Mixed-Ability and Mixed-Grade Literature Circles

Tying shoes. A simple activity that’s typically performed one or more times daily. Once people learn how to tie shoes, they can do so almost without thinking. One of my favorite activities to do with teachers and students is to teach them how to tie their shoes in a different way, one that is supposedly quicker and more efficient. The task challenges thinking. It builds community with groups of educators who know each other and those who are meeting for the first time. Once groups move…

Source: Mixed-Ability and Mixed-Grade Literature Circles

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Tableau #3 : Collaboration, Repetition, & Movement

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Summer!  I have had the opportunity to spend time at EduFest in Boise, Idaho.  Boise is a beautiful city, and despite temperatures over 100, I have been pleasantly surprised by the beauty, food, outdoors, and friendliness of the people.  EduFest has also been a great learning experience. The audience for this conference is intended for educators and administrators working with gifted and talented students.  Most of the strategies and activities presented in the various sessions would be beneficial for any student.

In one of the sessions that I have attended, I was introduced to a variation of the Tableau Activity that I have written about in previous posts.  In a tableau, individuals use their bodies to create a frozen picture representing an object, idea, scene, etc. The frozen picture should include expression, large gestures, and different levels. The session I attended at EduFest was led by Cloyce Weaver from Ontario, Canada. The idea behind the variation described here is to reinforce understanding through collaboration, repetition, and movement. I have modified the activity, but the premise is similar to the original idea introduced in the session.

The example we used in the session was photosynthesis, which I will use here to explain the basic concept in the steps below:

  1. Students find a space in the room.  The teacher provides the initial instruction, “Be the sun.”  Students create an frozen picture of the sun.
  2. The teacher directs students to find a partner. Students pair up and are given another direction, “The two of you represent clouds and rain.” The pair creates a frozen picture, which can become animated when directed, representing this part of the cycle.
  3. The teacher directs students to create a group of three with classmates they have not yet been with. Once the groups have been formed, the teacher gives the following direction, “As a group of three, become the seed of a plant that begins to grow.”  The group performs the action.
  4. Students are then directed to form a group of four.  “As a group of four, create four tableaus depicting the entire cycle.”
  5. After the group of four presents, the teacher has students return to their original solo spots to become the sun. Next, the students find the spots in the room where as partners they became the rain clouds. They find the spot and become the clouds.  The process continues until they perform the final group tableau.

The activity can be extended to include larger groups and eventually the whole class. It can be easily adapted for any nonfiction readings regarding a type of process.  It has also can be used to summarize fiction. Students could become the setting and characters as the various tableaus move the class through the plot or storyline. The tableaus could also include the big ideas in the reading, themes, figurative language, and basic analysis. These ideas would take a more processing time, but the repetition and movement may help students recall the information later and apply it to future writing and comprehension assignments.

Full Circle Connections

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Class is over!  Three simple words that can portray a very different meaning depending on the tone of the delivery. On some days, the utterance of these words indicates great joy as students scutter out of the classroom.  On other days, these words are aired with despair due to the excitement of the day’s activities. In both situations, the effectiveness of the ending is important to capture student learning and direct future decisions. Making the ending meaningful and effective for student learning takes planning, time, structure, and commitment.

There are several ways teachers choose to end the class period. Popular ways to end include the utilization of exit slips and written reflection.  Unfortunately, when pacing is off and time is escaping, class endings tend to be cut short, rushed, or eliminated altogether. While this is going to happen from time to time, habitual exercise of these endings ultimately impacts the overall effect and impact of student learning.

One of the class ending protocols that I find both enjoyable and impactful is what I call the Full Circle Connection protocol.  In this protocol, students are taught the routines of how to circle up in both small group formations and large group formations. Teaching students how to circle up in both formation increases variety in how this protocol can be used. Teachers may wish to use small groups for time-restricted moments or in-depth moments. The large group formation may be used when more time is available or to get a feel for the whole class experience.  Teaching student circle up routines should include moving furniture (desks, chairs, etc.) if needed and what it means to arrange the group or groups into a circle. Depending on the purpose of the circle, arranging chairs for a seated conversation should be practiced or standing in place should be modeled. Practicing body movement such as eye contact, body positions, and other good listening gestures can be highlighted to improve social skills and interactions.

At the ending of a class, devoting 10 minutes as a closing activity could be powerful. An example of what that might look like could be:

Summary Example:

  1. Project a prompt for students to summary the main points of the activity or lesson.
  2. Provide one-minute of think time.
  3. Provide 30 seconds of move time (to small group circles–yes, this can be done if the routine is practiced).
  4. Assign a leader to begin (could be a class job or in a creative way with objects, cards, descriptor…person wearing the most orange, etc.)
  5. Each student provides a brief summary (limited to a minute).
  6. After 5-7 minutes, groups return to seats or to whole-class formation.
  7. Leaders from each group provide a summary statement.

Formulating Questions Example:

  1. Project a prompt for students to write a higher-order thinking question based on the activity or lesson.
  2. Provide two-minutes of think time (this will take longer until students have practice with the routine).
  3. Provide 30 seconds of move time.
  4. Assign a leader.
  5. Each student takes turn reading his or her question without commentary from other students (10 seconds per student).
  6. The group decides on a question to explore.
  7. Each student takes one-minute to respond to the question.
  8. After 7 minutes, group returns to whole-class formation.
  9. Leaders share question with whole group.  A list is generated for future exploration.

For me, I would have students stand in a circle during these moments.  Each example could be expanded into a much larger lesson. Practicing these routines will eventually increase the flow and pacing. Honoring the learning can help with recall and it can lead to deeper discoveries.  Circles create an more intimate experience empowering students both socially and emotionally. Building this level of support in a classroom opens students up to seek clarification and explore topics at a higher level. If teachers respond to these connections, formative feedback can positively impact student learning.

Generating Questions to Spark Action

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Spring is one of my favorite times of the year.  I love when trees and flowers start to show their colors brightening the days and moods of people abound. Spring is a time of rejuvenation.  It is also the perfect time to bring some element of novelty to the classroom and to teacher training sessions.

In searching for a way to bring novelty into a recent teacher team meeting, I modified the Color Question Brainstorming described in Groups at Work: Strategies and Structures for Professional Learning by Laura Lipton and Bruce Wellman. In my version of the activity, I started off by asking the team a thought-provoking question or them to reflect on by completing a think-write-pair-share activity.  The purpose is for the participants thinking about a topic in a way that reduces judgment and opens thinking. Rather than ending the conversation at this point, the team is divided into teams of 2-4 with each team given a color: Green, Red, or Blue.

In three locations in the meeting space, a poster is hung where participants will generate questions.

  • Green Questions: Imagination, Ingenuity, Possibility
  • Red Questions: Facts, Figures, Data
  • Blue Questions: Judgments, Opinions, Values, Needs

Using the initial question in addition to any other parameters needed to focus thinking, teams generate a list of questions based on the word headings of their assigned color. For example, if team members were assigned to discuss adopting a new novel to use at a specific grade level, the following questions might be developed:

  • Green:  What might happen if the team adopted several titles for literature circles instead of large volumes of a single novel title?
  • Red: What is the data that supports instruction for whole-class novels vs. literature circles?
  • Blue:  What is the best way to meet the needs of students to experience an additional novel title at _____ grade?

After a specified amount of time, team members move clockwise to a different color. They spend time reviewing questions created by other team members and mark what they feel are the most important, vital, or interesting questions. They then add to existing questions for clarification, or they add additional questions.

After a specified amount of time, they rotate to the third set of questions and complete the same actions as they did with the second set.

The final rotation involves participants returning to their original posters to review marked questions, comments, and added questions. Teams discuss and then return to their seats.

Once teams have had the opportunity to rotate and discuss, a large group discussion occurs highlighting topics/questions that stood out. The team uses this information as a way to help direct action items for future meetings and discussions.

This activity stretches thinking and opens up the possibilities that may have been hindered with a simple brainstorming procedure.

Blue Tape Wonder

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Teaching writing to middle school students can be a “sticky” process.  There a variety of philosophies regarding structure and flow as well as purpose and state testing preparation.  Many students have anxiety around writing.  Some struggle with coming up with ideas.  Some fear being right. Some are perfectionists. Others have trouble with analysis and higher-order thinking processes. Forcing students to remain seated throughout the entire writing process can further strengthen these responses.  Getting students moving during the writing instruction and production can help alleviate these barriers.

This activity requires mild preparation and has room for numerous variations.  I like to call this activity Blue Wonder.

Prior to class, the teacher places a large strip of blue painter’s tape on each student desk. Each student is provided with a sharpie (or pen).  Students may vary how they proceed based on the writing focus for the lesson.  For the purpose of explaining the activity, let’s assume the teacher provided students with a claim statement.  Working in groups of four, students work on supporting the claim statement. One student may write down a topic sentence for a paragraph.  Another student might write a piece of evidence.  A third student might compose an analysis statement. The fourth student may work on a commentary statement.  The goal is for the group to work together to discuss the composition of a paragraph (or partial paragraph) to support the claim. Once the students are completed, they find an area on the wall and tape their paragraph together. They are reminded throughout the activity that a goal is to make their ideas “stick” (or memorable).

To add more movement to this activity, a body movement can be developed to remind students of the function of the sentences they are writing. These may be teacher created, class created, or group created. For example, for the topic sentence, students might connect arms followed by pointing to their heads to symbolize the importance of connecting the topic sentence of a body paragraph to the claim sentence reminding students to stay on topic while they are writing. These gestures can be depicted in a small sketch included prior to the writing of the topic sentence on the blue tape.  During the class discussion of the various paragraphs, group members (and/or class members) can perform the movements as each sentence is read or discussed.  The point is to not only add more movement but also to make a mind-body link to the writing process.

Adding movement and small group work to the writing process can help reduce anxiety and can help stimulate the thinking process. This activity can be modified for different writing forms. For example, when writing a narrative, various sentences may represent the importance of dialogue or descriptive language regarding the setting. When writing poetry, the blue strips may represent sensory imagery or figurative language.

Blue tape allows for students to reveal their ideas by unrolling it, or it can help remind them of the “stickiness” needed in their writing. It also can be a space saver; however, sentence strips or other materials can be used.  

While this activity has middle schoolers in mind, it can be adapted for any grade level.

Bubble Discussions

soap-bubble-386641_960_720I had the opportunity of listening to a keynote by Stephen Sroka last week.  At one point, Dr. Sroka took out a little bottle of bubbles, took a deep breath, and blew bubbles into the audience.  He took three breaths and blew bubble three times to simulate relaxation breathing. I sat there thinking that I wanted to use this technique in my classroom. I know that physical activity helps to reduce stress and anxiety as well as stimulate the mind. Purposeful breathing paired with reflection helps open the mind to deep thinking. I wondered if there was a way to incorporate movement, breathing, and discussing, so I began brainstorming ideas to combine all three.  This led to an activity I call Bubble Discussions.

This activity involves all three with the idea that in order for students to participate in deep-thinking conversations, they need to feel respected, calm, and stimulated to engage effectively.

Step 1:  Students read a meaningful text.  The topic of this short text (no more than two pages) is high-interest with multiple interpretations possible.

Step 2:  The teacher chooses quotes from the text to display around the room.  In addition to these quotes, the teacher may choose to include visuals (pertaining to topic) and quotes from other power texts.  Between 8-12 pieces of paper are hung around the room.

Step 3:  Students walk around the room.  Using highlighters, they mark the texts identifying words or phrases that are meaningful or resonating with them at that moment.  If visuals are used, students highlight specific elements of the visual they find powerful.  For example, a facial expression or the lighting of an object in the setting may stimulate a connection a student is making.

Step 4:  When prompted, students will return to their seats. The teacher will provide three speech bubbles to the students.  Students complete each speech bubble with a thought they have about a specific observation they made viewing the texts.  Students then place each speech bubble next to the identified text.

Step 5:  Students walk around the room looking at the marked texts and reading the corresponding speech bubbles.

Step 6:  The teacher posts an overarching discussion question.  While students are reflecting on the activity and the question, students take out bubbles.  Each student, as directed, take a deep breath and blow bubbles.  They do this three times while thinking about the discussion question.

Step 7:  Class Discussion

This activity provides students with several moments to process.  They process the text they read, comparison texts and visuals, and the discussion question. Providing students with multiple opportunities helps them successfully prepare for class discussion.  At any point during this activity, the teacher can build time for students to complete a think-pair-share or a small group share.  

Untie the Thinking

shoelace-2211218_960_720One of the activities that I like to do was inspired by the forced analogy process.  For this activity, students are given a shoelace. I used to use pieces of yarn, but I have found that using colorful shoelaces (I ordered some from Amazon) are better because they are more durable, and they can be easily put in the wash.  

As a hook, I often will give students the shoelace as they enter the classroom. This gives students a type of fidget, but it also sparks the curiosity of the brain.

I call this activity Shoelace Construction. This activity builds to challenge thinking, build community, and deepen conversations.

  1. Students are given a prompt:  Using the shoelace, create a visual depicting your current thinking regarding_______________ and ______________.
  2. After students create their visuals, they share with an elbow partner.
  3. Students are given the next prompt:  Now with a partner, combine your thinking into a new visual.  
  4. After they create their visuals, they share with a neighboring pair.
  5. Students are given the final prompt:  Join with another pair.  As a group of four, create a visual that represents how________________ shapes our learning of ____________________.

The level of creativity is fun to watch.  Students will often choose to get out of their seats and create a larger visual using their bodies and the shoelaces. The prompts can be used in a variety of ways as well as a formative assessment.  The visuals + body connections enable students to solidify content to their memory. Taking snapshots of the creations can also be used to remind students of connections at a later date.