reading

Musical Chairs + Book Tasting Rocks!

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Upon returning from our holiday break, Jennifer Lund and I had a request from one of our Language Arts teachers to schedule her classes for the popular book tasting activity.  We faced two challenges:  the teacher wanted to do the activity in two days (a time challenge), and we had a significant number of books checked out that would make it hard to do the activity with the category oriented version we’ve done for the last year.    We decided to mix it up and put a new twist on it by incorporating elements of the “musical chairs peer review” activity that Sarah Rust and I adapted last semester from our colleagues in New Jersey.

The basic organization included having 35 seats and assigning a book to each “seat.”  We used the same open square seating arrangement that we used for the activity with Sarah and made “placemats” of different colors with numbers to help the students clearly see where to sit when the music stopped.  We placed the books on the placemats ahead of time being sure to vary the types of books so that consecutive seats didn’t have the same kind of text.   We kept a healthy supply of “replenishment” books on a cart nearby so that we could replace any books that were checked out (we observed that at least ten books were picked by students for checkout with each class; others might have noted a book from the session for future reading if they were already engaged with another book for Independent Reading (held in most Language Arts classes each Wednesday) time.

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While this version of book tasting does not have the degree of choice as the other interpretations of the activity, we felt this version would hopefully expose students to different authors and types of books they might not normally choose.  Once students had placed their bookbags out of the way, we gathered at the “square” and reviewed the procedures for the activity; we also explained the modified book tasting “ticket out the door” we designed to help them make notes and assess the books they would explore.  The review form, as you can see below, gave us the flexibility to do up to four rounds of the activity within a period depending on the time learners needed to interact with each book; we made our copies on bright yellow paper.  Please feel free to download and modify this document:

These are the “placeholders” we printed on different colors; please feel free to download and use.

For each round prior to starting the music and movement, we asked students to push in their chairs and to make sure the book was on the placemat.  Once the music began, students walked around the square; we also told students they were welcome to dance to the music as they walked about the table.  A few helpful logistical hints on this aspect of the activity:

  • Be sure to mentally identify at least 2-3 students as your points of reference; doing so for each round will help you make sure that students don’t stop at a chair/book they’ve previously visited.
  • Encourage students to move at a moderate pace and to not allow large gaps between students or groups of students to develop as they move around the table; otherwise, it can be slightly chaotic when the music stops and students are trying to find the closest seat/book.  This potential challenge seemed to happen more with smaller classes than larger groups.
  • Vary the length of the music although we tried to have students go around the square at least 1.5 to 2 times per “musical round.”
  • Use a variety of music although we primarily used contemporary songs and/or retro songs with an upbeat or dance-oriented rhythm.  As you would with any activity, make sure you choose songs with lyrics that are appropriate for your audience.  We got positive feedback from several students on the songs we played.

Our overarching goal was to give the students a fun and meaningful point of access to sample at least three to four books and give them an opportunity to preview different kinds of books.  The first effort at this version of book tasting involved five sections of college-prep classes that varied in size from roughly 25-35 students per period.  The first three classes in the morning seemed generally receptive to the activity though the playful nature of what we were doing seemed a little unfamiliar to some; however, most students seemed to enjoy it and several showed excitement about the books they had discovered.  The afternoon classes seemed a little less into the activity although many of students put forth a positive effort.  In this first effort, we noticed that students needed verbal scaffolding for each round to help them know what to do as part of the review process even though they had their evaluation ticket form to guide them through it; some classes needed reminding from the teacher to be a little more specific in the open ended response section.   Depending on the students’ prior experiences as learners, you may need to provide gentle prompting like we did to help students in the activity.  Throughout the day, we received enthusiastic and positive feedback from the teacher as well as an assistant principal who was present and observing several sections.

Word quickly spread that day throughout the Language Arts Department about this version of the book tasting, and we received a flurry of requests from other teachers to schedule time to do this version of book tasting.  We were already scheduled with classes coming in for research, so we were not able to accommodate everyone right away; however, we were able to schedule five sections of Honors 9th Language Arts that we worked with yesterday.  The students in each class seemed to genuinely enjoy the activity and seemed a little more engaged and energized.  We noticed that they were very observant of the book covers as they walked around the table and some did their best to pace themselves so that they might be lucky enough to land at a book of their choice, behaviors that were charming but that we also did not see with the first group on a large scale.  They also needed no verbal scaffolding and were more detailed in their responses.   One modification their teacher incorporated that we loved was that she walked around and responded to their comments either in writing on their tickets or through a quick quiet verbal conversation during the activity.  We definitely would encourage others to adopt this effective strategy that she used with her students.

One thing that stood out to us was that the Honors classes seemed to have  more of a “book/literacy/reading” kind of cultural capital as students in “advanced” classes that are not as prevalent in the “college-prep” classes.  While we want to be very careful to avoid broad generalizations based on class categories, these observations are consistent with other literacy behaviors Jennifer and I have observed over the last eighteen months.  We’re currently  thinking and reflecting on what we’ve seen in the context of scholarly literature/research to better contextualize what we’re seeing and to think about how that might impact our instructional design and work with teachers.  We hope to share more on this later in the year once we’ve had time to dwell more deeply in our questions.

We hope that this variation on book tasting will be helpful for you as we feel it is scalable for any age group.  Please let us know if you try it out and how your students respond to it!

Update 3:25 PM 1/15/15:  If you can’t see the embedded documents on SlideShare, the PDFs are below:

Revisiting Book Tasting to Support Readers

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My colleague Jennifer Lund and I have been working with some of our ninth grade teachers this week as part of a unit they are doing with students to give students an opportunity to select a book and engage in self-facilitated reading.   As many of you may know, I used a strategy, “book tasting“, during my time at Creekview High to support inquiry and literature circles.  Jennifer and I decided to adapt it for this unit, but our challenge was tweaking it for eight sections of classes, a variety of readers, and completely open choices rather than giving students a pre-selected “menu” of choices to choose from as part of an inquiry unit.  We felt this would be an effective approach since we’ve noticed ninth graders sometimes are overwhelmed by all the choices available.   Because students here often ask for specific kinds of books (romance, mystery, a book like Hunger Games), we decided to create “sampler trays” of books by the most requested categories of books.    After some collaborative brainstorming, we decided upon these categories:

  • Romance
  • Action/Adventure
  • Mystery
  • Sports Fiction
  • Dystopian
  • Comedy/Humor
  • Gritty/Realistic Fiction
  • Hot/Popular Reads
  • Nonfiction

I created signage and we affixed those signs to individual book carts.  We utilized some previously created booklists and crafted some new ones to choose the books that would be the “appetizers” for each book cart/category.

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Because neither of us had done “book tasting” with this many classes at once or in a context in which students could choose any book, we then thought about how to tweak the activity to accommodate these needs and  complete it within a single 50 minute class period without rushing the students or shortchanging the selection experience.  After much thought, we decided this would be our game plan:

  • Introduce the activity and briefly outline the details of the book tasting with students.
  • Give students 10 minutes to “sample” our “trays” of tasty books.  Because we knew some students might also have definite ideas about specific books, we decided we would also offer browsing the stacks in the same area as an additional option.

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  • Work in three segments of “tasting” that would include roughly four minutes to read the first few pages of the book and then about two minutes to write a quick response and rating of the book using the book menu below:
  • Ask students to help with a few housekeeping activities upon the completion of the tasting:   A.  return books back to the appropriate cart with the book cover facing outward.  B.  Books from the stacks would be pushed to the center and we would clean up the “leftovers” afterwards; these books were then recycled either to the appropriate cart for its particular category or housed on the “Hot and Popular” cart.  Overall, most students did a great job helping us with these tasks.
  • Students then check out their books, grab a bookmark, and then check in with their teacher to share their choice.  We collected the completed book tasting “menus” as the ticket out the door.

We honestly were not sure how the activity would go—we had concerns our adjustments to the structure of the activity might be off, that we might run out of books and/or not have time between classes to replenish carts, or that our estimated timing/pacing would be way off, especially since we were working with multiple classes and diverse kinds of learners with a wide range of previous experiences as readers.

As it turned out, all of our fears were quickly allayed as the process flowed beautifully for each class on the first day.  Nearly every class section responded with enthusiasm and intense engagement with the activity.  Even the two sections that were not quite as stoked as the others (one was an early morning class; the other was at the end of the day) still participated in a positive way.  With the exception of the early morning class, all of the classes seemed very intentional in their book selections and interacting with the choices on the book carts.  Jennifer and I both felt the book carts as “sampler trays” gave the students a flexible structure to be more deliberate with their choices.  I like Jennifer’s take on the book tasting approach:  “The purpose of book tasting is to scaffold students’ making independent choices.”  We also observed students selecting books from both the carts and the stacks;  we also overheard conversations in which students shared opinions, questions, and recommendations to each other about books.  We also had students in each class inquire about specific titles, authors, topics, and series as well, so we used our laptops to do quick lookups in the OPAC.

Book Tasting with 9th Grade, 2/25/14

What struck us the most was how intently and deeply focused students were during the four minute “tasting” phases of each book in nearly every section; in many sections, some students would be so engaged that they would continue reading with a specific choice even after it was time to move on to another.   We used the book menu and the six minute cycles as a guide and tried to respect the needs of the students as readers if they lingered or finished slightly early.   One particular class shocked their teacher with their engagement with the books,  whispering to us “They hate reading!”, but in retrospect, we think that we perceive as disinterest or disdain for reading is really more about the lack of choices that is so pervasive in high school Language Arts choices. Overall, this variation of book tasting was tremendous fun for us as the teachers as well as the students, and we hope to do it again with other classes.

Book Tasting with 9th Grade, 2/25/14

A few brief reflections we think are share-worthy:

  • Giving students that quiet time to read and sample their books is crucial.   It is essential that teachers resist the urge to offer commentary to students or attempt to “coach” them into selecting a particular author or book—those behaviors defeat the purpose of book tasting as a scaffold to helping students have opportunities to select their own choices.   Respect students as readers and be a respectful observer, not participant.  Sharing ownership of the learning experience is at the heart of book tasting.
  • We paused to wonder how much quiet time our students have in their lives here at school as well as at home.  For a student body that is usually plugged into their earbuds and devices, the experience of reading without the buzz of music or a text may be new for some of our students.
  • The book carts are an accessible entry point for all readers but are especially helpful for those who might not have clear choices in mind but know there are certain kinds of books (like a mystery) that they might prefer.
  • Choice is such an essential element for learning.  The book tasting activity provides enough structure to support participation yet is flexible enough to not stifle students’ interests.
  • We plan to look at the roster of book selections from each class section and get a sense of what kinds of books students selected for their independent reading unit.

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Many colleagues expressed interest via Twitter in learning about this activity.  We encourage you to take it and adapt it for your students!   We hope this post will be helpful for anyone interested in using the book tasting strategies.  Some additional resources of interest:

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Writing Around Text on Text Effort 2: Unplugged Conversations for Inquiry, Participation, and Social Construction of Meanings

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This past Friday, my fellow librarian Jennifer Lund and I had another opportunity to help facilitate written conversations about texts using the strategies we learned in the Harvey Daniels workshop we attended in December 2013.    Emily Russell, a teacher and Language Arts Department Chair we’ve collaborated with regularly this past year, and her students have been reading the memoir The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.  When she came to us for ideas for helping students transact with the text and their peers, we shared some of the strategies from the Daniels workshop as well as the write around text on text strategy we did with Darryl Cicchetti.

One of our reflections from our work with Darryl is that we think it would helpful to scaffold the write around text on text strategy by first giving students the opportunity to do the “silent literature circle letters.”  In this strategy, students can work in pairs or small groups of 3-4 (no more than 4) to have a conversation about a text or question through timed letter writing.  You can begin by having students write silently for 3-4 minutes and then swapping letters ( which can be written on notebook paper or large index cards) and writing again for bursts of 3-4 minutes.   Depending on how many people are in a group, this could go back and forth between pairs or you could simply write around the small group until everyone had a chance to respond to each other.  This can then be followed-up with small group discussion about the ideas and points they wrote on paper before moving to a large group share.  Emily did this with her three classes at the beginning of the week before coming down to the media center on Friday to do the write around text on text.

On Thursday, students used the same template we used with Darryl’s classes to have students identify a passage that stood out to write2them as well as questions they had about that chunk of text.  Some students chose brief and specific  passages; others chose large extended sections spanning 2-3 pages.  Most students chose something in the middle about a paragraph or so in length.  At the end of each period, Emily sent those down to the media center along with a roster of groups she selected to help us organize for Friday.  Just as I did with Darryl, I made copies of the passages on colored paper and then affixed them to large sheets of butcher paper.  Because our copier machine has been broken for two weeks, I used the ScannerPro app and then exported the PDFs of the passages to Evernote for printing.  This process moved fairly quickly although it would have been faster if I had access to a printer configured for Airprint.  The other aspect that was different this time was using colored butcher paper—that had been my original intent for the first time with Darryl’s students, but because I didn’t specify colored paper, our library student helpers assumed I wanted white paper.  This time I was sure to go with them and to be specific about colors I wanted.  While that sounds like a minor point, Emily’s students immediately commented about the colors and that they liked that when they first entered the library on Friday.  One other thing I did differently out of necessity with time constraints that come with doing prep work for more sections—I simply wrote group names on butcher paper with a black Sharpie instead of making the pretty group nametags in PowerPoint that I did last time.

This time we met in our area of the library that has eight rectangular tables and a screen for project rather than the rotunda area we used with Darryl’s classes.  We felt this would help us get groups together more quickly and help us avoid dealing with the horrific acoustics that plague our rotunda area of the library (as in a whisper echoes loudly across the entire space—it is akin to being in a cave when you are trying to talk to someone in this part of our library, a problem we’re working to address or at least mitigate). write4 As Emily’s students arrived, she, Jennifer, and I instructed them to find their table by looking for their name on the butcher paper on the tables; we also had the group rosters up on a slide we projected onto a screen.   We reviewed the instructions for the write-around text on text, took time to answer any questions, and then instructed students to jump in as we told them we’d write for about 10-12 minutes, and we’d alert them when time was up.  Just as we did with Darryl’s classes, we circulated among the groups, observing, photographing, and videoing; we also answered any questions students had, and Emily also jumped in and actively participated in the written conversations with students as well.

In reality, each class actually wrote for 20 minutes!  Because they were so into what they were doing, we did not want to break the flow.  It was interesting to note some differences in how these students engaged in the activity compared to our first group with Darryl.

  • None of the classes seemed confused about the directions and immediately jumped into the activity.  Because we had the hindsight of offering this kind of scaffolding and had already seated the students by their groups, we think these steps helped minimize any confusion.
  • There was less oral conversation doing the write-around time (which Daniels advocates as silent writing time) and less socializing; when students did converse, it was done so in a quiet manner and was related specifically to the text or the activity.
  • Students were able to write for a longer sustained time period (roughly 20 minutes vs. 10 or so minutes).
  • Students wrote more responses directly to the text as well as to each other; we have not yet coded the responses for every group yet (this will take some time as there are approximately 25 groups total to code), but I suspect from what I read and saw Friday that we’ll see some different patterns in terms of response type, volume, and depth from our first group in December.
  • Students seemed very organic in their work—on their own, each class began drifting to other tables and seemed intentional in trying to make their way to every table at least once.  We did not tell them to do this; in fact, with Darryl’s students, we had asked them to focus just on their group (this decision seemed practical at the time since each group was reading a different book whereas Emily’s students had this common text/book).    It was truly fascinating to  see them make their way around to each table; many also revisited tables to do follow-up responses other peers might have left.  Consequently, we saw more of a trajectory in the written conversations that reflected more of a dialogue between various students.
  • Out of three classes, there were only two students I observed who seemed to struggle with full engagement.  I was honestly struck by how focused and intent students seemed during the quiet write-around piece of the activity.  There was definitely a synergy of thought that was truly awe-inspiring to just stand back and watch.

These differences in my mind are not “bad” or “good”,  but in many ways reflect not just the difference in scaffolding, but to a larger degree, the fact that Emily’s students as a whole have had more opportunities in their past K-9 experiences to engage in group or collaborative activities.  Students who are tracked into what are considered “lower” level courses are often confined to write5solitary activities involving worksheets and silence; hence, when they are given the opportunity to do more interactive and collaborative work, teachers have to be patient in helping students work through the learning curve students experience as they learn the social and academic skills they need for these kinds of participatory learning experiences.   I am thankful for teachers like Darryl who want to disrupt that norm and give these students the same kinds of learning opportunities as “Honors” or other “higher” level classes.

We then gave students time to debrief and process in small groups when the 20 minutes was up.   We told them they could talk about one or more of the following:

  • The written conversations and specific pieces of those conversations on the butcher paper at their table
  • Ideas and conversations they had read at other tables
  • New insights, questions, or understandings from the process of reading others’ ideas

Each group appointed a recorder to capture the “big ideas” from the small group discussions that lasted about 5-7 minutes.  Emily and I walked about and listened in to each group; Emily used what she heard to help lead the big group discussion we then had the last 10 minutes of class, a time in which they tied together both ideas as well as literary aspects of the text that were highlighted in student written conversations.

Every class had an overwhelmingly positive response to the activity.   There was even a class in which students remarked aloud to both Emily and me that “we should be doing this more often!”  At the end of class, students shared what they liked about the write around text on text activity while asking ( very enthusiastically) if this was something they could do more regularly!   Other feedback from the students:

  • They enjoyed and appreciated hearing many student voices, something that sometimes gets silenced in traditional class discussions.
  • They liked being able to see different perspectives on their book; several remarked how the written conversations helped them see something they had not noticed about the book.  Others commented their perspective on a character or issue in the text had changed after reading the opinions and responses of their peers.  They were beginning to understand learning is social and how meaning can be constructed together.
  • Students liked the freedom in being able to move about and respond at their own pace during the write-around.
  • Students were focused on ideas, not grammar or spelling.
  • Everyone had opportunities to contribute to the discussion.
  • Students remarked that this activity was one that helped them think more critically and deeply.
  • Students were surprised by how fast the period seemed to go and that they had written as long as they did.
  • Some students remarked they loved the “freedom” of the space of the media center and being able to participate in the activity without feeling “confined” by the space constraints and seating arrangements of the traditional classroom (a point which we feel supports our vision of transforming our library into a learning studio for teachers and students!).

write3As I have reflected now on this second effort and experience of doing written conversations with students, a few thoughts have resonated with me over the weekend:

  • Activities that put inquiry and participation at the heart of the learner experience are the ones that will truly capture students’ minds and trust.  Sometimes this involves using technology; sometimes it does not.
  • Over the course of Media 21, Susan and I became more selective and strategic about our incorporation of technology as a medium or tool for learning; we saw that students often needed the “offline” experience of learning how to participate in a community of learners in a space that was not so public online and provided immediate, face to face feedback.  These experiences so far at NHS seem to parallel those with Creekview students.
  • These kinds of conversations that don’t involve technology or dialogue in an online space can be a scaffold for more public conversations; however, I increasingly worry about the fine line in not imposing a medium for learning that might not work for teen learners vs. how to respectfully their comfort level and skill in participating in virtual learning spaces.  I plan to revisit Shall We Play?, an outstanding document that addresses this very challenge of helping students cultivate new media literacies and the four Cs of participation.  I think their pedagogical model of scaffolding those 4Cs in both low-tech and high-tech contexts will help me better think how to negotiate these questions and challenges as we hope to expand our work with teachers and students to grow these conversations.
  • These questions and reflections in these excellent posts from Lee Skallerup (It’s About Class:  Interrogating the Digital Divide) and Jackie Gerstein (Is There a Digital Divide or an Intellectual-Pedagogical One?) also reflect my thinking and work from the trenches.  These are definitely worth your time to read and to ponder as I worry that schools and libraries are doing a lot of shallow pedagogical work just for the sake of saying they are “integrating technology” and embracing “digital learning” (what the heck do we even mean by that?).  I fear the emphasis on “technology integration” is trumping sound, thoughtful instructional design in too many classrooms and libraries.

I hope to do a follow-up post in the next ten days or so to share our findings of coding the student work.  For now, though, I hope that this post will be helpful to those interested in these strategies.    This past Friday was one of those magical days with students and teachers in which you get to watch learning in action–watching ideas blossom like a bud unfurling its petals still evokes pure joy after 21 years of teaching.  In a climate in which high stakes testing increasingly informs the experience of school and undercuts teachers’ autonomy in determining the most effective ways their students learn, I’m grateful for teachers like Emily and Darryl who put their students’ needs first and are willing to give them time, space, and opportunities to be active agents in their experiences as learners.   If you’d like to see more scenes from Friday, please visit my photo set housed here.  In addition, here are two videos (I promise to film from the horizontal perspective next time!) from Friday:

First Efforts at Written Conversations Strategies: Write-Around Text on Text

A collaborative post by Darrell Cicchetti, Jennifer Lund, and Buffy Hamilton

Background

Original photo by Buffy Hamilton

Original photo by Buffy Hamilton

Earlier this month, my colleague Jennifer Lund and I attended a half day workshop sponsored by our Gwinnett County School District.  We spent a Saturday morning with the smart and funny Harvey “Smokey” Daniels, who engaged us in a variety of strategies for helping learners transact with text more deeply while building writing fluency.  Through his presentation as well as our hands-on exercises based on his new book, The Best-Kept Teaching Secret:  How Written Conversations Engage Kids, Activate Learning, and Grow Fluent Writers K-12, we came away energized with concrete and meaningful strategies we felt we could apply right away in a variety of ways with teachers and students across multiple subject areas.  One of the variations of written conversations that Jen and I really liked was the write-around, a strategy in which “Small groups of kids write and exchange notes about a curricular topic for several rounds—maybe 5 to 15 minutes of sustained writing–and then they burst into out-loud talk that’s rooted in their extended written rehearsals” (Daniels 155).

As soon as we returned to work on Monday, we immediately approached Language Arts teacher Darrell Cicchetti, a teacher we’ve collaborated with all semester to support the Independent Reading (IR) piece of his 10th grade classes.  Students read for an entire period every Wednesday and have free choice over their self-selected texts.  Thanks to a grant we received from the Norcross High Foundation for Excellence, we were able to purchase multiple texts by YA Author Paul Volponi for student formed literature circles as part of a culminating virtual author visit with Volponi (whom we highly recommend!).  We felt two of the written conversation strategies we learned in the workshop, the Write-Around Text on Text and Silent Literature Circle Write-Around, would be great structures for helping students dwell in Stripling’s recursive model of inquiry and to scaffold their efforts to build conversations for learning.  Although the class we chose for our first efforts had experienced some difficulty in small group work in the past, we all felt optimistic in trying these strategies with the students.  In this post, we’ll share our planning, process, assessment, and reflections on our first efforts at the write-around text on text strategy.

Write-Around Text on Text:  Prep Work, Implementation, and Reflections

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Definition and Planning

Harvey Daniels defines the text on text variation of a write-around as “what happens when you have several kids annotate the same copy of a text at the same time, jotting down their responses in the margins.  Quite naturally, students start reading other people’s comments and want to give their classmates a written high five, ask a clarifying question, or throw down a tough challenge” (184).   Essentially, you take a copy of a piece of text, affix it to a large piece of butcher paper or sticky note poster, and provide different colored markers or Sharpies for students.   Students work in small groups to literally “write around” the text and engage in their annotations and responses to each other as they compose; each student uses a different colored pen so it is easy to distinguish each student’s written responses.

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Template for Gathering Student Selected Passages from a Text

We first began preparing by creating a template (we recommend installing Rockwell and Bebas Neue fonts to see the document properly) for students to select a favorite passage they wanted to share and discuss from their chosen Volponi book.  We did this so that we would have time to copy the page for each student selected passage, mark it, and then affix it to the butcher paper for the write-around activity.  This document also included a space for students to pose five questions they were thinking about related to their book; we felt these questions could be a “safety net” for the silent literature circle write around activity if they were struggling for a conversation starter.  Darrell then returned these templates and included a roster of groups by book so that we would know how many sheets of butcher paper we’d need to prepare as well as any other organizing materials.  I chose to do the copy the passages on different colors of paper since our butcher was white, and I thought it would help differentiate each passage since we actually included 3-4 passages per piece of butcher paper since we wanted the students to write-around each group member’s selected text.

Once the colored copies of the pages were made of each student selected text, I took a black Sharpie and marked off the passage with brackets.  If students selected only a sentence, I went ahead and marked off the paragraph around it to help students see more context.  I then trimmed them with our paper cutter and organized piles of texts by group.  Next, I took large sheets of butcher paper (2-3 feet) and laid each one on a table in our rotunda area.  I then taped each passage onto the butcher paper, usually working a triangular pattern so that students would have room to write around each piece of text on the butcher paper.  I also created little “nametags” of group rosters using PowerPoint and taped those to each piece of paper so we would not lose track of which group owned each write-around. The other prep work involved writing up simple and direct instructions for students to frontload the activity.  We knew they would need start-up instructions and wanted to include visuals with concise steps to try and mitigate confusion.  Since the students had little prior experience with text annotation, we also printed copies of possible conversation prompts in case students experienced any difficulty thinking of how to engage in the written dialogue once they were at the tables with their groups.  Finally, we included rosters of each group so that it would be easy to quickly get groups to their writing tables.  I incorporated all of these elements into a PowerPoint that I showed at the beginning of our session in the library; I also used the slides to print out the group nametags and copies of the writing prompts.

Implementation:  Our First Efforts
Students Writing Around Text on Text

Students Writing Around Text on Text

It took about 10-12 minutes to review the introductory directions and to show students examples of how they might annotate their text.  We also encouraged them to use both written dialogue as well as any visuals/drawings they wanted to draw as part of the write-around composition.  Once students got to their tables and selected a pen, we told them we would take about 10 minutes to write as quietly as we could; I used my iPhone as my stopwatch.   Once I gave them the verbal “go”, they were off and writing.  At first, they looked a little hesitant, much like a wobbly newborn deer standing on its legs for the first time.  However, they soon jumped in and began “writing around”!  Darrell, Jen, and I walked around listening and observing.  At times, we redirected some of our “social butterflies” who might have strayed from their groups; we also monitored for students who appeared to be stuck in neutral and helped nudge them back on track as needed. As we observed, listened, photographed, and videoed the activity, some students occasionally asked for clarification or just wanted a little verbal assurance that they were working in a constructive direction.  It was exciting for us to see them moving around, ruminating deliberately, and interacting with the texts as well as with each other in positive, constructive ways!  Once time was up, groups sat down at their tables to  “debrief”  reflections on the process.  We gave each group a response sheet to record their three big take- aways from the activity; we encouraged them to think on what ideas seemed most important or interesting.  Some groups appointed a scribe to record their reflections; in other groups, each student wrote his/her ideas.  We had planned on doing a large group share, but we ran out of time.

Students Writing Around Text on Text

Students Writing Around Text on Text

Although Daniels recommends the writing period of the activity as a silent one, a hallmark of the write-around process, this might be difficult in some situations.  While we encouraged our students to write as quietly as possible, we found they felt comfortable with some level of verbal conversation, most of which was actually related to their texts or affirmation from peers in their small group that they were moving through the process as we had outlined in the instructions.  While our students were initially a little tentative in their confidence about their first efforts, we saw them becoming more comfortable as they moved deeper into their writing.  For these students, this kind of student facilitated, visible, and public literacy practice was somewhat risky since most of their school literacy practices have tended to be private, solitary, and teacher dominated. Here is a short 90 second raw footage video clip of the write-around with text on text in action:

Assessing Student Work

We honestly did not have any kind of rubric or preconceptions as to what to expect for this first effort. Because this particular group of students had experienced difficulty working in groups or collaboratively earlier in the semester, we were just hoping they would participate and have a positive experience working in small groups.  Since this was a first effort, we were more interested in student responses than actually “grading” content or participation.  Instead, we wanted to focus on looking at students’ written responses and seeing the types of written conversation they composed.  The plan was to code student responses and tally the number of responses in each category to get a sense of the types of written conversations and to get some baseline data that we could work from to track the trajectory of responses over the course of the next 18 weeks as we hope to fold this structure for learning into Darrell’s classroom life.

The three of us first looked at the student work together after class the day of the activity.  After debriefing on what we had observed in action and our first quick look at their work, we felt we needed the weekend to process it all.  When we returned the following week, we devised some broad categories of student responses.  Initially, the categories included:  questions, opinions, annotations of text, response to text, drawing/graphics, and off topic.  However, as I began making the first “deep” pass at looking at student work yesterday, I had a couple of realizations.  After looking at the first group’s efforts,  I realized that  all the responses were really a form of annotation; however, I felt it was important to keep a category of explicit traditional types of annotation.  Secondly, I felt a bit sheepish when I realized very quickly we needed a category for “response to peer”.    After tweaking the document, I was ready to dive into looking at the student work.

Coding Student Work

Coding Student Work

My plan was to attach sticky notes to each response and label the sticky with the category abbreviation as I coded.   Initially, I attached the coded sticky notes and recorded the number of responses for each category.  After I had coded two groups of student work, though, I realized I needed to be a little more intentional in my tallying process  to avoid getting confused as to what responses I had counted and which ones I had not.  I started recording by clusters of text and then began adding check marks to the sticky notes as I recorded the responses.  It took about an hour to code eight groups; I then tallied the overall results.  It was fascinating to me to not only look at individual annotations by students, but I also enjoyed seeing patterns within specific groups as well as the larger picture of overall responses.

Final Tally of Responses

As you can see, the dominant student talk included responses to text, questions, and opinions.  Within individual groups, some conversation was primarily one category; only one group’s responses consisted of mostly graphics or drawings.  We were not surprised by these patterns, and this coding process helped us to see that students will need additional modeling and opportunities in how to respond to peers to grow their fluency in developing written conversations.  We were very pleased to see that many developed thoughtful questions and that many made clear connections back to the text in their responses.  This student work, as well as feedback in interviews we are doing with Darrell’s students, underscore the importance of choice for readers engaging with texts, particularly for students who have not felt a sense of passion or success as readers.

Reflections and Next Steps

After having the opportunity to take a more deliberate pass at coding the student work and looking at the results, Darrell had a chance to talk with us about his insights and how he might move forward with using this strategy in his classroom.  Here some of Darrell’s reflections and next steps for second semester in January:

  • “Flip” the conversations by rotating groups during a write-around to spark responses within a given period to “jump-start” written discussions.  By “flipping” and moving to other write-arounds from peer groups, less confident students might have a schema or jumping off point to jump into the conversation–think of it as a little nudge to give them a starting point and help them get momentum.
  • Consider doing write-arounds over a two-day period so that there is a bit of break in the “flipping” of groups. Because some students are very defensive about any response to their work, splitting the write-around into two days might provide some degree of anonymity when groups rotate and defuse any possible confrontations. While we’ll work with students to develop strategies for sharing, receiving, and acting on constructive criticism, we know now this is a real issue for several students and feel that a “breather” in the write-around until they build their capacity to draw positive energy from tensions in ideas.
  • Clarify the annotation category to hone in on student conversation that relates to specific literary talk (i.e. theme, symbolism, figurative language).
  • Help scaffold students’ tactics for challenging someone’s opinion or idea in a positive way.
  • Student self-selection of texts for the write-around activity itself is important for building buy-in from students.

Jennifer and I are looking forward to our continued work with Darrell and his students.  We were absolutely thrilled with the overwhelmingly positive feedback from the students about the activity—we felt like they enjoyed it based on our observations, but their written feedback more than confirmed our instincts.  We hope to report back to you all in the spring the data we are collecting and updates on the ways students are engaging with text and each other through this and other write-around strategies.  We also feel these strategies will be a seamless medium for collaboration with content area teachers as they strive to meet curricular and schoolwide literacy goals; we also see applications for using this and other write-around strategies in the context of information literacy instruction.  Jennifer also has some terrific ideas on using written conversation strategies from the Harvey workshop to invite participation and grow conversations in professional development activities and meetings!  We are now working on a proposal to offer PD to our faculty on this specific strategy and then grow that work as we hopefully have the opportunity to help teachers and students pilot other strategies for written conversations in both print and digital mediums.  We look forward to seeing how we can grow our efforts to be collaborative partners and instructional designers with our learning community second semester!

References:

Daniels, Harvey, and Elaine Daniels. “Write-Arounds.” The Best-kept Teaching Secret: How Written Conversations Engage Kids, Activate Learning, Grow Fluent Writers, K-12. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Literacy, 2013. 155-91. Print.

Sometimes I Need to Read the Print Version: When the eBook Doesn’t Evoke the Same Reading Experience

Original photo by Buffy Hamilton

Now that I’ve been reading books on the iPad/iPhone for about two years, I’m taking stock of some evolving patterns in my reading preferences.  A few trends I’ve noticed about myself as a reader:

  • I enjoy reading books that I would consider as “fluffy” or “light” (while still very gratifying!) fiction on the iPad or iPhone.  Not only do I seem to concentrate better on these types of texts in digital format, but I also seem to read more quickly.
  • Nonfiction is a mixed bag for me–initially, I didn’t notice a difference in my reading experiences of nonfiction from print to digital, but in recent months, I have felt a need to read nonfiction in print—the digital form of highlighting and notetaking just doesn’t seem to meet my needs like sticky notes, highlighted passages, and marginalia composed in my own hand.
  • Rereads of favorite fiction are definitely more enjoyable for me in print—I would say the sensory experiences I’ve associated with previous readings of a text in print are the primary reason for this preference.

I had not tried reading a book of poetry in digital format until this weekend.   In the midst of a poetry reading binge on Sunday, I finished two and a half books in print format and one in eBook format.   While I enjoyed all of the poetry reads, I quickly realized the experience of reading a collection of poems in the digital format was not gratifying, and in fact, felt quite uncomfortable—it was akin to putting on a cozy, familiar old sweatshirt and discovering it was suddenly scratchy and ill-fitting.  I literally had difficulty concentrating and soaking in the sensory experiences of the poems; the poems almost seemed sterile in eInk.  Now perhaps this is just a personal reading quirk, but the experience left me with these immediate reactions:

1.  I will purchase all future collections of poetry in print (unless I have a desperate midnight craving for a book that I feel compelled to read in the wee hours of the morning)

2.  Do others have preferences for certain genres in print vs. digital formats?  I’m guessing they do.

3.  How and to what extent is the sensory aspect of reading impacted by a print version versus a digital edition?  I know that question has been the subject of some mockery, but I think this is a legitimate and serious question to consider as readers have diverse needs.

4.  What are the implications of these kinds of questions or points for consideration when thinking about print and digital collection development?

What are your experiences as a reader?  Do you have a preference for certain genres in certain formats, or have you noticed your preferences evolving over time?  I realize what I experienced this weekend and the patterns I’ve noticed are not unique or earth-shattering, but the absolute dissonance I felt with my transaction with the poetry text in digital format are prompting me to think a little more critically about these questions.