middle school Language Arts

Strategies for Reading Notes and Annotations: Literary Nonfiction and Memoir Book Clubs

We are a full week into our literary nonfiction and memoir book clubs, and I’m happy to report most students completed their first required reading goal for our first book club meeting on January 17.  This past Monday I introduced four options for taking reading notes and strategically annotating their books.  I built on strategies we learned last semester and folded in a few new approaches as well that tie into last week’s mini-lesson on themes, central ideas, and issues—I feel like all of these were doable for my 8th graders, and they loved the element of choice.  I also appreciated some students had some creative interpretations of the strategies and were engaged in their thinking with their notes.

You can see a tutorial video I created for my students who were absent for the mini-lesson or who needed to hear it again; I posted this video in our Canvas course LMS as well as our class blog.

The slideshow below is also available to students in both virtual learning spaces as I add student created work to showcase and highlight as the possibilities for notetaking.

I do provide different kinds of paper and a plethora of Post-It notes for my students to use.  Please enjoy the digital gallery of student work in progress below; overall, I feel like the quality of thinking and notes is much better than what I saw with my previous 8th graders.  However, I feel my instruction on annotating and closer reading has been stronger this academic year as well.

I’m excited to see what options they choose and the notes they create for our January 24 book club meeting!  In my next blog post, I’ll provide an update on our first book club meeting (held January 17) discussions and reflections on the book club meeting as well as their meeting prep work.

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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.

Supporting Young Readers: Developing Reading Club Conversation Skills

In my last blog post, I outlined the prep work we did leading up to our “birds of feather” topics reading club meetings to help students dig more deeply into their readings and to come prepared for the reading club discussion.

Prior to our club meetings, students brainstormed meeting etiquette and expectations:

We also incorporated these qualities into a self-assessment tool students completed the day after the reading clubs met.

I learned last spring with my juniors and seniors that some structure to meetings is helpful for students, especially those with little to no reading or book club experience.  I planned for four rounds of discussion even though I expected we would probably only have time for three; I like to overplan just in case!

You can flip through the slideshow below to see how I helped “step” students through bursts of conversation that lasted about 10-12 minutes each.  I would review the discussion frame for each round and then keep time with my phone while walking around and making notes on ideas I heard in conversation while noting with a check each time I heard or saw a student participating (or not) in the club meeting.  I use a a blank roster spreadsheet from my gradebook in Infinite Campus and then use the columns to make notes and checks or minuses to help me remember what I’m seeing or hearing.  Last but not least, I recorded videos as I walked around so I could go back and watch/listen when evaluating students participation, listening, and interaction in the reading club meetings.

One other recommendation I have, especially for middle school or inexperienced reading club learners, is to appoint a “conversation round” leader.  This simply means you appoint someone from each club or group to lead each round of conversation; doing this prevents awkward pauses or lapses in getting a new round of discussion started.

One other new tool I used with the reading club was the conversation emoji talk stems from Ashley Bible.  These were super helpful for students in finding wording to enter the conversation or to interact in a meaningful way if they were struggling to find words.

I was incredibly impressed by how well my students did in their meetings!  Most groups had terrific energy and engagement in their meeting, and even those that may have struggled in the first round came on strong in the second and third rounds of conversation.   The reading club work and conversations in their club meeting are definitely two of the highlights of this academic year—the caliber of work and the soft skills as well as reading/listening/speaking skills inherent in the club conversations are huge steps forward for my students as learners and individuals.

When we finished three rounds of discussions, we then worked on our post-club reflections to capture our thinking while it was fresh.  The following two days, we did some self assessment and reflection using this tool I created based on student agreements on etiquette and expectations.   In addition, we used these awesome standards-based self-assessment forms for four standards that were embedded in our reading club conversation work.  The reflections and thinking students shared through these tools was quite revealing, and my fellow teachers and admin were quite impressed with the depth of student reflection as well.

Though I wish our instructional calendar would have permitted time for an additional club meeting, I am incredibly pleased with the quality of work my students completed and the quality of their reading club conversations.   I am excited to see how we can grow these skills when we shift to nonfiction book clubs later this spring!