Written Conversation Strategies

Reading Workout with Literary Nonfiction and Memoir Book Clubs

Inspired by the always innovative Sarah Brown Wessling, I adapted an activity she shared this past December that she calls Reading Workouts for independent reading time.  I made a few modifcations to account for a shorter literacy block of time and the needs of my 8th grade learners, but here is my version that was a great success this past Friday.

My 4th period (the class I take to lunch) was the only class that completed this activity as a warm-up because we had extra class time, and I didn’t want to jump into the activity with only 15 minutes before our scheduled lunch time.  If time had permitted, I would have done the “warm-up/stretch” with all classes; this was a great way to get them thinking before reading time.

For all other classes, we began with a quick review of concepts we had worked on the previous day:

We then began the first formal part of our workout!  Our focus was on reading; I told students to NOT take notes at this point or to annotate, but they could use the “baby” size sticky notes to quickly flag passages of interest.  I provided baskets of the sticky notes needed for the day at every table to save time and provide ease of access to the materials.

We then moved to the second part of our workout.  Students could choose any partner they wanted; it did not have to be someone from their book club.  We lined up 2×2 outside the room and began our walking reps.  One partner led the conversation for the first rep/lap; the second partner led on the second rep/lap.  This “walk and talk” part of the workout is another idea I’ve adapted previously from Wessling.  For our reading workout, we did a modified/shorter version to fit the reading workout structure.

We then moved to the next part of our reading workout:

We then ended/cooled down with this graffiti wall/parking lot activity for our books:

This work was a great formative assessment to see how well (or not so well) students were understanding themes and issues in their books as well as the concepts/terms  of theme and issues themselves.  I created the gallery of book graffiti walls/parking lots with chart paper and signage I crafted in Word.  You can see the gallery and student work samples in the slideshow below.  We’ll get into the parking lots/graffiti walls for a gallery walk activity later this week and then continue adding our thinking about themes and issues as we get deeper into our books this month.

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You can see, hear, and learn more about the design of this activity in the video I made after school this past Friday.  I love this learning structure and plan to use it again later this year!  A big thank you to Sarah Brown Wessling for always generously sharing her ideas for the rest of us to use as they are or to adapt for our learners!  In my next post, I’ll share how we are moving forward with our book club thinking work this week, including choices for gentle note-taking strategies as we read.

Finding a Path into Poetry with Annotations, FSLL Charts, and Poetry Chats

Last week  (April 17) we began our exploration of poetry with an inquiry-oriented warm-up.  I presented students two documents:

  • An annotated copy of “Alone” by Maya Angelou (annotations by me)
  • A FSLL (Feelings, Story, Language, and Lines) that I had completed for “Alone” by Maya Angelou.

Students could work alone or with a partner to record their noticings about the annotation strategies evident on the poem; they also recorded their noticings about the kinds of elements discussed in the FSLL chart.   They also got to talk about any overalap they saw between the two.  Once students had recorded these noticings, we shared out to the whole class.

The next day, we engaged in a class reading of “Every Day” by Naomi Shihab Nye; this poem is part of a collection in her book A Maze Me:  Poems for Girls, a longtime favorite of mine.  Students practiced annotation the poem and working on their FSLL charts for the “Every Day”; students also had the opportunity to share their work with a partner.

My two “accelerated” classes also had the opportunity to complete a sticky note lit analysis jigsaw by finding two metaphors and one symbol in the poem.  Students had the opportunity to identify the literary element, draw a sketchnote to represent what they saw in their minds when they read those lines, and to write a short explanation of the literary element and how it contributed to the overall message or meaning of the poem.

This past week we engaged in poetry chats to generate conversation and share our thinking about the poem.  I did two variations of the poetry chat:  one version was set up like a timed station rotation, and the other was structured more like table talk with a large class share.

With the station rotation version, we did timed stations in which students wrote their responses on butcher paper.  This pretty much took the entire class period and is a great option when you have the luxury of time.  On Day 2, each group was assigned the task of reading over the responses and generating a 3-2-1 reflection to share with the whole class:

Students received a performance assessment grade for their poster presentation and a separate grade for the written poster (content, response to the writing/thinking directions).

A quicker version that is also meaningful is to assign a question prompt to each table group and let them brainstorm their responses on a large sticky note to to then share out to the whole class.  Though they don’t get the benefit of the silent “write around” and seeing the thinking of an entire class like the longer version,  this version still engages student in teamwork and critical though as well as an opportunity to speak to the entire class.  I used the same prompts for both variations of poetry chat, and I also provided supporting notes on any literary elements I felt might be helpful for students.  You will note my question prompts say “silent” because originally I had planned for each class to do the silent write-around part first, but as many of you know, time is at a premium right now, and I was not able to do it with three sections due to time constraints.

We are on the eve of state Milestones testing here, but we’ll continue to read poems and analyze them using the FSLL strategies/question prompts to annotate and think about poems.  Our next steps will be to take our charts to the next level with 11×17 posters, so stay tuned for a new post on that in May!

Argumentative Writing March Madness with Post-It Note Reading, Think Tank Conversations, 11×14 Reasons and Evidence Mapping + Essay Drafting

The last five weeks have been a whirlwind here between district third quarter benchmark testing and next steps into argumentative writing, the culminating activities of the front-loading skill work we did in February (see previous blog posts, please).  I’d like to share our journey of reading, writing, and thinking with you by outlining the major learning activities and structures we’ve been working on for the last month.

Argumentative Writing Topics:  Reading and Writing Strategically with Text Sets and Post-It Notes

Students voted earlier in the semester on their top three topic choices, and I tried to assign students to one of their top two choices.  Students were assigned one of the following topics and an assigned claim to argue:

  • Should federal and state governments do more to prevent and/or limit sales of vaping and e-cigarette products to young people under the age of 18 (minors)?
  • Should animal cloning be allowed?
  • Should students in grades k-12 be assigned homework?

Some students elected to work independently, and some indicated a preferred partner to read and write with collaboratively.  Just like last semester, I assembled text sets from a variety of grade-level appropriate sources on each topic with a table of contents to help students read and research their topics.  Students also received a colored manila folder to store their work and supplies in; these stayed in the room to make sure students didn’t lose their work.  In addition, students received  note taking templates and assorted Post-It notes to gather evidence that both supported and refuted their assigned claim:

Students had approximately five class days of time (we had to jump in and out of our work around benchmark testing) to read articles and take notes on both sides of their assigned claim.  Students could take one note per Post-It; original thinking or reflection was composed on the template paper itself.  I incorporated these requirements to help students take notes in bite-sized nuggets; in addition, I knew we would need to use the Post-Its for notes because we would need to peel them off for the next phase of our learning journey.  Many students had no challenges reading the articles and taking meaningful notes, but quite a few struggled to focus and complete their work even with strategic seating and generous class time to work.

On our fourth day of note taking, I built in time for students to meet in “think tanks” by topic.  In these topic think tanks, students shared out their most important evidence and what they still needed to know.  This dialogue and exchange of idea within topic groups from both sides of the issue was helpful and enlightening to many students.

From Notes to Reasons and Evidence

Once we have completed our week of reading and note taking as well as topic think tank discussions, we began looking at our evidence and looking for patterns of information that could help us develop reasons.  Students brainstormed possible reasons and chose their top two choices they felt they could argue best in their essays.

Once students completed this step, they received two plain pieces of 11×14 paper.  Students were asked to replicate a chart template I provided students on each piece of 11×14 paper.  Next, students wrote out each of their reasons to argue (we called these Reason A and Reason B).  Students then pulled off the Post-It note evidence that aligned with each reason and focused on choosing notes they could use as textual evidence in their essay.  This tactile activity generated tremendous conversation and critical thinking as some students realized they needed more notes; others revised their reasons as they did a deeper dive into their evidence they had collected.  It also served as a formative assessment for me through observation as I listened to students talk about their charts and conferenced with them as they had questions or got stuck. This is the first time I’ve ever used this strategy, and though it took longer than I planned, I highly recommend it because the visual nature of it helped the students to really “see” how the evidence from their notes aligned with their reasons and to choose evidence that was on topic/relevant to each reason.


Once students mapped their evidence to their reasons, they then completed their kernel essay, a learning structure we practiced in context in February and used on our district benchmark argumentative essays.  Once I cleared/approved the kernel essay, students then composed their three-part introduction.

From Reading and Planning to Drafting and Revising

Once students completed their kernel essay, they drafted their three part-introduction and moved to drafting their paragraphs.  For Paragraphs A and B, students received several resources to help them write high quality paragraphs.

  • A hard copy of a drafting template (see below) for each body “reason” paragraph complete with step by step instructions, explanations, and model sentences.
  • A slideshow with examples of strong verbs, ways to write strong leads, and examples of strong commentary; this slideshow is embedded in our Canvas LMS.
  • Several hard copy examples of models that we have talked through together as a class that were tickets in the door that did double duty as additional models of correct parenthetical references, strong leads/introductory phrases into textual evidence/quotes, and commentary (the ICE strategy).
  • Instructions for highlighting each part of Paragraph A and Paragraph B posted in Canvas  (topic sentence, textual evidence, commentary, and closing sentence).

Students had a total of seven class days to draft and work on their essays; in addition, they could work on the essay at home.   Students completed all drafting and revising in Google Docs and shared the document with me.  Our basic process was to draft a section and then to let me know the writer(s) was/were ready for feedback.  As you can imagine, this was a pretty intense and hectic pace four periods a day with nonstop interaction and conferencing (hence, the lack of photos of this part of the learning journey!)  However, the goal was to focus on the process while hopefully crafting a quality end-product draft.  We did most of our drafting in the 8th grade lab across the hall for me, and it is a great work space for middle schoolers.  We did our final day of drafting in the classroom using our class set of Chromebooks as well as sets I borrowed from two other teachers.

Writing strong leads into the textual evidence and writing quality commentary that went beyond summary or paraphrasing were the two major challenges across all four sections of my classes.    I saw varying growth, but I am hopeful that the work we’ve done will “stick” with students and give them the next starting point for development as writers moving up to high school.

Reflections and Self-Assessment

We are spending the last two days prior to spring break this week working on literacy portfolios and reflecting our argumentative writing work. as well as progress with personalized reading goals for independent/choice reading.  Students have a Google Form to complete on their essay; in addition, students will reflect on their work with argumentative writing (our February skill building work, their benchmark essays, and the final argumentative essay we just finished) using these self-assessment tools (see photos below) as part of their literacy portfolio work.

In the spirit of “less is more” with rubrics, I will focus on three key areas when evaluating the essays:

  • Content and quality of the argument and evidence presented.
  • Essay structure (format, textual evidence, commentary, ICE strategy)
  • Grammar/Mechanics/Sentence Structure

One thing I already know for sure:  my students have been challenged by these different learning experiences as readers, writers, and thinkers.  Even students who came up short of where I hoped they would end grew, and most took some major steps forward as learners as 8th graders.  Many showed significant writing stamina and perseverance as they were asked to dig deep and revise many times, a new experience for many students.  The sustained cognitive stamina so many students showed is also impressive, especially in these weeks nearing our spring break.

My area for growth as a teacher is how to help students who struggle to grow the writing skills in this kind of writing even with 1:1 help, lots of modeling, many scaffolds, and plentiful class time to work.  I invested a tremendous amount of instructional time into this unit, but I think it was well worth it since the writing standards for argumentative writing are important at this level in Georgia and become even more significant for them at the high school and then University of Georgia system level with their post-secondary English courses they will take.

Seeing the Big Picture with Theme: Collaborative Work + Learning Stations

In my last two posts, I wrote about some of the learning activities we did in my 8th grade Language Arts classroom to set the stage to do some collaborative work with theme.  Using the structure and materials from this “Discovering Theme” activity with learning stations as my framework, we spent roughly 4.5 days of class working through the stations and then putting our puzzle pieces together.  I did make some modifications for my 8th graders to support my learners, and I’ll share those adjustments in the blog post.

The Prep Work

The basis of our activity was “Thank You Ma’am” which we had been working on together and independently prior to the station work.  I provided a copy of the story to each group, and the copy included our original version of the story from CommonLit with the addition of paragraph numbers for each portion of the story.

I began the station setup by reorganizing my room and bringing in some additional smaller tables to accommodate the number of stations I needed.  I also tweaked the original template for the stations taking out point of view and replacing it with the “Contrasts and Contradictions” fiction signpost we had been practicing in class.  I also added additional instructions and created the station “signs” and instructions using pastel colored file folders that I had laminated by our media clerk.  Finally, for each station I included the appropriate/corresponding supplies.  While it seems deceptively simple, the process was pretty time-consuming and required my coming in early and staying late for a couple of hours after school to get it all together plus some additional work at home:

I also organized groups of 3 and did not go up to groups of 4 unless absolutely necessary; I tried very hard to create groups to bring in a variety of abilities and strengths so that everyone would participate and contribute.

Getting Started

The first day was the most chaotic since we had to get everyone situated, review the procedures, and get our feet wet with what we are doing at our stations.  It was also a little tricky doing timing for each station the first day, and I had to be a little flexible though by the second day we were able to roll with fixed time rotations.  Here is a sampler of our instructions that we reviewed together the first and second days:

I was pleasantly surprised that most groups had no problems and got right to work on the first day; sometimes some classes or students struggle with activities with multiple steps, but they all got the hang of what they were doing very quickly and set to work on their tasks.  Over the course of the next few days, I was fascinated by the group dynamics and found the most valuable part of their work was the depth and richness of conversations happening as students wrestled with their thinking together.  I wish I had found a better way to capture the academic talk they were engaging in because I honestly think that was the biggest benefit for them and more valuable than the final product/outcome they crafted together.

The students had a total of eight stations to work through and most stations took about 12-15 minutes to complete.

Final Steps

The two culminating activities included:

  • Students receiving puzzle pieces with each station element and writing summary statements for each literary element.
  • A culminating activity to help students identify the thematic concept of “Thank You Ma’am” and writing a thematic statement for the short story.  This activity was one I wrote as the original version that came with the activity, while good, did not provide enough scaffolding for younger/less experienced literacy learners.  I also created these sentence frames to help the students write their summary statements in a more complete and coherent way. 

Once students wrote the summary statements, they “put them together” and glued them onto 11×14 sheets of paper we taped together (and later had laminated).  Once they looked at their puzzle pieces again together, they moved onto the final act of writing about the theme using the guided writing handout I provided.

Our final products were then taken the media center for lamination, and now that everything has been cut and trimmed, I am planning on putting our work on display.  I also had their annotation work completed that they did at each station on the chart paper, and that will be part of their display with their final products.  Here is a sneak peek:

As we set up our new literacy portfolios this past week, students completed a self-assessment of their contributions to their group and their participation in their groups.

Final Reflections

Though the activity took a little longer than I anticipated, I think it was worth the investment of time.  I think the experience of working collaboratively and getting the opportunity to wrestle and struggle together with some challenging literary analysis tasks was invaluable for my 8th graders; this kind of learning experience was also a big step up for them academically and socially.  Overall, the students did a great job staying on track and very few needed redirection.  They did a terrific job of asking clarifying questions when needed and staying the course if they hit a rough patch with a more challenging station thinking/learning task.

I did have one class that needed to finish the final part of the activity independently as they were struggling to work together on their final station rotation day, but even this modification turned out to be helpful and meaningful for that particular class and was the best final pathway to learning for them.  The only other challenge I encountered was that some students chose to be destructive with the new Sharpies, and we had to put them away on our final station rotation today and finish with regular pens and pencils though students could bring/use their own supplies if they chose to do so.

While this activity is probably a little better geared toward advanced middle schoolers and all levels of high school students, I feel like my 8th graders rose to the challenge and overall did some outstanding work as teams and individually.  Their thinking skills were pushed, and they gained valuable experience in working with others.  I was especially proud of how many students showed leadership within their groups and did a great job working with their peers.  As I mentioned earlier, the academic talk and the debate about different questions and responses I heard within groups was probably a more valuable measure of their learning than the written work.  In the future, I might have students record their debate or do an audio recording of it and post to Seesaw as a way to capture this aspect of their learning.  The amount of prep work I had to do and some of the modifications I had to create as we moved through the activity was a little more than I expected, but I learned and grew from that as well.  Overall, I definitely recommend this activity to my fellow Language Arts teachers!   This group work was our springboard to individual theme analysis with our independent reading novels, and I will write more about that in my next blog post.

Give Them Something To Talk About: Collaboration and Conversations with Reflection Squares

Like many of you, I am always looking for ways to engage students in conversation with each other.  After we finished reading Act II of Macbeth together last week, I wanted to give students a conversation structure to help them discuss their review questions as well as some bigger questions related to theme, what they perceived as important passages in the play, and questions or wonderings they were contemplating.

I did some strategic organization of small groups and gave each group one unique set of reflection tasks and then four common reflection tasks; I christened this activity reflection squares.  After reviewing the instructions and providing students with 11×17 paper and Sharpies, they began talking to each other as they worked through their reflection tasks.  This simple structure and set of tools generated some rich conversations and gave every student opportunities to contribute to their group’s understandings and collaborative responses.


After working together for about 30 minutes, groups finished their work and had a mini-poster to present to the class.  Roughly half the groups presented during the remaining time on Friday, and the other half presented their ideas and responses this past Monday.

The beauty of reflection squares is the flexibility and simplicity of the structure.  You can have whatever number of reflection squares you want and plug in discussion/talking points or questions of your choice.  If you are working on a budget and can’t purchase chart or tablet pads, you can easily punt with 11×17 paper.  You can also adapt it to any subject area and most age groups.  Most importantly, students are participating in meaningful dialogue with each other.  As I walked around and listened to what groups had to say, it was clear many were thinking critically; they also were actively listening to differing ideas with respect and responding to each other.   I also love that this activity creates small group conversation that then provides students low stakes presentation/public speaking opportunities to share and field questions from their peers.