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 them 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). 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 solitary 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!).
As 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: