Notebook Time

Strategic Writing Loops and Blind Peer Review for the Georgia Milestones EOC Test

This Friday, April 27 and Monday, April 30, my juniors will take the Georgia Milestones/End of Course test in 11th American Literature and Composition Language Arts, a state exam that counts as 20% of their final average.  Though ideally I would have done more intentional writing loops earlier in the year like those outlined in the series from Moving Writers, we have been focusing on practice and work with mentor texts with the three types of writing tasks my students will see:

  • Constructed Response: item asks a question, and you provide a response that you construct on your own. These questions are worth two points. Partial credit may be awarded if part of the response is correct.
  • Extended Constructed Response:  item is a specific type of constructed-response item that requires a longer, more detailed response. These items are worth four points. Partial credit may be awarded.  At least one of these items will be a narrative prompt based on a passage presented to a student.
  • Extended Writing Response:  this  item is located in section one of the ELA EOC (Day 1 of the test).  Students are expected to produce an argument or develop an informative or explanatory response based on information read in two passages.  The extended writing response task is scored on a 7-point scale: 4 points for idea  development, organization, and coherence, and 3 points for language usage and conventions.

Though I feel my students are fairly well prepared for all of the possible writing tasks, I also believe it is important to provide them practice writing situations with the kinds of test prompts they will see so they can feel comfortable with the structure and language of the prompt.   We began reviewing and composing constructed responses roughly ten days ago, and our starting point was a writer’s notebook prompt asking students to recall what they knew about argumentative writing since that was my first writing genre of focus.  Once students had time to brainstorm individually, we composed collaborative lists in four of my classes.  You can look at the similarities and differences in depth and detail below:

Interestingly enough, my “lower” level classes included more details in their lists, and my 4B class made connections back to mentor texts we had studied last semester and this semester.   My 4B  class was so enthusiastic and engaged that I could barely keep up with them as I typed their responses—this moment was truly a memorable moment for a class that has come far from August when they felt they should not be asked to do any thinking or work on a Friday!

Once we completed our notebook time and collaborative share out, we reviewed the criteria for a high quality response on a constructed argumentative writing task.  Using the online materials from the DOE, I provided students a sample prompt and they composed their response in class.  I then collected these, made copies on neon paper (color coded by class period),  and  then used assorted neon stickers to hide names for the blind peer review activity I had planned as our next step.

My first pass at the blind peer review was this past Tuesday with periods 2A and 4A; my original design was to have students provide blind peer review individually.  We began with notebook time in which students looked at an exemplar constructed response for our prompt; students also got to look at a model that would have received one point and a model that would have received zero points.  For each model, I asked students to list their noticing about each model; we then shared aloud.  With the notebook time and noticings as our springboard, we then moved into our blind peer review gallery walk.

As we began our blind peer review gallery walk, I asked students to complete these tasks for each draft reviewed:

  1.  Read the draft closely and then complete a rubric with two open ended questions.  Once finished, place the rubric in the folder that is next to the draft (mounted on pastel chart paper) and put a check on the folder to indicate you have placed a rubric in the folder.
  2.  Annotate one piece of the draft; I provided students a handout with sentence starters for possible “glows” and “grows” to use if they got stuck.  These statements were based on the criteria on the state rubric for a constructed response on the EOC test.  I mounted the drafts on the pastel chart paper so that students would have plenty of room to annotate.
  3. Try to gather “mentor” sentences of high quality writing that they might collect to use as models for their own writing; I provided students a handout to serve as their collecting place for these mentor sentences.

Students worked for about 40-45 minutes on the gallery walk with the goal of reviewing as many drafts as possible with quality.  Once completed, I sent students to their own work using a roster of the number assignments I had crafted to make sure everyone found his/her work.  Students then did a brief three question reflection before leaving; once finished, students could fold their chart paper with the draft annotations/feedback and tuck in the folder with their rubrics to take home with them.

While I was pleased with the flow of the activity, I didn’t quite feel the energy I had expected from either class.  After thinking about what I might do differently to ramp up the energy of the activity, I decided to have students work in pairs the next day.  To make the assignment of pairs random and fast, I simply had students come find a table when they arrived in the media center with the stipulation of no more than two people per table.

This move was DEFINITELY the right one!  Because students knew they would need to read the draft with their partner and collaborate on all areas of the feedback, they were more intentional with their constructive reading of the drafts and the feedback they were providing.  I was incredibly impressed by the depth and detail of many of the conversations I heard as I walked around and observed students working; I felt joy listening to the thinking that was taking place out loud.  I highly recommend having students work and talk through their analysis of a draft of writing in pairs.

In closing, this activity was a considerable investment of time (especially on our modified block schedule), especially for a constructed response, but I think it was a great opening writing loop and collaborative thinking activity for my students.  We’re doing some shorter bursts of different responses and collaborative work now as we get closer to test day.  As I return to middle school this fall to teach 8th Language Arts,  I hope to incorporate these writing loops and experiences earlier into the year and into our units of writing year-round; these kinds of experiences will fit into my larger framework of having writing groups and circles in my classroom in 2018-19.

Introducing Students to Ralph Waldo Emerson with Gallery Walks, Notebook Time, and Speed Dating Discussions

We are coming down the home stretch of the semester in a fast and furious manner.  Because time is limited, I am being selective in the pieces of literature I want my juniors to read as we explore the key transcendentalist writers in American literature.  I first introduced students to Emerson with a gallery walk that invited students to read, reflect, and interpret 20 different quotes from Emerson.  Students had the opportunity to record their noticings about the quotes and what they felt the quotes meant; they also were asked to record themes of importance on their graphic organizer (a menu of themes was provided).  We did the gallery walk in the hallways just outside of my classroom:

Once students had completed the gallery walk, we used notebook time to record patterns of noticings and reflections on the quotes we read.  Some classes did this indoors with a nature video playing on the board (thank you YouTube), but the weather was nice enough last Tuesday for me to take one class of juniors outdoors for our writing time:

When we returned inside, students had the opportunity to read an excerpt of the first chapter of Nature, annotate that text, and do some quick notes on a graphic organizer to prepare for the upcoming next class session and our class discussion about the text.

Because we are on a modified block schedule, my classes meet either T/Th or on Wed./Fri.  For the second class session, I originally planned on doing a concentric circles discussion to help students engage in meaning making about the text.  However, after my first two classes, I realized that format wasn’t quite working, so I punted on Thursday during my planning period.  I rearranged the desks in my room and organized the students into “speed dating” interview/discussion groups.  This version of the activity (which I learned years ago from Dr. Bob Fecho at UGA) basically was accomplishing the same goal as concentric circles, but it worked MUCH better for my remaining three classes on Thursday and Friday.  I threw out questions based on the text, their gallery walk, and their writer’s notebook responses; while some students did not engage in discussion as much as I hoped, many really got into the activity and got as much out of the learning experience as they put into it.  Students were required to take notes during the discussion so that they could capture the ideas of their discussion partners.

When students finished, they began working on four post-activity reflection questions that asked them to not only reflect on the text itself and its connections to principles of transcendentalism, but they were also asked to reflect on their understandings they gained from the activity as well as their best discussion partner.

Because we had to give a performance final exam the first three days of this week, we will use the last two days of this week to bring it all together and share out our key ideas and understandings.  Though I had to do some fine tuning in progress and not all students engaged with the activities, those who did shared how much they enjoyed everything and how the learning activities connected and built upon each other.  I would definitely introduce Emerson in this manner again in the future, and I love the simplicity yet power of student talk and thinking instead of me being the “sage on stage” doing all the work and thinking for them.  Some students are not used to these activities and push back because it is easier to be lectured to and to answer some low level  thinking questions on a worksheet.  I’ll continue to encourage those reluctant to engage in critical thinking as well as those who love engaging in higher level conversation and meaning making with unfamiliar and challenging texts.

From Notebook Time to Student Talk and Share: It’s Easy as A-B-C, 1-2-3

Many of us like to incorporate share time for students to share what they are thinking and writing during notebook time.   I’ve shared some ways I encourage students to speak up or interact during this share time because I have found most are reluctant to do so.  Another strategy that is easy to do is what I call ABC partners.  If you are providing a structured or guided prompt, simply break into three logical sub-prompts. As students write, I quietly walk around and give them a ticket that says, A, B, or C.  When writing/thinking time has ended, you can either instruct students to find a partner with the same letter or you could even form small groups by letter.

Today my seniors were asked to read two short articles on ways language evolves (article 1 and article 2).   This prompt was designed to activate/frontload some thinking prior to work they’ll do next week to explore the time period background for our first unit of literature study of British literature.  After roughly 20 minutes of time to read, reflect, and write, students found “like” partners by letter (again, A, B, or C).  They then worked together to talk, discuss, and craft a collaborate response to these questions around their assigned letter prompt:

I provided students chart paper and markers; they could create their responses in any way they wanted to organize their ideas.  After talking and writing for about 20 minutes, each pair of students then did an informal, low-stakes share out.  The questions they generated will now become questions they can explore as move into our first unit of British literature.

  • Why does it take longer for written language to evolve than spoken language?
  • Will people in the future think we talked in a weird or strange way (just as Old or Middle English sounds to us)?
  • What words might be most likely to change or evolve in the future?
  • How will changes in society, culture, and technology influence the way language evolves?
  • How exactly do languages form and begin?
  • How have other languages influenced the English language over time?
  • What kinds of words are most likely to stand the test of time?

I have been more intentional this year about finding ways to mix up share time and strategies for getting students talking about their ideas and responses from notebook time prompts.  Cris Tovani, author of No More Telling as Teaching, has influenced this professional effort to elevate student talk in meaningful and authentic ways.

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