Extending and Applying Our Inquiry Work with Kernel Essays: Next Steps

In my last post, I shared how I’m frontloading our argumentative writing unit with an emphasis on key concepts and text structure as we explored mentor texts and applied Gretchen Bernabei’s kernel essay strategy to help students organize ideas.  In this post, I’ll share how we extended that work and how students had opportunities to apply those strategies collaboratively and indivudally.

Revisiting Our Zoo Article Work, Part 1

We took our next steps by revisiting the two zoo articles we had read and lightly annotated/took notes on about two weeks ago.  For this second pass at the articles, students received a copy of both articles, but they also received a new graphic organizer for taking notes.  Students were given class time to reread the articles a second time and revisited the evidence they were adding to the new graphic organizer while going deeper and looking for evidence they may have missed in our first pass at reading the articles.  On the next day of class, students were asked to review their evidence, choose a position/claim they felt most strongly about, and complete the kernel essay graphic organizer independently.  This work took approximately two class days of 50 minute class periods.

Once students completed this work, students were assigned partners or small groups of three the following day, and I projected these on the board with table assignments so students knew where to go.  I chose these randomly and grouped students based on the claim position they chose.  We moved our chairs and met knee to knee, face to face yet again to compare and contrast the evidence we found to support each claim (see the graphic organizer).   Students also compared their independently written kernel essays.  Partners then used a fresh green template to collaboratively compose a new and improved kernel essay together.  They could revise and use pieces each partner had contributed; they could also compose new content together.

Our final step was to share out what we had collaboratively composed; I walked about the room using my iPhone and Epson wireless projector app to project each new collaborative kernel essay; partners led a brief discussion around their work, the choices they made and why they made them, and received feedback from peers.   This whole group share of work by partners and small groups of three is a vital part of the learning experience; having access to an Epson wireless projector and being able to move about the room to show work via my iPhone as a mobile document camera in real time is a game-changer!


Part 2, Extending Our Collaborative Kernel Essay Work:  Introducing Mentor Texts for Introductory Paragraphs to Argumentative Essays

The following day students began with a writing/thinking warm-up to see what they thought should go into an introductory paragraph of an argumentative essay.   We moved from the warm-up to our station walk where students had the opportunity to visit seven stations following the station walk guidelines below:

Students read the mentor text paragraphs and recorded their noticings about sentence 1, sentence 2, and sentence 3 of each paragraph on their graphic organizer.  I borrowed three of the station mentor texts from other sources; I composed the remaining four pulling in local and current events.

Once students complete the walk, I asked them to look at their responses vertically and to discuss with a table partner what each cluster of sentences might have in common in terms of content, sentence type, or purpose/role in the paragraph.  This part of the activity was definitely a stretch for my 8th graders, but they rose to the occasion and did not disappoint!

Through this approach, we engaged in small group talk and then moved to a large group share out where we discussed our noticings.  This discussion led us to notice that our mentor texts all had these elements in common:

  • Sentence 1:  A strong hook using one of the three strategies:  a provocative question about the topic that cannot be answered with a yes or no; a startling or shocking fact or statistic about the topic; inviting the reader to imagine or picture a situation or scenario related to the topic.
  • Sentence 2:  the “bridge” that builds on the hook and helps connect it to the claim.
  • Sentence 3:  the claim statement with reasons.

From Station Walk Noticings to Composing and Revising Our Own Introductory Paragraphs

Students then worked with their partners or small table group of three to collaboratively compose a draft introductory paragraph based on the collaborative kernel essay they had written together the previous day.   Each partner set/small group was given a neon lined sticky note for writing their draft.  This drafting activity built on the claim and reasons students had previously identified so that hopefully, writing a strong hook and bridge would be the most challenging part of their work.  Some groups did well with this first pass, but I noticed others losing some writing and thinking stamina, something that was not surprising given the challenging nature of the work they had been that day and the previous day in class.  I collected their work at the end of the period and made copies of each draft the following day before classes met.  This step took some time but made the next day’s learning activities much smoother with no down time.

When students arrived, we shared our drafts and talked about strengths and weaknesses of our work with a “ticket in the door” writing activity and share aloud.  Because each student had a copy of the previous day’s collaborative work, I then asked students to look at that work and take a second pass at revising and writing a second draft independently to emphasize the importance of revision but to also make sure each student was held accountable as a writer and fully participating.

We used a scaffolded graphic organizer to help us revise thoughtfully and strategically; when students finished, they attached this new draft to all their previous work they had completed in stages over the week.  This scaffold helped students take a first draft to a higher quality second draft with confidence.

Final Thoughts

These activities were challenging for my students, but I think the inquiry driven, student-focused work was worth the investment of class time and set the stage for beginning our own argumentative essays we’ll start Thursday, February 21.   I intentionally wanted them to have an opportunity to “get their feet wet” so to speak writing a strong introductory paragraph so that as we begin our own argumentative essays this week, they already have a vision of the critical starting point with a strong introduction and how all the steps we practiced together with our zoo work is a model for how we will approach our own interest driven argumentative essay this week.  I also stressed to students how our note taking process and kernel essay writing can be used in a regular writing assignment or to help us think quickly and thoughtfully in a timed essay writing assignment like a benchmark assessment or state test.  I have never front-loaded a unit of study on argumentative writing like this and do worry about time (what teacher doesn’t?!), but I hope it will give them a strong foundation and focused tools to move forward in any writing situation with an argumentative task.

Finally, I want to share that this instructional design process was fairly organic.  While I had the big picture of learning activities in my mind, I also was sure to observe student work closely and listen to their conversations to fine tune each step of our mini-journey of inquiry.  In this age of pacing guides, deadlines, and never-ending challenges to juggling instructional time, I think it is important to pay attention to what we see happening with student learning in front of us and to be responsive to that.  I have learned much side by side with my students this month, and I’m excited to share in my next blog post our next steps with our argumentative essays we’re starting tomorrow!

How do you weave inquiry into writing study with your students?

Inquiring into Argumentative Writing: Deconstructing Text Structure with Kernel Essays

Last week we moved from our exploration of features of argumentative writing to text structure.  On Wednesday, we began with the following writing activity using these images I projected onto the board with the LCD projector and these prompts:

Once students had time to think and write, we came together for whole class discussion to share our thinking aloud.  The final prompt brought us to a conversation about how the progression of the kernel to fully popped popcorn paralleled the process of completing a draft of writing.   Next, In introduced the text structure of an argumentative essay, and talked about  how writing a kernel essay could help us develop a writing plan in both regular writing tasks and timed writing assignments like our benchmark assessments and state tests.  Gretchen Bernabei defines kernel essays this way:

A writer writes about the topic, using the text structure as a guide, creating one sentence per box. These sentences are called a kernel essay.

Students then had an opportunity to read our first mentor essay, “Red Light Cameras Save Lives”, independently and to jot down anything they noticed about the essay.  We then moved to partner work as students chose a thinking buddy and pulled their chairs out to sit knee to knee and face to face to discuss and compare their jot notes.  After a quick group share, partners then revisited the mentor text and jotted down the kernel essay for our mentor text.  We then shared our responses aloud and engaged in conversation about our kernel essays based on what we saw in the mentor text.  We repeated the process for the second mentor text, “A Drinking Problem”; however, this time, students did partner read alouds with the second essay and took turns reading to each other before collaborating on the composing the kernel essay for the second mentor text.


If you want to mix it up, you can have students change partners for the second round. The face to face, knee to knee aspect is key to engaging students, and the partner read aloud is also critical to energizing students and forcing them to really read closely.  These two factors fueled meaningful conversations between students; in particular, my two afternoon classes excelled and blew me away with their focus and thinking.  I can honestly say this was one of the most interesting and successful learning activities I’ve done in my entire career! I was impressed by the maturity and work ethic I saw from many students—they were working more like high schoolers than 8th graders!  Overall, these activities took about 2.5 days during 45-50 minute class periods.

We’re now re-reading two articles on zoos we read two weeks ago for our “pro con” ping/pong and competition activities with our annotations and notes.  I’ll share more in my next post how we are using these articles to gather evidence and come up with a kernel essay of our own using the argumentative essay text structure as a guided practice before we move formally into our argumentative essay writing assignment late next week.

PD Session for Teachers: Helping Students Generate Questions for Inquiry and Deeper Thinking

Our school district returned on January 2 to begin a new semester, and our first day back was one with a focus on professional development.  At my school, four sessions were offered for our faculty that touched on each area of our school improvement plan.  My principal asked me to lead a session on helping students formulate and dwell in questions to address our goal of nurturing an academically challenging environment.  It was a fun day getting to lead and learn with my fellow 6th, 7th, 8th, and Connections teachers in my building.    Here is an overview of the 45 minute session I presented four times (one for each grade level/area):

  1.  Learning Activity #1: Question Flood with a “Write-Around” Activity (with chart/tablet paper and markers) Using HOTS questions with a variety of “texts” across multiple subject areas; teachers worked with their table groups to read their text and collaboratively generate HOTS questions using the HOTS question stems.  We also explored how to incorporate HOTS with other mediums, including sticky notes and chart paper or even your dry erase board in your room.
  2. Activity 2: Three Big Questions (Probst and Beers) with a variety of texts across subject areas; will also share how we used these in our “birds of feather” interest reading clubs.  Teachers had an opportunity to practice this with the text set at their table.
  3. Strategy 3: Developing Deeper Research Questions/Questions for More Inquiry with Question Lenses :  I shared how you can use Ann Marlow Riedling’s questions to help students individually or collaboratively use questions lenses to “explode” and explore a topic or text.
    Real world examples from my own practice include:A.  Example 1:  Read more here and here.
    B.  Example 2:  Read more here ; here is a completed student example from Grade 7.

The resource page I shared with teachers is available in this Google Document; the slideshow is embedded in the Google Document as well.  I have been thrilled and humbled by the positive feedback and number of teachers from all subject areas who have already implemented these strategies in less than a week!

Here are some scenes from the workshop:

Deconstructing Mentor Texts for Our Own Writing: Research-Based Informational Writing In the Wild

My seniors have completed their research on their self-selected topics related to the Future of Work (see blog for previous posts); we have gone deep with our inquiry work as we have worked on this for the most part of the first nine weeks of the semester while sprinkling in some other writing studies and work before we shift gears to literature study at the end of the month.  Last Friday, I organized students into eight “Think Tanks” and gave them the following materials in a folder:

  • An informational article (I pulled from a variety of sources); you can message me if you’d like a copy of the text set.
  • A copy of Kelly Gallagher’s chart of purposes for writing
  • A sample of a kernel essay with the markups from Gretchen Bernabei’s Text Structures from the Masters.
  • A handout outlining effective leads for expository essays from Essay Writing Made Easy.

Inspired by Writing with Mentors How to Reach Every Writer in the Room Using Current, Engaging Mentor Texts by Rebekah O’Dell and Allison Marchetti, various posts over at their Moving Writers blog, and some personal Tweets from Rebekah, I gathered a series of eight mentor texts that I felt were good examples of research based informational writing “in the wild” or from the real world.  I wanted my students to have some models of how we might break out of the traditional five paragraph essay structure to compose and share their research findings.  Deconstructing and completing “noticings” about mentor texts is still a relatively new experience for my seniors, so I provided some scaffolding to help them organize their thinking and to create a poster to share out with the class:

We reviewed the instructions and some options for how groups or “think tanks” could go about their collaborative inquiry work.  Then I turned the groups loose to begin their deconstruction of the informational texts.  I walked about the room observing, answering questions, and supporting anyone who seemed to be struggling.  We worked roughly 35-40 minutes before it the class period ended, so we continued our work taking about 45 minutes to finish our endeavor.

We then reviewed procedures for sharing our posters as well as ways to show love and support as listeners.  Students also received a graphic organizer to take notes or capture “take away” ideas from each group poster session (see Gallery Walk Poster Share Notetaking Sheet 12th ELA for Deconstructing Informational Essays October 2017 ).  As each group presented, I reflected back what I heard and asked clarifying questions as needed; students could also ask the presenters for clarification or to repeat anything they needed to hear again.  The period flew by, and all groups finished but one, so our final group will start us off on Friday.  Once we finish, students will then complete a self-assessment of themselves and their group (see Poster Presentation Self Assessment Informational Text in the Wild Noticings) before beginning to develop a writing plan.  We’ll collaborate as we begin to draft the pieces of our essay, so stay tuned for more on that approach to our writing process!

It was interesting to see how each group worked together in terms of how they attacked the activity as well as the interaction (or challenges with working together).  Groups that communicated clearly and did the annotating/marking up “a la Gretchen Bernabei” style were the ones whose posters were the strongest finish product in terms of content depth and completeness.  Overall, I am very happy with the design of the learning experience and how my students handled this because it was definitely a challenging learning activity.  They have demonstrated growth since the beginning of August and took on this challenge in a way that they could not have done only nine weeks ago.  I am also excited that their work can now serve as anchor work to showcase in the classroom.

How do you support students in engaging in noticings about mentor texts?  I would love to hear your ideas!

Visualizing Our Research with Sticky Notes

My seniors, who have been researching  their self-selected topics under the umbrella of “The Future of Work,” have completed their first round of research.  We had roughly four days (we meet for 90 minute blocks) to delve into our research guide.   Students formed Birds of Feather groups by interest and designed their research questions as well as inquiry project jobs for each member.

This past Wednesday I felt students needed an opportunity to assess the information they had collected so that they could see what information they had (or didn’t have!) and what they still needed, especially since roughly 1/4 of the class has struggled to use class time given for taking notes. We have used a range of notetaking tools:  an assortment of graphic organizers and even Google Forms (I ran a mail merge and printed these out for students).  After returning all notes to students, we used this past Wednesday to look at our work and break out each note onto an individual sticky note.

Once students had completed compiling their notes onto the sticky notes, I asked them to look at their work and group “like” ideas together. They then were asked to come up with a label or category for the notes.   Students then received a large oversize poster sticky note and did the following steps:

  • Wrote their research question and name at the top.
  • Drew a t-square grid.
  • Wrote each category of notes.
  • Taped/stuck the notes into the appropriate square on the grid.

Once the posters were completed, we hung them together by groups; I created colorful placeholders for each group along with a copy of their research plan to anchor each gallery of work.

Once students finished this part of the activity, they completed a self-assessment of their progress on their inquiry so far:  Post Research Round 1 Reflect and Assess September 20 2017 Period 1B 12th ELA Honors .

As part of the self-assessment, students were asked to reflect on what information they had and what they still needed after they had reviewed their visual poster of their notes.  This part of the activity was helpful because I was extremely impressed by students’ assessments of their progress and next steps for finding the information they still needed.  In addition to being a meaningful and reflective exercise, this activity  has generated interest from students and teachers traveling in our hallway!  How do you build in self-assessment opportunities into your inquiry projects?  How do you help students reflect on the information they are gathering and then determine what they still need and how to move forward?