reflections

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.

Engage All Students in Quick But Meaningful Review with Everyone Up!

This is time of year  when many educators look at the calendar and begin to feel panic (or fully embrace the panic?) as they realize how quickly the remainder of the school year is slipping away.  I am most decidedly one of those teachers!  I need to finish our unit of study by the third week of March, yet I don’t want to “blow through” the material.  On the other hand, I don’t have the luxury of time to do many of the learning activities I’ve done through this school year simply because they are time consuming—even on a modified block schedule—and  despite the fact they are valuable learning structures.

On my lunch break yesterday, I was wracking my brain for a strategy to help my “A” day classes review and bring closure to our learning activities we started on Tuesday with Kate Chopin and “The Story of an Hour.” I came across a simple yet very effective strategy called “Everyone UP! Immediately I felt this approach might be the perfect fit.

Here is how I implemented it with my classes today:

  • Flashback:  On Tuesday, we began with a writer’s craft notebook prompt for notebook time as a means of bringing closure to our discussion of the use of point of view in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and to help students think about point of view in their books they have selected for choice reading time.  We jumped into Kate Chopin by reading a short biography of her together, and then I gave students some brief notes on what the cultural norms were for women during her time.   After listening to “The Story of an Hour” together and discussing it as we read and annotated together (we used the Common Lit version), students answered the four discussion questions from Common Lit (I downloaded and made copies of the questions for students knowing it would be integrated into our review work today).
  • Today, students completed a “Ticket in the Door” that asked them jot down the top 10 things they remembered or knew about the story.  Students then received a set of 15 questions that asked students to engage in some high level thinking questions; I called these the magic square reflections mainly because I created the handout with the questions in squares—somehow, this visual appearance makes the thinking work with the questions seem less intimidating for many of my students.
  • I told students to complete as many of the magic square questions as they could; they could also them complete them in any order.  Students used their copy of the text, their notes I provided them last week on Realism and Naturalism, and their story materials from earlier in the week.  I gave each of my three classes about 30-35 minutes to think and complete what they could.
  • At the end of the 30+ minute block, I asked them to put an x in any question boxes they had not completed, but I told them they would have an opportunity to add notes during our next activity.  I introduced Everyone Up as a game to help us review.  Here were our ground rules/protocols:

Everyone Up!  Our Approach

  1.  Everyone has to stand.  You cannot sit down until you answer a question correctly, and I clear you to return to your seat.
  2. You may use any of your Chopin materials.
  3. You must answer one question correctly; as I call out the questions, you choose when you want to participate.
  4. For questions that had multiple answers or interpretation, I will call upon more than one student; if you want to contribute, raise your hand so I know you want to add to the conversation.
  5. Anyone who wants to remain standing and do bonus questions after everyone has participated may do so.
  6. The only person talking is the one who has the floor.
  7. Raise your hand when you are ready to answer a question or add to a response.

We used our magic reflection square questions, our ticket in the door, and our Common Lit discussion questions as our basis for review.  This technique got everyone involved, yet students had control to choose to answer questions that were their strengths.  This participatory technique involved some movement  yet was not as frenzied or involved as our gallery walk and some of our other active discussion/conversation strategies are—in this case, that is exactly what I was looking for so we could wrap up our work with the story today and start fresh on Monday.  Though our version took more than 10 minutes, we had a rich review without taking up more than 30 minutes.  Several students commented they found this form of review helpful.

Even my most reluctant students were positive and eager to jump into the conversation; after students were cleared to sit, most continued to take notes and add to their existing work.  The activity itself was a formative assessment for me to hear understandings and any muddy points of confusion to circle back to on Monday if needed.  One final formative assessment for today was our exit ticket, one I crafted as a full size handout with  a “3-2-1” set of reflections:

  1.  Name three major understandings you have right now about the story that are significant and meaningful.  Provide textual evidence.
  2. What are two new insights and understandings you now have about “Story of an Hour”?
  3.  What is the most interesting idea you heard from a classmate today?  Why?  How did it help you or connect with you?  Who said it?

While the structure sounds simple, that is the beauty of it, and all students were involved in our review “game.”  I was elated that students who normally hate pair or group activities were upbeat and really shining when their turn (of their choosing) came to share with the class.  I will most definitely try this learning structure again later in the spring.

What “quick review” strategies do you like to use in your classroom and enable students to do the heavy lifting of the review?

Tackling Complex Texts with Think Tank Groups, Silent Gallery Walks, Noticings, and Reflections

Last week, four sections (two Honors Level and two CP) of my 11th ELA took on the challenge of deconstructing our reading of an excerpt of Thomas Paine’s The Crisis, Number 1 as we explore examples of persuasive texts across time periods and around themes of resilience and resistance.

Our primary essential questions included:

  • How do writers use rhetorical devices like parallelism and analogy to convey meaning and persuade?
  • How do writers use ethos, pathos, and logos to persuade an audience of an opinion or position on a topic/issue?

As students came into the room, the seating chart by “Think Tank” groups was projected on the board to help students find their new groups quickly.  After introducing some key literary terms students would need to know for breaking down the rhetoric of the essay, students received copies of our annotation codes (adapted from the work of Cris Tovani) at their table groups; these were delivered via my neon shop ticket pouches.  We first read the essay together a section at a time (thankfully, I have a copy of a pretty good reading with the textbook audio CD), and students annotated the text as we worked through the essay.

Next, each group received markers, lined tablet paper, and a task card ( created a total of nine) with a quote or passage to analyze and deconstruct along with guiding questions to scaffold this task.

Students had roughly 30-35 minutes to collaborate on their responses to the guiding questions and create a poster with the chart paper to share out to the class.  I walked around and answered questions, served as a sounding board, or redirected groups that might be straying off-task.

Originally, I planned for students to do oral presentations, but after one of my Honors classes struggled to keep up with their jot notes on each presentation, I realized that perhaps this was not the best way for groups to deliver their thinking.  I punted and modified the “share” portion of the activity to be a silent gallery walk, a move to that turned out to be the right one.

For the gallery walk, students had to visit each poster at its station where I had duplicated the task cards so everyone could see the passage/quote as well as the guiding question.  The graphic organizer I had designed for students to jot down ideas from the oral presentations transitioned perfectly into a notetaking graphic organizer for the silent gallery walk.

Students then had to jot down 2-3 key ideas or their big idea takeaways from the poster.  During the gallery walk, students:

  • Could move about the stations in any order.
  • Could not talk or carry their cell phones with them–either would result in a loss of points for the noticings activity.
  • Students needed to choose another poster hotspot to visit if there were more than 4-5 people at that center.

Once students completed their noticings and notes, they returned to their seats when ready to the do the final reflection at the end of the graphic organizer.  Students were asked to reflect on this question:  What idea or ideas have you heard today FROM OTHERS that has helped you better understand the Thomas Paine essay? Explain in 4-6 sentences, please.  The responses overwhelmingly identified points of clarification, but many students also commented how the collaborative walk and looking at other student work helped create an “a-ha!” moment for parts of the text that may have been confusing.

The culminating reflective activity was a writer’s notebook prompt (differentiated by and within different course levels) that asked students to think about the text as writers and to do some reflections on the writerly qualities of this persuasive essay.  Many used their silent gallery walk graphic organizer in conjunction with their copy of the essay to help them craft their responses.

My 4A CP class was the first  to complete the activity this way; the next day, my 3B Honors students did the activity through this approach.   When my 4B CP class followed them, they hung their posters next to or beneath the 3B posters, and students had a “meta” sort of experience as students recorded noticings from both classes.  I think students were even more engaged with the opportunity to “cross-pollinate” their thinking across classes; an Honors students from Period 2A who dropped by for makeup work whispered to me, “Is this an Honors class, too?” because she was so struck by how intensely focused they were in the gallery walk.  When I responded, “No, but they are working just as hard!” she exclaimed “Wow!”

On this note, I want to highlight that I did this activity across different “levels” of course sections.  I think one of the greatest disservices we do to students who are not in “Honors” levels courses is to exclude them from these kinds of learning activities that involve teamwork and deep thinking.  I made sure to heap the praise on at the end of class with Period 4B because their confidence has increased since the beginning of August, and I wanted to reinforce the belief I try to put forth each day we’re together that they are capable of doing academically challenging work.  The “glows” comments were also showered on my other CP class too as many of them do not see themselves as smart or able to do anything beyond a basic worksheet.  All students need opportunities to grow their academic capital as well as those social soft skills that are so important and come with collaborative learning experiences.   Sometimes it may be a struggle for both the students and the teacher when this kind of learning activity isn’t quite clicking, but it doesn’t mean we give up–instead, we scale back when needed and then try again from another approach or with additional supports to help students succeed.  Leveling and placement at the secondary level is a problematic issue, but that is another conversation for another day.

When my 2A class returned today, the group that originally struggled a bit with my original plan of oral presentations,  they completed their noticings by doing the silent gallery walk with three sets of posters–theirs along with Periods 3B and 4A.  In hindsight, I wish I had included the 4A posters, but it didn’t occur to me on the first day that a “meta” silent gallery walk would be a super cool learning experience for my students.

These photos are from this past Friday; today we had a third set of posters to grow our gallery walk, which I sadly forgot to photograph today but will add to the post in the morning.

Because this was a shorter text, I felt this was a prime opportunity to let students wrestle with a more challenging text and to build meaning together.  It is too easy to “spoon feed” students the answers we think they need to hear rather than letting them engage in meaning making for themselves.  I did provide scaffolding with the guiding questions and a menu of rhetorical devices on their task card, but aside from that, I did not provide any answers even when students wanted me to confirm they were correct.  Instead, I reflected the question back to them and would say, “What do you think?” and “How do you know?” to push their thinking.  The ninety minute block of time we have four days a week on our modified block schedule definitely lends itself to these kinds of learning experiences, and I feel it was worth the investment of time based on student responses on their graphic organizers as well as their writer’s notebook reflections.

How do you help students navigate complex texts and engage in meaning making?