secondary ELA

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.

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.

Adventures in American Lit Book Clubs, Part 4: Circle of Viewpoints Across Multiple Texts

In my last post, I shared how I set up “mixed” American Lit book club groups to facilitate a final cross-text discussion.  My 2A Honors class utilized the Making Thinking Visible strategy of Peeling the Fruit to make connections across texts.  For my 3B Honors class that met the following day, we utilized another Making Thinking Visible strategy called Circle of Viewpoints.

Just like the Period 2A class, Period 3B students were organized into mixed groups; this particular class required some adjustments at the beginning of class that due to an unusual number of absences.    However, the tweaking of groups did not take long, and students did the same silent written response and then “Turn and Talk” warm up thinking/discussion activities as 2A.  These activities took the first 30 minutes of class prior to our lunch break.  When students returned, we reviewed the protocols and instructions for looking at themes and big ideas across books through the Circle of Viewpoints lens:

Students were asking to craft their poster using the Circle of Viewpoints protocol:

  • The center of our circle was a big idea, issue, or theme that spoke to all of the books; group members selected this theme.
  • In the second layer of the circle, students identified a character from their books and choose to look at the theme/issue/big idea through that character’s eyes.
  • In the third layer, the students explained how the issue, theme, or big idea looked to that character through the character’s eyes.  Several students chose to write from a first person perspective; a few completed this task using a third person point of view.
  • The final outer layer provided students to post a big question–this could be a question that students had after engaging in the analysis or a question they felt their character might ask about the big idea, theme, or issue they were analyzing across texts.

Just like Peeling the Fruit, the Circle of Viewpoints thinking structure generated intense discussion in every group.  Most groups discussed their ideas first before sketching a rough draft and then crafting their posters.  Several students also pulled their annotation notes and organized them into a folder as a reference point for textual evidence to support their responses.

Just like Period 2A, we hung our posters around the room.  Because the activity did take the entire 90 minute block, we did not have time for a formal gallery walk, but many students took the initiative to walk about and examine what their peers had to say.

 

Though I wish we’d had more time for a formal gallery walk and subsequent whole class discussion, the activity was engaging for students and generated intellectual energy while giving students a chance to share and think about their books in a mixed book club setting.  Given that this was the final day of class prior to final exams and took place as AP and EOC exams were ending, I was pleased with the level of engagement I saw from students.

In my next and final post in this series, I’ll share some student reflections on the book club experience and how our semester long independent reading turned out to be a pivotal key in the success of the book clubs.  If you would like to read the previous posts in this series, you can access those posts easily below:

Scaffolding and Organizing Jigsaw Discussions

I’ve been experimenting this semester with different ways of encouraging meaningful academic talk between and among students.  I think giving students opportunities to engage in meaning making for themselves is important at all levels, and after reading Cris Tovani’s wonderful No More Telling as Teaching, I have been more intentional about ways to help students have opportunities to talk and share that help their growth and support that of others.  Some students relish these opportunities; others do not  always embrace them as joyfully.  There is also the challenge of helping students find the sweet spot of discussion and talk with others where the conversation stays on track and students don’t overtalk or undertalk with each other.

While my Honors students tend to be stronger with class discussions than my other sections, I try to give all my classes these learning experiences.  However, even my upper level classes sometimes struggle or get in a rut.    Last Friday, I decided to do a jigsaw discussion with one of my 11th Honors ELA classes in order to try to shake things up a little and incorporate more individual accountability for participation and contributions to a small group discussion.  On Wednesday, students took a grade level performance final exam; after the exam, they had class time to read an excerpt of “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.  They were asked to complete summaries of each section and to answer seven short answer questions by the beginning of the next class on Friday.

When students arrived, they could choose a seat anywhere.  I had desks arranged into four groups of seven and one seating cluster of four desks.  Once students were seated, I passed out numbered task cards so that we formed “birds of feather” clusters.  Students could move anywhere in the room to work with their fellow assigned task card group members and collaborate on answers to the questions on the task card for about 20 minutes.  For example, if you received Task Card 2, you met up and worked with fellow Task Card 2 recipients.

Students then broke for lunch; when they returned, we organized ourselves at the seating areas so that someone from each group–Task Cards 1-7–was represented.    They took about 5 minutes to follow these organizational instructions:

We then reviewed the procedures for the jigsaw discussion:

Students then had about 20 or so minutes to participate in the discussions and take notes on what each other had to say.  In spite of growing excitement about a possible early release due to snow, most students stayed on task and made a good faith effort to participate and contribute.

When students finished, they were asked to create a poster based on their discussions and collaborative thinking:

Students then were asked to turn in their task card work plus their jigsaw discussion notes.  Their individual assignment for homework was to compose a paragraph and choose the transcendentalist theme they felt the selection best represented and why; they were asked to provide at least two examples of textual evidence and accompanying commentary to support their response.

What are your favorite small and large group discussion strategies?  How do you scaffold student talk?  How do you nudge those who are reluctant or less than enthusiastic about participating?

Recommended Reading: