Inquiring, Sharing, and Igniting Idea Sparks with 5 Corners

On our third and final day of our Lanier Schools Academy Institute, we participated in a fun and engaging activity that reminded me of the Harvey Daniels written conversation strategies.   Lanier High teacher Brooke Webb and LSTC Rhonda Stroud led us through a variation of the Four Corners learning activity, dubbing ours Five Corners because we had five questions to contemplate in small groups about our district LMS platform, Desire2Learn.  Our essential question was “How can eClass (Desire2Learn) help my students with PBL?”

Brooke and Rhonda ensured we were in mixed groups of grade levels and subject areas by giving each teacher a sticky note numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5.  We then went to our assigned table (1, 2, 3, 4, or 5) so that each group has an established starting point.  Each table had a question for the group to consider; the basic protocol was that you wrote your individual response, and then the group discussed and shared the responses.  We spent roughly 5 minutes at each table before rotating to the next “station’ or table with question.   You could also place a check mark next to responses from your peers that reflected your own practice or experiences.

As we moved through the stations, we could see what other groups had written and shared.  After we added our own responses and placed a check mark next to all answers that applied to our own practice/experience, we discussed the ideas shared from the other groups.  We rotated through all stations until we returned to our station that was our starting point.

We then looked at the responses shared by all groups at our initial station and grouped the responses into categories and tabulated our response to collect data to look for trends and patterns in the responses.  Some groups created simple bar graphs or charts by hand; we had a teacher in our group who was an Excel expert, so she created a beautiful graph for our group.

We then did a large group share out; this part of the activity was especially meaningful as fellow teachers not only shared the data, but teachers had the opportunity to talk about specific responses.  This small and large group work gave us ideas and strategies for using Desire2Learn in our classrooms and was a terrific springboard for the mini-lesson on Desire2Learn presented after the activity by Brooke Webb.  The learning experience and subsequent mini-lesson left me feeling energized and excited about incorporating Desire2Learn into my daily classroom instruction as well as PBL experiences for my students.

After we finished the activity and mini-lesson, Brooke and Rhonda hung up our work as a gallery on the ends of bookcases in the library (our beautiful learning space for the week) so that we could browse the work more closely during our collaborative work time and breaks.

This is another great variation on written conversation strategies that can encourage inquiry and crowdsourcing of ideas and knowledge.  I’m already thinking about how I can use this with my 11th and 12th grade readers and writers come August!  Kudos to Brooke and Rhonda for leading us through a rich and meaningful learning experience!

On a side note, the learning space also facilitated this learning activity.  I felt right at home in our beautiful media center because the Artcobell tables and chairs on wheels supported this kind of learning activity that involved movement as well as small group to large group work.  Over the last three years, I’ve been lucky to work in a library or classroom space where I had this kind of furniture; the one year I did not, I was absolutely miserable and felt stymied by immobile heavy tables and chairs.  These kinds of learning experiences are much easier to facilitate when you have a learning space that supports the design drivers of the kind of learner experience you’re trying to create.  As more schools incorporate inquiry driven and active learning activities, I think it is more important than ever for schools to closely examine their learning spaces and determine what they need to change in common learning areas as well as classrooms to support the vision for learning.

Modifying Conversation Strategies: The Mini Write-Around

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Today’s guest post is from my friend and former colleague at Norcross High, Dan Byrne.  Both Dan and his wife, Dr. Melinda Byrne, are accomplished teachers; Dan was our Teacher of the Year at Norcross HS for 2014-15, and Melinda was one of the finalists for the same award this fall.  Collaborative efforts with Dan were featured last year on the blog, and I am delighted he is continuing to integrate pieces of that work with his students.  Earlier this semester, Dan listened to his students and their points of need by modifying the large group write-around strategies we had done in 2014-2015.  Here are his reflections of that process!

The Mini Write-Around

I teach IB History to highly motivated juniors and seniors.  By highly motivated, I mean the kind of students who will read six chapters the night before a test just to make sure they feel confident.  IB History is different than many subjects because it rewards a high level of conceptual thinking that is paired with their choice of very specific facts that back up their concepts.

That is why I like “Write-Around” as a strategy.  I often give students a quote, an old IB test prompt, or even just a theme and have them add their ideas as they work cooperatively.  I find this a non-threatening, fun, change of pace for students to review, build concepts, or practice skills of supporting or refuting ideas.

Students sometimes remark that they enjoy Write-Around, but that they wish they could take all the ideas with them.  (Apparently, the iPhone photos that so many kids take of content in the classrooms are never looked at again.)  Because of this, I decided that I would try to shrink my Write Around by writing on a standard-size piece of copy paper instead of using a display-sized sheet.   Here is what we did:

  1. Students initially walked around and responded just like a regular write around.  However, they soon decided it was more efficient to pass them from desk to desk, so they passed the sheets.  (Like I said earlier, the challenge was the amount of information they had in their heads). In my smaller classes, students worked in pairs; in larger classes, students worked in groups of four.  Students were writing significant ideas/themes/facts for aspects of WWI.  The kids wanted this information/ideas to keep for review after class ended.
  2. Students then engaged in small and whole group discussion.
  3. After the class discussions, students “starred” the comments from the write-around they felt were notable, exemplary, or important in some way.

Once students had completed the activities , I copied their Write-Arounds so each student could have a packet of copies of their peers’ responses.

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Students liked the Mini Write Around because they felt “less pressured” to get all the information down (sometimes these kids lose the forest for the trees).  They also liked that the paper fit on a standard desk. We were also able to have more “writing stations” than we would with the traditional write-around.  The only drawback was that some students remarked that they didn’t have enough space to develop their ideas.

My main complaint about this modified approach was that students got very “facty” on this assignment.  I think this was partially due to the paper size and partly due to the fact that I did not have good prompts for them to build concepts around.  I think another strategy to try would be to provide students with the opportunity to spend time taking notes at the end of the activity.  That would force them to distill the ideas on their own rather than depending on me to give them a shotgun approach.   Another modification for the future:  groups of writers need to be smaller so everyone can see the paper; I also feel that three is the ideal size for my kids so that you have enough to generate discussion but not so many that they are butting heads. I also need to give them more time to write (I think I thought, “less paper, less time”).  Last but not least, the students need to write in ink so the copier clearly picks up what they wrote.

It’s Your Turn

How are you all integrating and modifying written conversation strategies to meet your students’ needs?  Please share your experiences and variations in the comments below!

SWON Webinar: Written Conversations and Academic Literacies in Libraries

Thank you SWON Libraries for the opportunity to share the possibilities for learning through written conversation strategies!

Resources:

Sean O’Connor Rocks the Write-Around for Collaborative Student Thinking as Part of Presearch and Topic Development with Literary Research

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Last year Language Arts teacher Sean O’Connor was one of our first teachers to help us pilot written conversation strategies that we had learned about from Harvey Daniels.  After attending a Reading the City institute with Daniels, Nancy  Steineke (among other notable literacy leaders) this past January, Sean returned even more energized about the possibilities of written conversation strategies for inquiry and learning.  He decided to incorporate and modify the write around learning structure as part of the pre-search process for his AP Literature students who were beginning a literary research paper; not only did he utilize the LibGuide we created for the assignment, but he wanted to use our Learning Studio area in our library as the space for  the written conversations come to life.

After two days of some initial pre-search, students came to the Learning Studio with some general themes or topics in mind.  Sean tells us the game plan he designed to facilitate their next steps:

Below, watch our video story of what this form of inquiry centered learning looked like with one of his three class sections.  The energy, the depth of conversation, and the engagement the students exhibited in wrestling with ideas and thinking together was exciting and joyful to watch.

Part 1:  First Steps:  Jot Down Ideas You Have For Your Research

Part 2:   Responding to Each Other’s Topic with Large Post-Its and Pens

Part 3:  Forming Birds of Feather Groups by Topics

Part 4:  Talking, No Writing

Part 5:  Post-Conversation—Noting Key Ideas, Narrowing Topic/Research Topic/Thesis Statement and Next Steps Post Collaborative Thinking

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The collaborative thinking and how students played off each other’s input and the group conversations to help them move from Point A to Point B as part of the presearch phase and topic narrowing continuum/process was what made this activity so authentic and meaningful to students.  As Sean said, “My original timeline for the project is shot, but that doesn’t matter.  The students learning in this way is what counts.”   Jennifer and I are thrilled that we can be part of this kind of mindset and collaboration with teachers like Sean and his students.  We are excited to see how they build on Friday’s activity in our Learning Studio and their next steps with their research project!  A heartfelt thank you to Sean O’Connor and his students for allowing me to film and photograph their work.

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