may also enjoy teacher Gary Johnston’s series of blog posts on this article.

Formulating Research Questions with Birds of Feather Collaboration and Writable Surfaces

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We’ve been partnering with Language Arts teacher Sean O’Connor the last few weeks as his students have been engaged in presearch around topics that students identified and developed around motifs and themes of To Kill a Mockingbird.  After participating in the reading frenzy activity, students left with a topic of interest that they wanted to explore further and refine through presearch.  After several days of gathering information and sources to build background knowledge, the students were ready to think about focusing their topics even more by developing a refining research question.    After some conversation, Sean and I thought it would be meaningful for students to collaborate and use the question lenses activity that my friend Heather Hersey shared with me last fall and that I piloted with Sarah Rust’s students.   We felt the question lenses would give our students a way of looking at their presearch information with fresh eyes and alternate perspectives.  Inspired by both Heather and Sarah Ludwig’s adaptation of the activity, Sean and I decided to do our own variation on Sarah’s version of writing around question lenses using our new dry erase tables (we purchased the Expanse and Nebula tables with dry erase surfaces).

We began by introducing the question lenses and activity procedures to Sean’s students:

After showing and discussing the five question lenses and examples [see slides above], we asked students to form “birds of feather” groups around like or similar topics at the dry erase tables. Once students had formed their groups, we asked them to write their topic(s) on the table and to get a variety of dry erase markers we had available.  We gave them about 10-12 minutes to talk and draft at least two questions per question lens for a minimum of ten.   We encouraged them to keep a tally on their pink sheets (every student received one to have as a guide and to record questions they liked for personal keeping) as their groups composed their questions.

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Some groups were initially a little quiet and needed some encouragement/nudging from us to help them get their conversations and group thinking going.  Sean is especially gifted at helping students communicate and helping students tap into their cognitive processes as he circulates about and engages in discussions with the students without giving them answers or leading them to a response.

After the question incubation period, we asked each group to look at their questions and come to a consensus about which question they felt was the best one and to be able to articulate why it was the best question.  They then composed their top question on one of our Verb whiteboards.  Next, we did a large group share out of questions and rationales.   As each group finished their brief presentation, they placed their Verb Steelcase whiteboard onto the Verb easel.

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Students then had an opportunity to vote for best question of the period by placing a checkmark on the easel with their favorite question.  As we voted, students also finished recording favorite questions on their pink sheets; other students also used this time to photograph their group table.   We asked students to reflect on the questions they had seen both in their groups and from the other groups as we thought about what makes a good research question; this activity was our springboard for helping students either draft their own question or to use one of the questions from their birds of feather topic group  that resonated with them as their focus question for moving further into search. They are now doing additional search and are starting to think about multigenre element products they’ll craft to represent their key understandings and insights.

Two aspects of this activity that we loved are reflected in many of the inquiry driven activities we’ve done this year in helping students move begin or move through presearch:

1.  Writing is a medium for processing ideas and thinking in a visible way.

2.  We move through a continuum of individual, pair/small group, and large group work that ultimately helps students experience learning in a social and collaborative way and that will inform their individual work.

We are always happy to provide students these kinds of learning opportunities for our students, especially for those who may not have had many of these learning experiences prior to high school and/or during their previous high school research/inquiry experiences.  If you don’t have access to dry erase surfaces, you can easily adapt this activity with butcher/bulletin board paper or oversized sticky notes.  While I know there are virtual mediums for doing this activity, I increasingly feel that being “unplugged” and having students do this work in a tactile and physically present way makes the thinking more concrete and gives students chances to interact socially in an academic context that would not happen through a virtual tool.   This face to face modeling and opportunity to practice these skills and grow these cultural, social, and cognitive dimensions of academic literacy is especially important for students whose opportunities to do so have previously been limited (Kiili, Mäkinen, and Coiro).

We’d love to hear from others how you are either helping students develop and refine research questions, using writable surfaces for thinking and learning, or other collaborative work during presearch.  For more photos of the activity with our two classes, please visit the photoset.

References

Kiili, Carita, Marita Mäkinen, and Julie Coiro. “Rethinking Academic Literacies.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 57.3 (2013): 223- 32. Professional Development Collection [EBSCO]. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.

CU Boulder Symposium Keynote: Literacies for Every Season of Their Lives

Many thanks to my colleagues at UC Boulder for the opportunity to participate from afar in your symposium today! Thank you so much for inviting me to be part of your day of learning and sharing.

Links of Interest:

Bridge to Presearch and Growing Student Understandings: Connect, Extend, Challenge

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One of our ongoing goals this academic year as instructional designers has been framing the importance of process in research projects and emphasizing the frontloading of presearch experiences as a critical point of helping students select and narrow a topic of authentic interest.  As we tried to collaborate with our 11th Language Arts teachers earlier this semester, Jennifer and I wanted to experiment with the learning structure Connect, Extend, Challenge to see if we could nudge student thinking about the overarching research theme of The American Dream. We decided to do a modified written conversation read and discussion starter that incorporated Connect, Extend, and Challenge.  We were able to schedule Linda Katz’s two classes for the activity and felt they would be a great group to pilot our first efforts since they had spent some class time discussing and brainstorming as a group what they felt The American Dream meant and individuals or events that might represent some aspect of it.  Below is their initial conceptualization:

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After seeing their list, Jen and I wondered if we could use the activity to introduce some contemporary issues related to The American Dream through the critical lenses of socioeconomics, class, race, and gender to push their thinking beyond contemporary individuals and to broaden their event/issue menu from the initial list they developed.  In our minds, we thought the activity would help them focus on a timely issue and hopefully be inspired to inquire about it.  It took me about a day to find articles I felt were a right fit, and I organized them into eight folders (one for each table).  Each folder contained two sets of articles:

  • A common set of readings that usually was an overview of a working definition and explanation of The American Dream.  These were designed to be quick reads that each group member would read (I envisioned four students per table, so I had four copies of the common read in the folder); they all came from our Gale and EBSCO databases.
  • A set of four different articles so that each group member would have a different article to read.

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Our game plan was for the students to have 10-12 minutes to read the articles; they would then discuss/share out their readings and reactions to those readings. We then wanted them to collaboratively respond to the prompts for Connect, Think, and Extend so that they could draw on the prior knowledge they had started building in the classroom but hopefully grow or expand through the group readings.  Each group would then share their responses on a large sticky note before rotating to another table and set of readings for a second round.  On the day of the activity, Jen reviewed the protocols and helped facilitate the activity; we tried to reinforce the conversation protocols by taping the guidelines on each table.

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The outcomes were a bit mixed.  Quite a few students discovered new information and some different directions for researching The American Dream and contextualizing it from a modern perspective.  Some even expressed surprise, especially around statistics and data, about what they read in the articles.  We were impressed some students developed their own coding system while annotating the articles to tie directly into the thinking/learning structure of connect, extend, and challenge.

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While Jen and I were happy to have put these topics and issues on the students’ radar, many still chose to go with their original focus on how an individual embodied an aspect of The American Dream; others, in the spirit of the research assignment, picked 1-2 concepts from the list and then researched multiple events and/or persons that they thought represented their chosen aspects of The American Dream.  We realized that some students would have benefited from the activity taking place over two days so that they could have had more time to:

1.  Read (the articles were of varying length and complexity, and we noticed some students needed more time to engage with the text).

2.  Share as a small group and then craft their collaborative responses to really go deeper with the connecting, extending, and challenging aspects of the activity.

3.  Share out as a large group and then help students think through the connections of what they had read to their initial class-generated list as well as new possibilities for inquiry.  Dr. Katz agreed that the extra time and the chance for a large group discussion would have been more optimal.

Now that we’ve tried the activity, we know that we might want to build in a longer or extended activity time window to help students immerse themselves in the texts, the conversations, and thinking without feeling rushed.  Jen and I  also realized that because the final details of the research assignment didn’t come together in the original time frame any of us (media staff as well as 11th Language Arts) anticipated, we were not cognizant that the teachers were focusing more on students looking at different issues or individuals through one or more of those class generated aspects of The American Dream.  While the activity did not result in our (Jen and I) goal of generating enough excitement to shift the research focus to a specific present day issue and a deep dive into how that issue related to the viability of The American Dream, hopefully from a critical literacy inquiry stance, we still feel this learning structure has great potential and hope to use it as part of presearch with another project.  What types of presearch learning activities or structures have you tried to nudge students’ thinking about topics related to a particular theme or to grow how they conceptualize a particular topic?

Writing Around Literature Motfis + See, Think, Wonder for Deeper Understanding

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Yesterday we had the privilege of observing and listening to the students of Language Arts teacher Aba DeGraft-Hanson think together and share their ideas around different motifs of To Kill a Mockingbird.    They first began with a write-around the motifs last week; they then met in the library learning studio yesterday to discuss the ideas from the write-around and collaboratively draw conclusions by using the See, Think, Wonder structure from Making Thinking Visible.   Aba’s variation of this learning structure also asked students to include a one-word distillation of their ideas.   As students discussed and worked through the lens of See, Think, Wonder, Aba walked around and conferred with each group to answer questions or to serve as a sounding board.

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Students then presented in their groups using our Steelcase Verb dry erase easels and the written work of their write-around.

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Students also took notes as they listened to their peers and jotted down key ideas to revisit.

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After all groups completed their presentation/share out to the class, Aba led a short discussion with students about connections between the motifs.  She then provided them a graphic organizer to help them go deeper with the motif they had explore and to help students connect the motifs to themes of the novel.

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This two day activity generated rich conversation and some extraordinary thinking with the students!  I encourage to take time to listen to Aba’s narrative of how she blended written conversations with the See, Think, Wonder learning structure and her reflections on how these learning activities ignited student thinking and learning.

We are deeply appreciative of Aba and her students so generously sharing their work and using the learning studio here to practice inquiry and critical thinking.  We also hope their story of learning will inspire you to think about how you might use these learning structures with your students!

 Additional Resources