academic talk

Counterclaim Station Throwdown

After introducing claim statements with a task card walk last Wednesday, we then began inquiring into counterclaims and rebuttals on Thursday and Friday.   I decided to do station rotations as our learning activity, and after a little tweaking with my first two classes, I polished the learning structure for my final two groups.

We began with notes and guided practice just as we did with claims.   Students then had an opportunity to choose a table group; again, the parameters included:

  • You must leave your current table area.
  • You cannot sit with anyone from your regular table group.
  • No more than four people per table (I did allow five for my larger classes if needed).

Using these counterclaim task cards and some additional practice problems I purchased here, I created six stations.  The first five stations gave students four paragraphs to read and asked students to find the counterclaim in each one.  I made copies of each set of four task cards on neon paper and placed them in a folder with all the identifying information (station number and task card numbers).  Working through rounds of 8-10 segments, students read the paragraphs and identified counterclaims and rebuttals at their stations.  I played soft music in the background through our projector speakers for something white noise to help students focus.  I normally don’t do timed station rotations, but this activity was a good fit, plus it kept students focused and engaged, something that is not always easy to do, especially on a Friday afternoon!

Once groups had completed each station, groups were charged to discuss their answers for the current table (where they ended) and to come to a consensus about their answers and to be prepared to defend their choices.  After taking about 6-7 minutes for this discussion and planning, each group had an opportunity to participate in our “throwdown” as they came to the board and marked up and explained their answers.  Groups not presenting checked and corrected their answers; this work was turned in as a non-graded formative assessment to help me identify any students who might be struggling or need some additional targeted practice to do independently.  I am also providing all students additional practice with a mastery module through NoRedInk.

This activity was the perfect combination of independent to small group collaborative work to a large group share, and the element of “team” competition in the “throwdown” was once again an energizing element.  The table talk in which groups had to compare answers and come to a consensus was probably the most valuable aspect of the learning experience because students really had to dig in and explain their responses—I heard many meaningful conversations throughout the day on Friday.  This is also another way to integrate targeted practice and task cards into instruction.  Even more impressive to me was how focused and thoughtful students were in their work, no small feat with middle schoolers on a Friday afternoon!  I think it is important to incorporate opportunities for students to talk and construct meaning with their peers whether it is with a partner, in a small group, or with the entire class.

Our next learning activity will have students working with a partner as we look at a mentor text argumentative essay and use Gretchen Bernabei’s kernel essay strategy to help students deconstruct the argumentative essay structure.  Stay tuned!

Active Learning and Thinking: Walk and Talk Partner Discussions

Right after the first of the year, one of my favorite teachers and literacy leaders, Sarah Brown Wessling, posted this video about taking her class on the move.  Last year, I crafted and incorporated many learning activities for my high school students that involved movement, and I’ve continued that with my 8th graders during the 2018-2019 school year.  After watching that video, I decided I wanted to try the partner “walk and talk” discussion strategy soon.

Part 1:  Frontloading the Work with Individual Self-Assessment and Reflection

Flash forward to this past Friday.  On Wednesday and Thursday, my 8th graders received a copy of their December Quarter 2 benchmark essay, a writing task that asked them to read two articles and write an expository/informational/explanatory essay in response to the two articles.  We began on Wednesday with the following warm-up:

Nearly every student chose the correct answer, D, but many struggled to actually do that on the benchmark assessment even though we had deconstructed a model essay similar to the benchmark writing task prior to the benchmark assessment and engaged in several hands-on activities to review how to respond to that type of writing assessment and prompt.  In each class, we explored the reasons for the disconnect between understanding the prompt and actually executing it.  We spent the rest of the class on Wednesday and all of Thursday engaging in some self-assessment and reflection to analyze their strengths and weaknesses in their essay response:

As students completed the first reflection, they came to me for a quick 1:1 conference about their reflection work before moving on to the additional reflection activities.  All of these became part of their literacy portfolio along with the copy of their benchmark essay.  In addition, we spent the last 10 minutes of class on Thursday adding some additional pieces of student work and reflections they completed prior to the December break to the portfolio as well as an updated Lexile/SRI reading progress report.

Part 2:  From Individual Work to Collaborative Work and Discussion

On Friday, every table group arrived to find a pastel folder with a set of 2-3 student benchmark writing/essays in the folder.  All identifying information was stripped from each piece of writing and assigned a number; I also ran copies of these pieces of writing on different colors of neon paper by table or “station” group.

I did several variations of the table/station work for this blind peer review of essays.  My main goal for this activity was for students to read a range of writing from their peers and to apply the self-assessment criteria we had used for our own writing earlier in the week to these pieces of writing.  For my 1st period team taught class, students were asked to read the essays/writing pieces in the folder at their table and then use this evaluation tool to assess the writing.  For my 4th period class, students read the pieces of writing individually but to evaluate the writing collaboratively.  For both classes, table groups then voted on the best piece of writing and explained what made it the best one at their station/table group.

The activity generated great conversation within the table groups as they analyzed and shared their reflections to come to a consensus on the best pieces of writing.  It was interesting to hear students debate “top” writing choices at some of the table groups and to hear them make their case for those choices using the writing/rubric criteria.  This aspect of the activity generated the most critical thinking, and I think students benefited from it as well as the act of reading work from their peers and seeing that range of quality in the writing.

Between 4th period and my final classes (Period 5 and 6), we have a break in the day known as “War Time” (we are the War Eagles).  This is a recess period, but we also have make-up time for different subject areas each day as well as detention for students who may be struggling with points on our discipline system in our building.  As we were standing outside on Friday during War Time, I was struck by how mild the weather was (mid 50s) and what beautiful weather it was for January and better than what was forecasted for the day.  I also was pondering the fact that it was Friday afternoon and wondered if I might do yet another variation on the station activity for my final two classes of the day.  It hit me that this would be the perfect opportunity to do a partner walk and talk, but instead of staying inside the building, we would GO OUTSIDE!

When we returned indoors to begin 5th period, I asked my students if they would like a chance to go back outside  Of course, 8th graders love being outdoors and enthusiastically responded YES.  I explained to them we could do the 2nd half of class outdoors but if and only if everyone was laser focused on the first half of our indoor time work.  Talk about the ultimate carrot!  I explained they were going to read the essays and complete the evaluation sheet.  If they finished early, they could begin the “blue ribbon” best of essays reflection.  I set the countdown time clock to 20 minutes on my computer and projected it on the board, and they began.  Everyone was super focused and working intently.  Once time was up, I instructed students they would need all their evaluation forms, including the blue ribbon reflection even if it was not quite finished; they were also instructed to take their neon colored essay handout with them outside.  I repeated the same instructions and procedures for 6th, and they also jumped right into their work.


Once outside, they were directed to find a partner; it could be anyone but someone from their table group!  They quickly found partners, and I lined them up two by two.  I explained that the partner on the left would speak first as they walked and talked.  Our partner talk instructions were these:

  1.  Explain the rubric you completed for each essay you read and evaluated.
  2.  You may point at specific parts of the essay on the neon paper as you talk through the evaluation you completed in addition to anything else you feel is important for your partner to know about that piece of writing.
  3. Talk through your “blue ribbon” reflection even if not quite finished because you can talk through the unfinished parts verbally if needed.
  4. Your partner can ask questions and for clarifications as needed at any time.

Once the partner on the left completed these talking and sharing tasks, the partner on the right would then become the lead in the discussion.  I let them know I would be walking along side and moving about to make mental notes and video notes with my iPhone, so all conversation needed to be on point.  Once we had finished our first round, we swapped partners and did a second round of conversation.  Each round of conversation took about 1.5 to 2 laps around our grassy area in front of the school we have War Time.  My 5th period started and finished strong!


Sixth period did a fabulous job with the partner walk and talk as well though we did have to pause after the first 90 seconds to redirect and make sure everyone understood our purpose and instructions.  Once we did that quick “reset”, my 6th period students were on fire with their thinking and sharing as walked along and discussed our work.

We returned inside after about 15-20 minutes outside, and students had the chance to finish up any written work or to add to before turning in all their written components.  Students commented and shared in their written reflections they enjoyed talking with a partner from another group about the essays they read; several commented this activity also forced them to work with someone they normally would not choose, and they enjoyed that aspect of the activity!

I was so impressed with the quality of discussions from my students in both classes!  Everyone stepped up and really put themselves into the conversations.  Though the elements of being outdoors and movement could have been distracting, I think they actually enhanced the conversation and discussion experience for each round of partner walk and talk.   I hope we will have some milder days ahead in the mornings so that I can give my 1st and 4th periods this kind of learning experience soon though we could certainly adapt and do it indoors in the hallways.  I definitely recommend this activity for any teacher, and you can easily adapt it for any subject area and age group.  This by far was one of my favorite activities I’ve ever done with students and so much fun!

A heartfelt thank you to Sarah Brown Wessling, a master teacher, for so generously sharing her experiences and ideas from the trenches of real world teaching in a public school!  In addition to the links I shared earlier to her Facebook page as well as her website, you can also learn more about her over here at the Teaching Channel and see more videos of her in action.

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.

Scaffolding Student Thinking About Setting, Mood, and Diction

Update, January 1, 2019:  Hi! I have posted each resource as a free download in my new Teachers Pay Teachers store. I just uploaded the files, so they may not all be visible for a couple of hours, but they should all be visible within 24 hours. I hope you enjoy them!

Those of you who follow me on Twitter know I am terribly unhappy with the first unit of study our school has been working with—the Lucy Calkins Deep Study of Character.  Concerns I have include:

  • Lack of academic vocabulary that I know my students will be expected to know on state tests and in future high school courses.  I can’t fathom we are spending 7-8 weeks on a unit that has no mention of direct/indirect characterization, flat or round characters, or static/dynamic characters.
  • Limited number of learning structures that really do not provide much scaffolding for students who are either below grade level in reading and/or writing.
  • Too much unstructured “turn and talk” and emphasis on small group conferencing that is difficult at best for classes with wide gap in abilities.
  • The units are too long in general in terms of time for those on a 45-50 minute literacy period.
  • We’re investing a tremendous amount of precious instructional time on a limited number of standards.
  • I don’t have the time or energy to read 8-10 pages of small print for a single lesson.

With these challenges in mind, I’ve been working overtime to take the concepts in the required unit of study I must use and make it more accessible to my 8th grade learners.  The activities I’m outlining below took approximately 7-8 days of instructional time with classes that meet roughly 45-50ish minutes depending on our bell schedules for specific days.

The second “bend” of the unit focuses on setting, how word choices create mood, and how the setting/mood of a story may impact a character.  After one pass at the mini-lesson using an excerpt from First French Kiss that did not resonate one bit with my 1st period, I used a passage of my own from the beginning of Chapter 2 of The Great Gatsby for our guided analysis of the setting, word choices, and mood; I was delighted with my students’ response to this modification and our guided “think aloud” in my 4th, 5th, and 6th period classes.

After our read aloud session and think aloud mini-lessons (it’s pretty much impossible to limit complex concepts to 10 minutes, ugh), I initially thought it would not be difficult for my students to find two passages in their current independent reading book to find and analyze.

Students had half the period to work on this learning task and the entire weekend to complete their work.  Unfortunately, about only a quarter of my students attempted to finish the assignment and those who did seemed to struggle with accuracy in identifying the setting, mood, and word choices that created that mood.

I decided to punt and let students take another pass at the skills by working on some guided practice independently in class.  This learning activity also gave students a chance to practice using the dictionary and thesaurus in an authentic context as they encountered unfamiliar vocabulary.

The next day I organized students into small teams of four.  Two groups in each class were asked to analyze Passage 1 from our independent practice as a team, two groups in each class were asked to analyze Passage 2 from our independent practice as a team, and two groups in each class were asked to analyze Passage 3 from our independent practice as a team.  After reviewing the “steps to success” for creating a template on chart paper and instructions for analysis, teams worked for about 1.5 class periods to craft their posters.  I feel it is important to provide students the opportunity to engage in this learning structure of focused academic talk and collaborative conversations.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Once students completed the posters, I hung them on the walls outside my classroom and organized by cluster (Passage 1, 2, and 3).  No names were on the front so that students could participate in a gallery walk and do a blind peer review to vote on their top choices in each category as well as their overall top choice.  The assessment gallery walk was one of our station activities we did over two days, and students used a paper rubric and clipboard to do their evaluations before entering their choices online in a Google form I created.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Some of you on Twitter asked what chart paper did I use for the posters; thankfully, I had a stash of these leftover from last year.  Right now, they are at $9.00 a tablet, but if you watch for a sale, you can buy them for half of that price.

If you like this activity, you can access the materials from this Google Folder.  Some of you have asked if I have a TPT store, and I don’t at this time (though I am finally considering it thanks to the encouragement of many people!).  You will also need to install these fonts for the files to format properly for you:

In this folder, you will also find a “task card walk” that I designed for students to do once they finished their group work early to nudge them back to some independent applied practice.  They wrote their answers down on a sheet of paper I provided and then entered them into a Google Form for grading.  We are not 1:1 at this time, so that is why I did not have students record their responses directly into the Google Form.

Last not but not least, our culminating learning activity was one that I purchased from The Daring English Teacher over at TPT.  I slightly tweaked the activity to have the students do their sketches in the boxes at the top of the page for the setting activity and their written responses ON the sticky notes I provided them to put on top.  I also created a model for them that I used as a think aloud to introduce the activity.  I then shared it with my students as a projected PDF and printed copies that I put in my ever-present neon pouches for them to have handy at their table work spaces for a frame of reference.  Not only did this assignment help students to think through the significance of the setting, but it also gave students a meaningful opportunity to practice the RACE strategy in context, one that is emphasized in all grade levels and subject areas in my school.

I gave students a day and a half of class time to finish this assignment, and I was quite impressed with the quality of their work.  I believe the independent guided practice that we did and then the conversations that happened in the group version of that assignment helped students grow their thinking.  All of these assignments will become part of their literacy portfolios we are keeping in folders in the classroom.  Here is a sampler of their work:

What strategies and learning activities do you like for teaching setting, mood, and diction?  If you are in a school that is required to use the Calkins units of study and have latitude to go off script, what modifications are you making?  What common texts do you like to use to help students have a common mentor text or frame of reference for having discussions to contextualize specific literary elements?

In my next post, I’ll share how I introduced the analysis of theme using:

  • A guided/interactive practice activity taking apart literary elements and putting them back together to think about theme
  • Purposeful highlighting with annotations
  • Note and Notice “Contrasts and Contradictions”
  • Station Rotation work to analyze the “puzzle pieces” of a story we tackled independently and then in groups to discover possible themes

Annotations + Rhetorical Analysis + Document Camera= Learning with Joy and Relevance

Last week, my juniors read “Gettysburg Address” (Tuesday for A day classes; Wednesday for B day classes) and then Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?”  (Thursday for A day classes and Friday for B day classes).  I paired the texts back to back so that students could analyze the use of rhetorical devices in each speech as well as the SOAPS (speaker, occasion, audience, purpose, and subject.  For “Gettysburg Address”, we watched a few short clips from the Ken Burns PBS series Civil War that gave students context of the speech as well as a professional reading of the speech.  We then engaged in rhetorical analysis using a copy of the speech from Common Lit with students annotating the text and marking rhetorical devices they saw in each paragraph.  We then did a large group share of our findings.

For “Ain’t I a Woman”, I began to think about how I could kick up our analysis work a few notches and build on thes strategies from Tuesday/Wednesday.  Again, I utilized Common Lit to provide my students a copy of the text that they could keep and annotate (note:  the version that appears as of this blog post publication is a different and shorter (original) version than the one that was available just a week ago).  With my A day classes, we watched two videos:  first, a short biography that I followed with a reading of the speech by Alice Walker.


We then did a quick review of key rhetorical devices, and I kept them projected on the board as students than did individual annotations and rhetorical analysis of the speech.

Once again, we projected the speech on the board as a PDF and worked our way through the speech exploring the rhetorical devices with students volunteering to lead the discussion for each paragraph and our class engaging in a collaborative large group exploration of the speech.  However, for this round of text analysis I asked students to then  work with a partner to do some additional reflection questions on the speech.  While my classes did a fantastic job digging into and reflecting on the text, I wondered if there was not a way for students to actually show their annotations  and thinking to the rest of the class as they took turns leading the conversation.  I began to think about how to make this “visible thinking” happen the next day on Friday.

Initially, I thought about having the speech blown up into posters and doing a sort of gallery walk approach to the annotations and letting students then present from each station.  However, this idea was not very practical due to the lack of time or ease of access to a poster printing machine.  I suddenly remembered a training we had on new document cameras prior to our holiday break last semester; I messaged our media specialist after hours and asked if she could reserve one for me the next day.  Not only did she do so, but we also have enough of these document cameras for teachers to keep them through the year (click here to see our marvelous model ).     It is much smaller than it appears in the photo below; you could easily fold it up and put it in your purse or tote bag.

This document camera model is by far the best I’ve used in the last 10 years.  It is petite, lightweight, super easy to set up, and focuses quickly.  The image resolution is also superb.  Most importantly, it was easy for the students to use.

I repeated the same initial steps of the activity with the video on Friday, but I then had students work in pairs and trios to do collaborative thinking and come up with collaborative annotations of the text as they talked it through together.  I was so inspired by the rich conversations I heard as I walked around the room and heard students really talking to each other and debating the use of rhetorical devices in the speech.   Even my quietest students were suddenly rather animated and participating in the discussion with a partner or partners.   One student was almost in tears as she told me how moved she was by the words and how she was realizing through her work with her two partners how beautiful the speech was.  She exclaimed, “I love Sojourner Truth!  This speech is amazing!”  I am sure there is not a standardized test to measure that kind of learning and growth!

After having about 12-15 minutes to work together, groups could then volunteer to lead discussions and share their analysis and show us their work with the document camera.  As soon as the first group presented, hands were up and students eagerly volunteering to come up to the document camera (which connected to my laptop via USB and that I placed on a student desk for ease of use by groups).    I saw an enthusiasm and level of engagement I have not seen from some of my classes, and I think the ability of the document to suddenly make visible and public the students had done with their partners was the game changer.  Several students told me how much they loved the activity and hoped we’d be using the document camera again (we will!).

I am so excited to have found a way to make a good learning activity BETTER and that elevates student work, talk, and ownership of the conversation to a higher level.   Suddenly, rhetorical analysis and annotation have new depth, meaning, and purpose for my students, and I’m truly eager to see what else we can do the rest of this spring.