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

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


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.

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!


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.

Crowdsourcing and Curating Collective Memory, Legends, and Local History with Facebook Groups

About two days ago, I noticed a flurry of postings from my local friends to a Facebook group called, “You’re Probably from Canton, GA (Cherokee County) If You Remember??” in which people were reminiscing about places, people, and traditions gone by in the local town and surrounding communities of Canton.   Out of curiosity, I began perusing the posts in the group this evening and am fascinated by the phenomenon I see happening here:  over 900 members are sharing collective memory, legends, lore, photographs, and remembrances of life in the past of Canton.

People are sharing musings and engaging in threaded conversations around historic photographs, school days, local events that no longer take place, “urban legends” (including one about one of my high school teachers, Miss Mauldin, who supposedly became distressed when she could not find her classroom after a group of mischievous teens pushed the lockers down the hall and concealed the entrance to her classroom), local figures, traditions, and cultural institutions of life in what used to a be fairly small north Georgia town.  Most of the memories center on life prior to the 1990s, a decade in which a population explosion changed the physical and cultural landscape of the community in many ways.

As I am browsing through the posts this evening, I can’t help but wonder what libraries and educators could take away from this kind of phenomenon of crowdsourcing collective memories; I’m intrigued what an ethnographer might also be able to take away from this collective narrative as well as individual narratives that are shared in this public space.

  • How can libraries and educators harness the power of social media to help people build a rich narrative?
  • Whose voices seem included and what groups might be absent from the conversation–and what might that in and of itself tell us about the culture of the community?
  • What can we learn from the stories that are shared in a medium like this and how could this be a medium for multiple voices telling the history, the story of a shared place?
  • Could we view this Facebook group as an alternative or emerging form of text?
  • What can we take away from this kind of narrative to inform our understanding of digital storytelling and digital composition?
  • Is Facebook a medium for curation, and if so, what are the benefits as well as challenges for using it as a curation medium?  How might libraries weave narratives from a group like this into a larger digital text using a tool like Storify?
  • What qualities engage and compel people to contribute to this conversation?  I saw numerous comments along the lines of, “This is fun!  I could do this all night!” or remarks about the number of hours people were devoting to sharing and reading the posts and comments in the group.   Clearly, people are experiencing flow in this learning and shared story space–how can libraries and educators tap into the power of shared storytelling and construction of local history/memory?
  • How is this group functioning as a site of participatory culture?
  • Do groups like this encourage people to use social media who may be reluctant to join a social network or who may not feel a sense of agency or desire to participate in social networking?
  • What motivates people to establish and engage in sustained participation in groups like these?