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?

Exploring Writing Craft with Noticings + See, Think, Wonder

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Because so many of my Creative Writing SOAR students indicated they were interested in writing longer pieces of fiction, I thought it would be both fun and meaningful to do an activity to help us explore writer’s craft and ways that writer’s begin works of fiction.  We began last Friday by taking time to read the first chapter (or chapters) of these works:

  • The Sun Is Also a Star, Nicola Yoon
  • The Secret Hum of a Daisy, Tracy Holczer
  • Goodnight June, Sarah Jio

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After students read the excerpts, they jotted down their noticings and questions using the graphic organizer below.

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We worked on this part of the activity for about 30 minutes last Friday and finished up during the first ten minutes of class this past Tuesday. Students then formed groups of three, and we reviewed the See, Think, Wonder strategy and discussed how our ideas could come from the individual activity and/or collective discussion.  Although some groups needed a little nudging to get the conversation going (they were sitting silently and not conversing or trying to do the activity without talking), all groups eventually warmed up and engaged in some meaningful discussions.  Groups worked for about 20-25 minutes, and then each group presented their ideas using their See Think Wonder poster they created.  Afterwards, each group hung their poster on the wall in the classroom.  We ended with a short discussion about each work; nearly every student wanted to read at least two of three texts!

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Today, I provided printed copies of interviews with each of the authors so that students could read more about each writer’s craft and approach to writing in the author’s own words.  Today we also did a final wrap-up activity to pull together our noticings as we try to read like writers.  


I borrowed this idea for synthesizing our noticings  from Allison Marchetti and asked students to complete this statement:  “Writers of fiction…”.  Here are the responses from my creative writers:

  • Create new worlds
  • Are quite descriptive
  • Use flashbacks
  • Partially base their work on their lives or life experiences
  • Use good “hooks”
  • Start in the middle of a story to get you to ask questions
  • Make you want to read more
  • Tie in their culture to their story
  • Have a lot of emotion behind their words
  • Can write in ways that are open to multiple interpretations
  • Provide backstory for characters without telling you the details directly (through actions, how others see that character)
  • Use descriptive details you might not expect
  • Use everyday situations and scenarios
  • Sometimes write in first person
  • May shock readers by starting with unexpected or startling events
  • Create a picture in the reader’s mind
  • Provide different points of view
  • Make you wonder if the story is actually real
  • Leave you hanging on the edge of a cliff at the end of a chapter
  • Make you feel gratitude or identify with a character/event
  • Use words to make the emotions REAL
  • Leave the readers with questions
  • Give the main characters conflicts to resolve or solve
  • Enhance something seemingly small to emphasize a point or scene
  • Connect readers to the characters
  • Develop characters really well

I will take this list and with help from the students, craft a poster that we can hang in the room as well as mini-version for them to put in their writer’s notebooks.  I think I will try this approach to introduce poetry and some genres of creative nonfiction works to the students in the upcoming weeks as they seemed to really enjoy it. How are you introducing genres of writing to your students?  How do you help your writers read like writers?

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.