Language Arts

Introducing Book Clubs with Partner Reading and Noticings About Themes, Central Ideas, and Issues

Yesterday, I introduced book clubs by issuing students their books with their reading tickets/schedules (see previous blog post, please).  Students also got new seating/table assignments when they arrived; I projected these onto the board as students arrived.  Students are either seating with their entire book club OR in a “subgroup” of a larger book club since some groups are reading different texts around a similar theme or genre (memoir, specifically).

Once we reviewed our reading schedule/assignment for the first week, we did a quick mini-lesson on themes, central ideas, and issues and how we might begin to notice these elements of our literary nonfiction/memoir books.  I used one of my favorite texts, Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iversen, to model my thinking.  My mini-lesson and subsequent activity are modifications of a mini-lesson from the Lucy Calkins Literary Nonfiction Unit of Study in reading.

Students then broke into small groups by book club/same books or partners for subgroups of book clubs for the read aloud portion of our activity.  I have blogged earlier this academic year about the power of partner read alouds, and yesterday only reinforced my belief in their value.  Most classes were able to get about 15-20 minutes of reading time in.  Students then jotted down any initial noticings about theme, central ideas, or issues they noticed in the day’s reading.  Students will be adding to this graphic organizer as we get deeper into our books.

Yesterday was hectic, so I apologize I don’t have video for you to see/hear the partner or small group read alouds, but you can see/hear this awesome energy in my previous posts on read alouds.

Exploring Characterization in “Raymond’s Run” with Playlist Stations

After our reading of “Raymond’s Run”, I wanted to find a way to engage students in thinking about character that would also get them up and moving since they had been sitting and doing some quiet thinking/reading work for a few days.  I decided to craft a new playlist station activity with a focus on character, and I crafted stations that included:

  1.  Station 1:  Notice and Note Signpost “Contrasts and Contradictions”
  2.  Station 2:  Choose your best HOTS questions from your reading reflections without repeating one that has already been posted on the dry erase board.
  3. Station 3:  Character Focus STEAL–Speech
  4. Station 4: Character Focus STEAL–Thoughts
  5. Station 5: Character Focus STEAL-Effect on Others
  6. Station 6: Character Focus STEAL-Actions
  7. Station 7: Character Focus STEAL-Looks/Physical Appearance
  8. Station 8: Character Continuum Activity
  9. Station 9:  Silent Table Talk (looking at Squeaky through a feminist lens)

I used this blank station template to design my station signs; I also purchased and used these marvelous STEAL thinking prompts to go with stations 3-7.    You can access my playlist handout for students by clicking here.

I gave students a starting point for their stations, and then they could move on as they saw fit and choose their next station.  I let them work at their own pace, and we completed the activity in two days.   Students could work alone or with a partner; best of all, I could quickly see if students were struggling with their understanding of a concept because of the “checkpoints” built into each station with the playlist concept.

On Day 3, I used a variety of methods to bring it all together, including small group or partner talk to highlight what they felt were the most interesting insightful responses from each station across classes.  We also followed up our discussion with a Kahoot story review before taking an open note, open story quiz in Canvas.

Students who finished early on Day 2 could work on Membean or read their library book.  Though I have other fun and meaningful learning activities I’ve used in the past for generating thinking and discussion about characterization, this activity I designed seemed to be a good fit for where we were last week.

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.

Introducing Claims with Task Card Walk Goodness

Last Wednesday, we began our formal exploration of claims, counterclaims, and rebuttals, some core concepts I felt needed to frontload with my 8th graders based on the results of a survey they had completed about 10 days earlier.

One of my favorite ways to use task cards is for an gallery walk style learning experience.  I purchased an excellent set of task cards on Teachers Pay Teachers, printed them, cut them up, and placed them around the room.  After introducing claims with some notes and guided practice together, students participated in our task card walk to identify the claim statement in the paragraphs on the task cards.  Students could complete the walk in any order they wanted, and we followed our usual rules of quiet work during the walk and no more than 2-3 people per task card area at a time.  Whether they chose to work with a buddy or approach the task card walk independently, my students excelled at this activity:

Once students completed the task card walk, they turned in their answer sheets and used the remainder of class to read their choice library books.  The following day we swapped papers  and went through each task card answer choice together as a class; this “check and correct” review activity gave us a chance to see patterns or gaps of understanding and to talk about the reasons as to why a statement was indeed a claim.

This activity is simple, but I find my 8th graders enjoy task card walks and are engaged as they contemplate their learning challenge on each task card.  I also love this kind of activity because it gets students up and moving, something I think it is important to incorporate into my classroom at least once a week.

How do you incorporate task cards into your instruction and classroom?

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.