Tackling Complex Texts with Think Tank Groups, Silent Gallery Walks, Noticings, and Reflections

Last week, four sections (two Honors Level and two CP) of my 11th ELA took on the challenge of deconstructing our reading of an excerpt of Thomas Paine’s The Crisis, Number 1 as we explore examples of persuasive texts across time periods and around themes of resilience and resistance.

Our primary essential questions included:

  • How do writers use rhetorical devices like parallelism and analogy to convey meaning and persuade?
  • How do writers use ethos, pathos, and logos to persuade an audience of an opinion or position on a topic/issue?

As students came into the room, the seating chart by “Think Tank” groups was projected on the board to help students find their new groups quickly.  After introducing some key literary terms students would need to know for breaking down the rhetoric of the essay, students received copies of our annotation codes (adapted from the work of Cris Tovani) at their table groups; these were delivered via my neon shop ticket pouches.  We first read the essay together a section at a time (thankfully, I have a copy of a pretty good reading with the textbook audio CD), and students annotated the text as we worked through the essay.

Next, each group received markers, lined tablet paper, and a task card ( created a total of nine) with a quote or passage to analyze and deconstruct along with guiding questions to scaffold this task.

Students had roughly 30-35 minutes to collaborate on their responses to the guiding questions and create a poster with the chart paper to share out to the class.  I walked around and answered questions, served as a sounding board, or redirected groups that might be straying off-task.

Originally, I planned for students to do oral presentations, but after one of my Honors classes struggled to keep up with their jot notes on each presentation, I realized that perhaps this was not the best way for groups to deliver their thinking.  I punted and modified the “share” portion of the activity to be a silent gallery walk, a move to that turned out to be the right one.

For the gallery walk, students had to visit each poster at its station where I had duplicated the task cards so everyone could see the passage/quote as well as the guiding question.  The graphic organizer I had designed for students to jot down ideas from the oral presentations transitioned perfectly into a notetaking graphic organizer for the silent gallery walk.

Students then had to jot down 2-3 key ideas or their big idea takeaways from the poster.  During the gallery walk, students:

  • Could move about the stations in any order.
  • Could not talk or carry their cell phones with them–either would result in a loss of points for the noticings activity.
  • Students needed to choose another poster hotspot to visit if there were more than 4-5 people at that center.

Once students completed their noticings and notes, they returned to their seats when ready to the do the final reflection at the end of the graphic organizer.  Students were asked to reflect on this question:  What idea or ideas have you heard today FROM OTHERS that has helped you better understand the Thomas Paine essay? Explain in 4-6 sentences, please.  The responses overwhelmingly identified points of clarification, but many students also commented how the collaborative walk and looking at other student work helped create an “a-ha!” moment for parts of the text that may have been confusing.

The culminating reflective activity was a writer’s notebook prompt (differentiated by and within different course levels) that asked students to think about the text as writers and to do some reflections on the writerly qualities of this persuasive essay.  Many used their silent gallery walk graphic organizer in conjunction with their copy of the essay to help them craft their responses.

My 4A CP class was the first  to complete the activity this way; the next day, my 3B Honors students did the activity through this approach.   When my 4B CP class followed them, they hung their posters next to or beneath the 3B posters, and students had a “meta” sort of experience as students recorded noticings from both classes.  I think students were even more engaged with the opportunity to “cross-pollinate” their thinking across classes; an Honors students from Period 2A who dropped by for makeup work whispered to me, “Is this an Honors class, too?” because she was so struck by how intensely focused they were in the gallery walk.  When I responded, “No, but they are working just as hard!” she exclaimed “Wow!”

On this note, I want to highlight that I did this activity across different “levels” of course sections.  I think one of the greatest disservices we do to students who are not in “Honors” levels courses is to exclude them from these kinds of learning activities that involve teamwork and deep thinking.  I made sure to heap the praise on at the end of class with Period 4B because their confidence has increased since the beginning of August, and I wanted to reinforce the belief I try to put forth each day we’re together that they are capable of doing academically challenging work.  The “glows” comments were also showered on my other CP class too as many of them do not see themselves as smart or able to do anything beyond a basic worksheet.  All students need opportunities to grow their academic capital as well as those social soft skills that are so important and come with collaborative learning experiences.   Sometimes it may be a struggle for both the students and the teacher when this kind of learning activity isn’t quite clicking, but it doesn’t mean we give up–instead, we scale back when needed and then try again from another approach or with additional supports to help students succeed.  Leveling and placement at the secondary level is a problematic issue, but that is another conversation for another day.

When my 2A class returned today, the group that originally struggled a bit with my original plan of oral presentations,  they completed their noticings by doing the silent gallery walk with three sets of posters–theirs along with Periods 3B and 4A.  In hindsight, I wish I had included the 4A posters, but it didn’t occur to me on the first day that a “meta” silent gallery walk would be a super cool learning experience for my students.

These photos are from this past Friday; today we had a third set of posters to grow our gallery walk, which I sadly forgot to photograph today but will add to the post in the morning.

Because this was a shorter text, I felt this was a prime opportunity to let students wrestle with a more challenging text and to build meaning together.  It is too easy to “spoon feed” students the answers we think they need to hear rather than letting them engage in meaning making for themselves.  I did provide scaffolding with the guiding questions and a menu of rhetorical devices on their task card, but aside from that, I did not provide any answers even when students wanted me to confirm they were correct.  Instead, I reflected the question back to them and would say, “What do you think?” and “How do you know?” to push their thinking.  The ninety minute block of time we have four days a week on our modified block schedule definitely lends itself to these kinds of learning experiences, and I feel it was worth the investment of time based on student responses on their graphic organizers as well as their writer’s notebook reflections.

How do you help students navigate complex texts and engage in meaning making?

2 thoughts on “Tackling Complex Texts with Think Tank Groups, Silent Gallery Walks, Noticings, and Reflections

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