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!

Resilience: The Most Undervalued Information Literacy Disposition

Disclaimer added 5/17/17:  Due to erroneous information being circulated by certain academic librarians, I would like to clarify this post was written with appropriate permissions.  If you have concerns, I would appreciate your being professional and contacting me directly.
Update 5/18/17:  Due to misinformation that has been spread maliciously by at least once academic librarian through social media about this post, I have edited the original for clarity to keep the focus on the original theme of the post, resilience as an essential information literacy disposition.  It is unfortunate that some academic librarians who perceive themselves as the FERPA police and who know nothing of K12 education posted erroneous information about this post through their social media channels before bothering to contact me about the post, behavior that is unprofessional and most decidedly not in the spirit of the kind of librarianship I would hope colleagues would aspire to emulate.  When they did contact me, they did so in a manner I would not consider appropriate on many levels.  Here is the slightly revised post, and I hope you will glean food for thought whether you are a classroom teacher or librarian at any level.

When we think of information literacy, certain skills usually get great emphasis: understanding how to evaluate information and the sources of that information, search strategies, and citation management.  While these are all important skills, it seems that some dispositions get overlooked because they are soft skills that are not easily taught in neat tidy ways, nor can they be taught in a short time frame.  They are not considered “hard” skills that might be formally or quantitatively assessed with a test or performance task in some way.

I’ll be writing soon about my mini inquiry and research unit with 7th and 8th grade writers. However, there was a moment today I think is worth sharing and speaks to the importance of the soft skills and dispositions.  Ryland is one of my 7th grader writers who has gone from hating the class at the beginning of the year  to one who has flourished and thrived even with some setbacks as we took on more challenging academic writing during the second semester.  He has persisted in the face of assorted challenges.  He even signed up for my Creative Writing SOAR this semester (on top of having the regular writing class with me every day). Of notable importance, Ryland has discovered a love for writing poetry and shared that love of writing poetry with others.

As part of our project work, students brainstormed topics, narrowed down topics, and then engaged in presearch to confirm or change a final topic of interest.  After we completed presearch, students generated 10 different research questions using our question lenses method (more on this soon in a blog post, I promise).  From the 10 questions, I asked students to select their three choices with the understanding we would only focus on two but keep the third on standby in case they discovered one of the top two was not a viable choice as they continued with additional research. Like many other students during the presearch phase, Ryland needed some extra support with his search strategies and efforts, but he dug into the resources I helped him access.

In Ryland’s original research contract, he identified two top question choices around his interest in the Chattahoochee River.  He struggled to compose his 10 questions and to select his top two choices, which originally included:

  • How did the people use the river a long time ago?
  • How long is the Chattahoochee River?

Of course, the second question is not one that really lends itself to inquiry.  However, I wanted Ryland to be able to figure this out for himself.  After being introduced to EasyBib for crafting bibliographies and taking digital notes, he continued his search.  He fell behind for various reasons with his notes, and did not meet his deadline for getting 10 notes (a suggested 5 per research question); I gave him an extension, and he continued working on notes.  Yesterday, he began drafting his introduction to his research essay.  As we conferenced over his draft, we talked about how he had a terrific hook but that the thesis was falling flat.  Through this writing conference, Ryland realized that the second question was one that was more factual and not truly researchable in a deeper way.   I asked him if he would consider going back into his sources and review some the ideas he had read, including an article I had shared with him about the water wars involving the river between Georgia, Alabama, and Florida.  Though he looked a little discouraged, he said he would try.

Today he returned to class in an upbeat manner.  He cheerfully and excitedly took out his research contract and told me that after doing some thinking last night, he had a new research question:

How did the water wars get started in the first place?

Not only did Ryland show resilience in developing a new research question (and a damn good one at that!), but he did so in a calm and thoughtful way.  Even more impressed is that Ryland demonstrated this quality at a time of year when many students think school is over with only a week to go!  While this academic move may not sound like a big deal to us as adults, problem-solving and persistence are a big deal for a 7th grader, especially for one who has little experience doing research projects.  Of course, I praised him!  He then set about taking some additional notes and then writing his thesis statement for his introduction now that he had two major research questions/points that worked.   If we look at AASL’s Standards for 21st Century Learners, we can see Ryland demonstrated these dispositions under Standard 1:  Inquire, think critically, and gain knowledge:

  •  1.2.5 Demonstrate adaptability by changing the inquiry focus, questions, resources, or strategies when necessary to achieve success.
  • 1.2.6 Display emotional resilience by persisting in information searching despite challenges.
  • 1.2.7 Display persistence by continuing to pursue information to gain a broad perspective.

He also demonstrated these self-assessment strategies:

  • 1.4.2 Use interaction with and feedback from teachers and peers to guide own inquiry process.
  • 1.4.3 Monitor gathered information, and assess for gaps or weaknesses.
  • 1.4.4 Seek appropriate help when it is needed.

I find that frustration, especially when faced with challenging or unfamiliar learning tasks, is a major obstacle for teen learners.  Many students have low thresholds for frustration and give up easily for different reasons.   The majority of the students I teach, all of whom were identified as struggling writers last summer and placed into my Writing Connections courses for this academic year, especially grappled with a low threshold for frustration early in the year last fall.   As I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to teaching writing through a workshop/studio approach this school year, I have found that being able to frequently conference with students 1:1 and coach them through these rough patches goes a long way in building confidence and students’ belief that they CAN overcome new or difficult learning challenges.  These opportunities to regularly conference with students about their writing is a integral and critical part of helping them develop resistance in the face of a demanding or exacting learning situation.

Giving students opportunities to struggle through something hard, that requires thought,  and even asks for multiple efforts, is essential to helping students learn how to problem-solve and build resilience.  At the same time, we as teachers monitor them through the struggle; we know when to step in and when to step back.  We can be there for them and scaffold their efforts by serving as a sounding board they think/talk aloud a challenge/problem,  provide the “just in time” question to prompt or shift their thinking, and celebrate all their steps along the way as they learn from missteps and then ultimately achieve success.

As a librarian, resilience, adaptability, and persistence are essential dimensions of information literacy that I honestly could not cultivate very deeply or frequently with students in the media center in any scalable kind of way.  Why?  Because I lacked that regular interaction with students as well as the deep trust and relationship building that come from working with a student every day of the school year as a classroom teacher.   As a classroom teacher, I have the learning environment and access to students to help develop these dispositions of information literacy.  I’m situated in the heart of our writing and learning studio as we model, practice, share, and revise our thinking and our writing.  As I’ve said in the past, information literacy is not the work of only the librarian, but it is the work of the entire faculty who can work as a schoolwide team with the help of the school librarian to infuse information literacy skills on a meaningful and significant scale with regularity that will have genuine impact on student learning.

Ryland showed a major growth spurt today and has come from far from the writer and learner he was in August. Will this show up in our school’s growth bubble or as part of his test scores on the Georgia Milestones?  Most likely  no, but it will be an important part of his growth as a student and an individual that will go with him far beyond K12 education and hopefully help him as he encounters life challenges beyond graduation.  It is a joy and honor to be part of my students’ journey as learners and to play a role in helping young people like Ryland develop these fundamental dispositions.

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”?