Designing Successful Learning Structures for Literature Circles with Sarah Rust

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While literature circles are not a new concept, teachers are always looking for strategies to help students successfully interact and develop sustained conversations about texts.   If you are thinking about literature circles for any grade level or subject area, you will want to listen to my interview with Language Arts teacher Sarah Rust as she takes us through her planning and design process with students:

Sample Conversations:

Scenes from a Literature Circle Meeting in the NHS Learning Studio:

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Designing and Scaffolding Multigenre Projects and Compositions

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I’ve been remiss in not following up on our end of the semester learning activities and experiences from our extended inquiry project with Language Arts teacher Sarah Rust.   If you haven’t had a chance to read my series of posts about our collaborative efforts or would like a refresher, you can catch up with all of the posts here.  In my last series post, I discussed different types of formative assessment we were using to evaluate student progress, processes, and products, including their research design proposals.  I’d like to share with you briefly some of the structures, resources, and activities we used over the subsequent three weeks (excluding our Thanksgiving break) to help our students compose their multigenre projects.

multigenre2-workAs students submitted their research design proposals, both Sarah and I provided them written and verbal feedback through 1:1 conferences as well as the individualized feedback we crafted using mail merge and Word docs.  These processes took approximately five days of class; students that were not meeting with us were either moving forward with additional research or starting to craft elements of their projects.  One of the tools we gave students to help them manage and organize all the pieces of their projects was this project planner/checklist.  I have found over the years that checklists, while seemingly simple, are powerful tools to help students stay organized and on track.

We also gave students concrete examples of finished project (both virtual and Word docs) templates to look at as well as hard/print copies my past students had created; students could browse the physical copies that we kept in folders in the library workspace.  In addition, we had virtual and hard copy examples of specific multigenre products created by my previous students as well as examples we found through the web.  We also built in days to do small group work on skills and project elements; some of these included:

  • Guided instruction for students who wanted to publish their work as a WordPress site.  We showed students 3multigenrehow to register for a free account, how to set up pages for each project element, how to establish a static homepage, and how to craft a customized menu so that the navigation reflected the order of the project pages we had established in the guidelines.  We also provided reinforcement for students with video tutorials that we made and published on the project LibGuide.  This instruction was probably one of the more intensive days since establishing the project website structure was essential early on for the students and helping them feel comfortable with multiple new skills at once.  To their credit, both classes did a fantastic job following our step by step guided instruction and getting their project sites set up.  Subsequently, they caught on to skills like editing pages and adding multimedia content very quickly—I was impressed by how they took initiative to self-help and to then show their peers a skill they had taught themselves.
  • 1:1 help for students who chose to publish their work as a Word document (most students published virtually with WordPress, and we had one student who published his project as a Google Doc).   Again, we provided reinforcement with customized video tutorials we published to the project guide.
  • 1:1 and small group conferencing with students who wanted feedback on project elements as they drafted.
  • Whole group instruction and discussion about how to craft the notes pages (please scroll toward the bottom of the page) since these elements are the ones I’ve found students have struggled with most in the past and to help our students have a clearer idea for our expectations in terms of content and parenthetical integration of sources.
  • Most students had mastered citation of sources using our EasyBib tools (including the awesome direct export of citations), but I was on standby to provide clarification or help students cite non-database sources.

We essentially had about 10-12 days of working class time for the projects; we were able to meet students at the point of need as Sarah and I served as “on-demand” help and shared our different areas of expertise in terms of content oriented questions and technical-related inquiries.  As we neared the finish line, we showed students how to submit their project information via a Google form; students who published via Word emailed their projects to me, and I uploaded their projects as PDFs to SlideShare. As students submitted their work via the Google form and email, I then added their content to our multigenre project blog (hosted at WordPress) and organized projects by period.

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Rust Multigenre Inquiry Projects Fall 2014 via kwout

In my next post, I’ll share how I used Google Sheets and a nifty mail merge app to record student project notes quickly and seamlessly assessment notes with Sarah Rust.  New posts are also coming soon featuring student interviews about their projects as well as some final reflections from Sarah and me on our inquiry adventures with our students!  Finally, Jennifer Lund and I will be doing planning period professional development next week for our faculty and hopefully finding new partners in different subject areas to pilot different interpretations of multigenre projects.

Holistic and Individualized Formative Assessment of Research and Inquiry Processes

For the last two weeks, our students have been immersed in investigating information and constructing new understandings as they have been composing their research design proposals, revising sections of their proposals, and doing additional research after focusing and narrowing their topics and research questions.  As they have gone back and forth in refining their topics and questions and doing the subsequent additional research, we’ve seen our students move back and forth between confusion/doubt/uncertainty/discomfort and clarity.  Most students are not used to doing this sort of deep dive with a topic, making their own choices about the topic and research questions, articulating how they demonstrating growth in their learning, or selecting their learning products; consequently, the messiness of choice and ownership of their projects has been a new experience (and uncomfortable to varying extents) for them.  Sarah Rust and I have also experienced a spectrum of emotions in this inquiry process as well;  we know our students will grow from these experiences yet we too feel some of that same uncertainty and frustration as our students when they wobble or stall in spite of our efforts to scaffold and support with individualized feedback, resources, and reflective questioning.   Like our colleagues Heather, Meg, Marci, and Cathy, we provide  them strategies and feedback that will propel them forward and give them the tools to self-help, but as we have told them, we cannot make the decisions for them or give them the answers.   We stay calm and reiterate that we are focused on how and what they are learning, not grades—of course, this discourse is a departure from the narrative they have heard their entire school lives in our test-driven culture.

The individualized and fluid nature of working with 50+ students who are all doing different topics is also a newer experience for us and definitely for the students.   Over the last two weeks, any given day has been a potpourri of joy, exasperation, delight, and doubt as students have drafted their research design proposals for their multigenre projects.  This kind of work is where the collaborative partnership Sarah and I have is critical because you have an instructional partner to be responsive to these kinds of learning experiences and individual student needs.  Because we both bring different strengths to the table and can process what we are observing with student work together, we are much better positioned to truly help our students than if we were doing this in a solitary or prescriptive, rigid way.

After receiving the drafts of their proposals for their projects, Sarah and I have employed a variety of strategies to personalize the feedback for each student at their points of need.  Here are some of the action steps we’ve tried:

Individualizing and Capturing Feedback Through Mail Merge and Databases

I created a database in Word of all of our students in 2nd and 3rd periods.  Data fields I created included:

  • First name
  • Last name
  • Class Period
  • Comments About the Narrowed/Focused Topic
  • Multigenre Products Students Selected
  • Publishing Platform of Virtual or Paper (Word/PDF)
  • General Notes (comments about student self-selected learning targets, what they know about their topic at this point, what they want to learn, research questions, their working bibliographies, and search terms/strategies.
  • Next Steps–specific tasks and suggestions to help the students move forward.  These action steps could also include requests for students to schedule 1:1 help or to participate in some of the small-group help sessions we set up in response to the patterns of thinking and gaps we saw in the proposals.

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I went through each proposal and typed in my feedback for each student in the appropriate fields in the database document.   I then used the Mail Merge wizard in Word to create a “form letter” that imported this feedback and printed out the feedback documents for each student on colored paper or in color.  Once I printed completed feedback forms, I stapled them to the research design proposal draft and returned to the student as soon as possible for them so that they could move forward or make revisions.  I also provided a copy to Sarah so that she could begin developing a list of needs to address and to prioritize which students needed her help and areas of expertise.  The master database provides us an archived record of the formative assessment to use as we look at student growth; it is also easily accessible to reprint should a student lose his/her copy of the feedback form.

It did take quite a bit of time to methodically go through each proposal and to generate the personalized feedback.  However, I so appreciate the opportunity to engage in this sort of assessment because it helps me get to know the students as learners.  This work also improves my instruction because I can easily see patterns of understanding and confusion and helps me to be a more reflective and effective practitioner as well as instructional designer.

Conferencing/Coaching/Triage 1:1 and Small Group

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Using this information as our starting point, Sarah and I have  been meeting with students the last few days (late last week and all of this week)to discuss the feedback we’ve provided them ; we use the feedback forms as a strategic entry point for face to face conference/coaching conversation with students.   We have been organizing our 1:1 meetings and small group sessions through a variety of mediums each day:

  • Students can sign up for specific individual help each day—we have used large post-it paper and our Verb dry erase boards as our parking lots for students to indicate they need assistance or have questions.
  • Students can sign up for small group help or indicate they want to join a future small group work session through our Verb dry erase boards.  For example, after reviewing all the research design proposals, I realized I needed to do some small group instruction on additional search techniques with Boolean operators and additional instruction on mining Academic Search Complete.
  • For those who might be shy or reluctant to place themselves in one of these help request parking lots, we’ve also been sure to work through our class rosters and are checking in with each student so that we are sure to meet with EVERY student and “check up” on their progress, successes, questions, and worries.

Yesterday, Sarah called students up by the class roster whereas I started with my list of student requested help.  Today we approached the scheduling of the 1:1 conferences by working through the class rosters and having students first check in with Sarah about some of their recent process work; students then moved to my table for to discuss the feedback they received from us on their research design proposals.   We each set up a help area with our mobile tables and our green Hon rolling chairs so that we had comfortable spaces to talk to students and where they could spread out their work and/or where we could show them specific resources or skills on our laptops if they needed some concrete visualization or examples.  Some conferences are brief while others are more extended, but typically, each meeting can last 3-10 minutes—it all depends on student need and how the conversation evolves in the conference.  We also keep notepads, large lined sticky notes, and/or Google Docs available at the conference table to jot down notes from each meeting while students bring along their folders of their process work, drafts of their design proposals, and the individualized design proposal feedback form.

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In just these first few days we’ve been meeting with students, it’s very apparent when students feel confident (and skills/processes/ideas they’re self-assured about as well) and where students feel fuzzy, unsure, and/or anxious.   We’ve also observed that most of our students are not used to this level of accountability, and some seem a bit uncomfortable with it when you are asking them questions to nudge them to dig deeper or be more specific with details; we sense many are also not used to these types of conferences that puts the responsibility and decision making on them as students.   We are framing this conference/coaching sessions from a stance of discussions to help them think through their choices, to clarify their own thinking/choices/next steps, and to move forward with their projects since we don’t want them to see the messiness and muckiness of inquiry as punitive.   These sessions have also helped us identify those who might benefit from some of our upcoming small group mini-lessons but who may not have initially signed up for assistance.  Last but not least, I believe these conferences convey to our students that each person matters and that we care about them and their topics.

Reflections

While we cannot do their work for them, we can give students every opportunity to get personal assistance in a low-key setting —we want them to know they cannot fall through the cracks or simply fly under our radars.  While I’ve done this sort of work before, this is probably the biggest chunk of time I’ve had in a collaborative partnership for this level of assessment and 1:1 student conferencing.  This approach requires us to be agile and responsive as each day is different and every student need varies.  This kind of conferencing/coaching is time consuming and messy; while the prep for the small group work is pretty straightforward, the 1:1 help is definitely open-ended.  I have been inspired and am improving my own conferencing skills with students by watching Sarah (who is a master at this process) and by my friend and fellow school librarian Heather Hersey.  Her post about the importance of conferencing helped me to think about focusing on all aspects of their inquiry work and design proposals rather than just sources or their bibliographies; it also inspired my idea for using the mail merge form and database to capture feedback and use that as a starting point for the student conferences/coaching sessions.

Sarah and I have also been discussing how intense this kind of work is and how you have to be comfortable with making adjustments as needed to timelines and your plans in order to be responsive to the students.    The processes are messy, yet this “mucking around in ideas” is the grist for the growth and critical thinking that happens as both we and our students problem solve, question, and revise our ideas and stances.  Neither of us has any idea how someone would do this kind of process-driven, organic, fluid, and reflective work alone!  We love that our combined talents help the students as well as each other; we also are appreciative of having someone else each day who can help you see things you might have missed or to think about a particular situation or challenge with fresh eyes.   We are also excited we can model collaborative learning for our students—how often do they get to be in a learning environment where there are at least 2-3 adults who can help them and provide them the kind of specific and personalized attention they are receiving?  Most importantly, this type of collaboration is a catalyst for inquiry work and for integrating more formative kinds of assessments that benefit students and impact learning.

We expect the 1:1 and small group conferences, coaching, and small group instruction to continue the next 7 days of school leading up to our Thanksgiving break.  I hope to share more images, video, written/video reflections and feedback from both of us as well as our students in an upcoming post later this month.   I’m also thinking about how to better integrate the conferencing/coaching/conversation aspect into the inquiry approach (and at an earlier point in time) with research using Cris Tovani’s conceptualization of these conversations as data and formative assessment (see her text, So What Do They Really Know?  Assessment That Informs Teaching and Learning).

Cris Tovani's Conversation Calendars

How are you approaching assessment with inquiry work?  How do you negotiate and embrace the challenges of time and fluidity with this approach to learning and research?  How do you scale this kind of learning experience when there are always challenges of time, space, and staffing?

Pre-Search and Mindmapping to Narrow a Topic Focus

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In my last post, I shared how we were moving deeper with our second round of more targeted pre-search after students had narrowed topic choices to one from their work with the first phase of pre-search.  To help our students begin to make sense of the information they had collected during their second round of pre-search, Sarah and I introduced mindmapping to our two classes.   There were a couple of factors that influenced this decision:

Getting Started and What We Did

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We introduced the concept of mindmapping by defining what it was, discussing ways we could use utilize it, looking at examples, and then offering three approaches to give students a starting point.  We gave them the choice of using one of our approaches, mashing and mixing up those options to make it their own, or mapping in an original that made sense to them.  We encouraged them to go deeply back into their annotations and KWL notes as they looked at their work both horizontally and vertically through the mindmapping processes.  We provided them oversized blue sticky notes although a few students selected a larger version of the easel-sized Post-It Notes.  In addition, we provided a small tub full of different colored Sharpies, and Sarah provided a jumbo box of Crayola markers.  We also gave students many choices in sizes of smaller sticky notes they could use if they wanted to identify patterns they were saying or to incorporate into the mindmap as an organizational tool for smaller bits of information.

Note:  In hindsight, I would introduce Evernote to students as a tool for organizing or capturing their work on the Post-it notes and purchase the sticky note types recommended by Evernote so that students could later easily search their handwritten notes (also see these recommended oversized Post-It notes that would be perfect for this activity).  Evernote would be a perfect way to help students archive and organize these types of notes, and it would be a great medium for students to take advantage of our district’s new BYOD policies this year.

Students spent roughly 3.5 days working on their maps.  We were struck by how intensely they worked and how focused they were in class on drafting their mindmaps as well as the diversity in the ways they organized their ideas.  While some students worked alone, most chose to partner with a research/inquiry buddy as they composed their mindmaps.

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At the end of each day, we asked students to hang their works in progress in the windows of our rotunda area for safekeeping; these maps, though, quickly became a conversation piece in the library as well as a form of art!   The mindmap gallery is something I highly recommend if you have wall or window space to do it.  We were a bit awestruck that nearly every student came in on the second and third days and grabbed their mindmaps with no prompting before immediately settling into their work.

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Sharing Our Thinking Aloud in Small and Large Groups

The next step in our process upon completing our mindmaps was to have students pair up and interview each other about their mindmaps.  We asked students to share with each other:

  • how they approached their mindmap
  • how the mindmapping process helped them hone in on their topics
  • how the mindmapping process helped them think more deeply and/or differently about their topic
  • what was clearer to the student about their topic after completing the mindmapping process
  • patterns or themes that might have emerged through the mindmapping process
  • gaps or missing pieces of information/questions still lingering after the mindmapping process

We provided the students a handout to help them take notes about their responses, but after seeing how our 2nd period students were stymied from verbal conversation by having this handout during the interviewing piece of the activity, we waited until after they had to time to discuss before giving it to students with our 3rd period class.  Once students finishing interviewing each other and recording their responses, we asked them to look at the topic triangle/funnel on that same handout and to to share/discuss/record how they had narrowed their topic through the mindmapping process. This part of the activity took roughly 25 or so minutes.

We then moved to large group share with each pair of students coming up to the Verb easel board, hanging their mindmaps, and sharing their responses from the pair-share interviews with the entire class.  This part of the activity served a couple of purposes:

  • We wanted students to hear each other’s thinking and processes aloud so that they could hopefully gain insights from each other and to see the diversity in the way they approached the task and how the mindmapping was helping them toward a more focused topic for further research.
  • It was an opportunity for Sarah and I to constructively pose questions about the ideas they were sharing and “conference” aloud with the students as part of our efforts to confirm they were heading on the right track or to “nudge” their thinking if they were still a bit unfocused or too broad with their topics.  Students could also ask questions of those speaking or to offer suggestions.  Most students were very comfortable with this aspect of the group share, but we did find there were those who were pushed out of their comfort zone since many of their previous “research” experiences were somewhat superficial and did not require them to really focus a self-selected topic.  While it is a challenging endeavor, we know that students building resilience in developing a topic is an academic skill they will need for future academic experiences.  We will continue to follow-up with individual or small group conferences over the next week with those who still needed some help in further focusing their topic.
  • We like giving them opportunities to speak in front of their peers–these experiences are gentle “rehearsals” that help them warm-up for larger presentations.

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This large group share took about a class period’s worth of time over two days.   I hope to have a follow-up blog post to this one up tomorrow or Monday with some student feedback/interview with their reflections on these processes and activities.

In the meantime, I want to share just  a few things Sarah and I have observed in this extended inquiry unit so far in recent days and that we’re contemplating:

  • As energizing as inquiry-based work is for some students, it can be frustrating or even threatening to other students because this approach disrupts the traditional ways of academic success and learning in our test driven culture (I know, you’ve heard me say this multiple times in the past!).   Finding the balance between gently pushing students and honoring that discomfort as you try to help students work through it is not always easy, especially when their frustration may even manifest itself in negative behaviors toward you as an instructor or even toward fellow students.
  • We’ve both been thinking more intentionally about assessment and struggling with the realities of grade-driven school experiences that impact both teachers and students.   Helping students keep their eye on what they are learning, encouraging them to risks as learners, and asking them to have faith in you during this process can all be challenging tasks, but we believe they are all worth our efforts to help our students.  I’ll also write more about formative assessment related to their annotating skills and KWL charts in an upcoming post to share dilemmas of assessing this kind of “process” work in a way that is true to the spirit of our inquiry unit as well as what we have learned in looking at these pieces of work.
  • It is an absolute joy to work with another teacher in this way—I have learned so much from Sarah over these last few weeks and so admire how well she knows her students and how that factors into the way she not only responds to them and interacts with them but how those insights inform the way we shape and tweak our learning activities to meet them at their points of need as learners and individuals.  I also love that I’m learning from the students and genuinely appreciate the opportunity to have extended time with them in this unit.

As part of our efforts to give them some strategies for narrowing their topics or to look at their topics through different lenses or perspectives, we utilized a strategy from my friend and colleague Heather Hersey, a school librarian in Seattle.  I’ll discuss this strategy and how it led to one final activity in this progression of learning experiences for helping students narrow a topic in my next blog post.  Overall, we are very pleased with the incorporation of mindmapping into the inquiry process—so much in fact that students will actually be incorporating them into their multigenre projects they’ll be creating soon (yes, a blog post forthcoming on that, too).  We hope you’ll continue to follow our journey of learning through our LibGuide where our Tweets, photos, resources, videos, and previous blog posts are all housed.

What strategies are you using to help students narrow their topics and take an inquiry stance on learning?  I would love to hear from anyone who is using mindmapping or other techniques to help students focus their topics and their pre-search in an organic and authentic way!