Student Talk

When Students Are Struggling: Thoughtful Punting with Gallery Walks and Academic Speed Dating Conversations

My school is in our first year adoption of the Lucy Calkins Units of Study for Middle Grades Reading.   Because some units are not published for 8th grade and because we are all bravely piloting the adoption together, all three grades have started with A Deep Study of Character for the first nine weeks.

The first session with a read aloud and guided discussion and practice with noticing character traits was this past Monday.  Though the lesson did not call for students to have a copy of the text, I realized after my first class my kids needed a hard copy of the mentor text.  During my planning that followed 1st period, I made copies of a marked up version so they could see the different sections or parts we would navigate in our read aloud.  In addition, I put together some slides to scaffold our conversations.  At the end of the day, I also typed up all the character traits we brainstormed across four classes and incorporated them into a set of mini-notes (these reviewed our big takeaways and the first part of our anchor chart on character traits) the students received to glue into their literacy notebooks the following day in class.

On Tuesday, students had the class period to practice our strategy for noticing character traits with their own independent reading novel.  I crafted a template to help students capture their character trait, their textual evidence, the page number, and the “what makes you say that” explanation to explain how the passage they selected exemplified the character trait.  Though I had even done some frontloading of this skill the previous week using the “Says, Thinks, Acts” strategy from Gravity Goldberg and felt I had followed all the elements of the Calkins read aloud lesson, I could see by looking at student work in progress many students were struggling with the concept of character traits and explaining how their textual evidence represented the trait.

On Wednesday, I used my phone and ProScanner app to snap some of the better pieces of student work.  I quickly printed and numbered these to create a gallery walk around the room using my always useful neon shop ticket pouches.  As students visited the stations, they used their literacy notebooks to record what the “exemplar” readers did in their work.

Once students visited as many of the 11 stations as they could in about 12-15 minutes, we came together as a group and talked about our noticings of moves the readers made with their work with character traits and how we might apply it to our own work moving forward.  The students then had the rest of the period to resume their character work with their independent reading novels.

On Thursday, students were asked to choose one of the character traits they had identified and a more in-depth reflection on how and where they were seeing that work in their books.  In addition, students made predictions about whether or not they felt the character trait would stay true deeper into the novel and why/why not.  Once students had completed these reflections (roughly a paragraph of 8-12 sentences), we did a speed dating activity to share our reflections.  I incorporated this into my instructional design to:

  1.  Give students an opportunity to engage in academic talk and their work with character traits.
  2.  Give students an opportunity to hear from each other about their books and characters.


In reading their final character trait work and their reflections, I feel these learning structures helped move students forward in their understanding of character traits.  Though I have not yet graded the assessment from this past Friday students took, I am hopeful the assessment will show gains in understanding as well as students were asked to read a short story and apply the character trait skills we practiced all week.  How do you go about “punting” and making adjustments when you see students are struggling with a particular reading or writing skill?

Supporting Student Book Clubs with Scaffolding Structures: Senior Book Club Meetings 2 and 3

Earlier this month, I shared the “glows” and “grows” of our first 12th ELA student book club meeting.   Building on the glows and grows of that meeting, I wanted to share some learning tools and structures I incorporated into the second book club meeting to help support student talk.

Support/Scaffold Structure 1:  Kickoff Quotes

To give students a tangible starting point for conversation, each student was asked to prepare a passage for discussion along with questions or talking points they wanted to share with the group.

For students who came prepared, this was an easy task to complete to get ready for the meeting of the day.   Those who did not hastily selected passages that did not provide the richness or depth of text to discuss as did the passages that had been selected with forethought.

Support/Scaffold Structure 2:  A Working Conversation Structure

I provided a loose conversation frame for all groups, but it was especially designed for two of my four groups that were struggling to sustain a meaningful conversation during the first meeting.  When I reviewed the conversation structure with the students, I told them they had flexibility with the framework, but it was there to help them make sure they were hitting all the conversation elements we were aiming for in our talk.  This tool, along with some better preparation by more students from week 1, was very successful as nearly every group had sustained and rich conversation in meeting 2 for nearly 40 minutes.   I didn’t see it being quite as successful for our third meeting this past Friday, March 16 as at least two groups (one that has struggled each week and one that had previously been very strong) simply read their passages and didn’t have much of any discussion about the how/why they chose the passage or why it was meaningful; fellow members didn’t speak up to ask questions or respond.  Right now I don’t know if the fact prom was 24 hours away was a factor, or if perhaps these two groups had just hit a little bit of a rough patch in their efforts.

Scaffold /Scaffold Structure 3:  Hard Copies of Conversation Stems and Conversation Ideas on Neon Paper

Though students had received a copy of the conversation stems and ideas for discussion on Monday, March 5, I printed up new copies on neon paper for the third meeting this past Friday (March 16).   Everyone received a copy to use for reference as needed during the meeting.

Scaffold /Scaffold Structure 4:  Modifying the Visual  Notetaking Medium

Though the visual notes were richer in meeting 2 compared to meeting 1 (see the exemplars below) I still found that there was uneven participation and contributions to the visual notetaking on butcher paper from group to another.  As you can see below, some groups had rich contributions from nearly every group member.

I wondered if perhaps modifying the visual notetaking medium might invite more active participation on this front from every student.  For the third meeting, I provided personalized “notetaking placemats” with the student name and his/her role for the week.  I included a placeholder for their “kickoff quote” and then plenty of space on the front and back for notetaking and drawing.  Like previous  weeks, each group received a supply caddy full of various Sharpies and markers.


Ironically, though some students did show more active participation with the visual notetaking and mindmapping of the group discussion, the majority of the student work fell flat with very few visual or written notes.  Again, I don’t know whether to attribute this unexpected outcome to the fact prom was less than 24 hours away, the fact that the same one who have come unprepared to every minute and not fully participated were the very same ones who struggled again in meeting 3, a combination of both factors, or perhaps some other variable I’m not aware of at this time.  I’m deciding right now if we should take a second pass with this medium or return to the butcher paper for the final meeting.  I wanted to use the visual notes as a visual record of meeting ideas for each group and put them on display, but this learning task is an area of struggle for most of my seniors even after showing them models prior to the first meeting and models from their classmates after the first meeting.  This aspect of book club meeting will be something for me to consider with more thought over the summer as to how to get more student engagement on this front and to help them better understand the purpose of the visual notes.  I’ve seen other students of a younger age do amazing work with visual notes of book club meetings in the moment, so I know what is possible, but I also must consider that this kind of learning task is new for most of these students.

One immediate intervention I WILL do this week prior to our last meeting:  I’m going to ask my exemplar group to talk to the class about how they go about their work and talk the class through their work—I think it will be powerful for students to hear tips from their peers in their own words, and I’m interested to see if this student led modeling/mini-lesson makes a difference whether we are doing visual notes and mindmapping the meeting ideas on butcher paper or individually.

Modified Self-Assessment

One final thing I did differently for the third book club meeting was to change up the format of the self-assessment.  Instead of a series of numbered questions, I presented the self-reflections in this format:


Interestingly enough, some students shared they found this format less “intimidating”, and some had more concrete talking points with this format.

Final Reflections and Next Steps

I felt most students really stepped up in terms of preparation and participation for the second book club meeting. As I mentioned earlier, the energy levels were up across the board and I could see more engagement from a larger number of students in the second meetings.

I was a little disappointed that some students seemed to take a step backward, though, for our third meeting this past Friday.  While students were participating, many were not as prepared as the previous week or two, and the energy level seemed lower compared to the last meeting.  I honestly think the impending prom was a factor, so I am hoping we will make our final and fourth book club meeting this Friday, March 23, our best yet.  I’m going to give students some extra prep time in class on Wednesday and forego our day of work with argumentative writing.  I also have some library time scheduled for students to do a little research on their book author and their social media presence to see if that adds to their understanding of the writer’s purpose with the book and any material to add to the conversation since one student had explored this angle and shared it with her group this past Friday.

What kinds of scaffolding or supports do you provide students to help them grow their student book club conversations?   What strategies do you like to help students grow their conversation and interaction skills with each other?

Deconstructing Argumentative Texts from the Wild: From Small Group Analysis to Making Our Thinking Public with Our Peers


At the end of February, we began a gentle entry into a study of argumentative writing.  Though seniors have theoretically had instruction in this kind of writing the previous three years, it is part of our 12th ELA district ELA standards, and more importantly, I know a focal point of entry level English courses in most Georgia universities.  Students first began by reading and taking notes on the opening chapter of Everything’s an Argument; I chose this text since it is one frequently used in English 1101 courses.

Small Group Analysis

Our next step was to work in small groups of three that I organized and to analyze a piece of real world argumentative writing.  Each group received one of the three mentor texts:

I chose newspaper editorials as a logical starting point for a mentor text, but I also felt the reading level would be accessible though I discovered quickly that assumption was wrong since the texts included concepts new to many students.  However, this provided students an opportunity to do some informal research to help them fill in gaps of background knowledge.

Students had several analytical tasks; while some of the tasks were open-ended, I provided scaffolding to support them in their deconstruction of the text:

Task 1:  Outline or Mindmap Your Article

Students worked together to identify the structure of the article.  Some groups began by partner reading and mapping the structure as they worked through the text; other groups read silently and independently before coming back together to collaborate on the task.  Groups could present or formal outline or mindmap their work in a way that made sense for them.  It was fascinating to see the different approaches and how detail oriented some groups were while others were not.

Task 2:  Claims and Counterclaims

Next, I used a graphic organizer to help students identify a claim in the essay and a counterclaim.  If the writer did not present a counterclaim, I asked students to come up with one they would compose if they were writing or co-writing the essay with the author.

Tasks 3 and 4:  SOAPS

Using the same graphic organizer, students were asked to analyze the SOAPS of the essay:  Subject, Occasion, Audience, Purpose, and Speaker.  In addition, I asked students to go back into Chapter 1  of Everything’s an Argument and identify some specific information for:

  • Purpose–they were to identify which purpose they felt was the dominant one and why using the definition from Chapter 1 of Everything’s an Argument.
  • Occasion:  students were asked to identify which occasion for argument best fit the essay and why, again using the definition from our text.

Task 5:  What’s the Word? or Word Wheel

Using this tool from the graphic organizer pack, this task asked students to think about diction and choose 8 words that stood out from the essay.  I also asked students to be prepared to explain their choices and how they felt it impacted the argument presented by the writer.

Task 6:  Analyzing Logos, Pathos and Ethos

We used another graphic organizer help us identify textual evidence for each rhetorical appeal and explain language used to create logos, pathos, and ethos in the essay.

The small group work took students most of our 90 minute block last week.  Nearly every group spent the majority of their time on the comprehension aspect of their articles, something I didn’t anticipate as I thought I had selected texts at an accessible reading level, but I realize now I underestimated their background knowledge of the topics of each of the three essays.

Making Our Thinking Public

One thing I have done regularly this year with all my classes–juniors and seniors–is to give them low stakes opportunities to speak in front of their peers.  Though some students sometimes chafe—some because they are shy, some because this activity forces them to be accountable for critical thinking—I think this experience is important for many reasons, but I especially see value in students being able to articulate their ideas to their fellow students, and for students to practice their listening skills and to learn from their peers.  Today groups got together and took about 12-15 minutes to revisit last week’s work and to plan how and what they wanted to share from their work.  Each group then presented using our new document camera.   The document camera was especially helpful today as students presented (each group took about 10-12 minutes to share) since their work was so visual, so they could SHOW as they told us their thinking.  Here are some screenshot of their work I captured easily with the document camera software:

As groups presented, the rest of the class took notes with this graphic organizer.

Not only do these low-stakes presentations give students an opportunity to practice speaking skills and sharing their ideas publicly with their peers, but these presentations also provide me an opportunity to engage in formative assessment to see patterns of understandings as well as gaps.  After listening to all my groups today, I know we need to revisit the types of purposes for argument as well as the occasions for argument.  In addition, I can see students understand ethos and logos fairly well, but they need help articulating how and why language can serve as pathos.  Students can also engage in informal self-assessment; as they listen to their peers, they can easily see if their work had more or less depth.  In addition, they can see and hear ideas, argumentative elements, details, and noticings that they missed OR that they saw that others didn’t.

At the end of the presentations, students had a chance to do a short written reflection and share which group best enhanced their understanding of argumentative writing structures and elements and why.  Moving forward, we’ll now do some targeted inquiry, analysis, and writing of argumentative texts to develop our understanding of elements that need additional study and revisiting.

Give Them Something To Talk About: Collaboration and Conversations with Reflection Squares

Like many of you, I am always looking for ways to engage students in conversation with each other.  After we finished reading Act II of Macbeth together last week, I wanted to give students a conversation structure to help them discuss their review questions as well as some bigger questions related to theme, what they perceived as important passages in the play, and questions or wonderings they were contemplating.

I did some strategic organization of small groups and gave each group one unique set of reflection tasks and then four common reflection tasks; I christened this activity reflection squares.  After reviewing the instructions and providing students with 11×17 paper and Sharpies, they began talking to each other as they worked through their reflection tasks.  This simple structure and set of tools generated some rich conversations and gave every student opportunities to contribute to their group’s understandings and collaborative responses.


After working together for about 30 minutes, groups finished their work and had a mini-poster to present to the class.  Roughly half the groups presented during the remaining time on Friday, and the other half presented their ideas and responses this past Monday.

The beauty of reflection squares is the flexibility and simplicity of the structure.  You can have whatever number of reflection squares you want and plug in discussion/talking points or questions of your choice.  If you are working on a budget and can’t purchase chart or tablet pads, you can easily punt with 11×17 paper.  You can also adapt it to any subject area and most age groups.  Most importantly, students are participating in meaningful dialogue with each other.  As I walked around and listened to what groups had to say, it was clear many were thinking critically; they also were actively listening to differing ideas with respect and responding to each other.   I also love that this activity creates small group conversation that then provides students low stakes presentation/public speaking opportunities to share and field questions from their peers.

From Notebook Time to Student Talk and Share: It’s Easy as A-B-C, 1-2-3

Many of us like to incorporate share time for students to share what they are thinking and writing during notebook time.   I’ve shared some ways I encourage students to speak up or interact during this share time because I have found most are reluctant to do so.  Another strategy that is easy to do is what I call ABC partners.  If you are providing a structured or guided prompt, simply break into three logical sub-prompts. As students write, I quietly walk around and give them a ticket that says, A, B, or C.  When writing/thinking time has ended, you can either instruct students to find a partner with the same letter or you could even form small groups by letter.

Today my seniors were asked to read two short articles on ways language evolves (article 1 and article 2).   This prompt was designed to activate/frontload some thinking prior to work they’ll do next week to explore the time period background for our first unit of literature study of British literature.  After roughly 20 minutes of time to read, reflect, and write, students found “like” partners by letter (again, A, B, or C).  They then worked together to talk, discuss, and craft a collaborate response to these questions around their assigned letter prompt:

I provided students chart paper and markers; they could create their responses in any way they wanted to organize their ideas.  After talking and writing for about 20 minutes, each pair of students then did an informal, low-stakes share out.  The questions they generated will now become questions they can explore as move into our first unit of British literature.

  • Why does it take longer for written language to evolve than spoken language?
  • Will people in the future think we talked in a weird or strange way (just as Old or Middle English sounds to us)?
  • What words might be most likely to change or evolve in the future?
  • How will changes in society, culture, and technology influence the way language evolves?
  • How exactly do languages form and begin?
  • How have other languages influenced the English language over time?
  • What kinds of words are most likely to stand the test of time?

I have been more intentional this year about finding ways to mix up share time and strategies for getting students talking about their ideas and responses from notebook time prompts.  Cris Tovani, author of No More Telling as Teaching, has influenced this professional effort to elevate student talk in meaningful and authentic ways.

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