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.

Growing Understanding of Genre Through a Poem Reading Frenzy

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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.

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

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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:

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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:

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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?