Writing to Deepen Our Thinking; Writing to Share Our Thinking With the World (Action Research Part 4)

This is the fourth post in a series of posts I am writing about my action research project. If you are interested in reading part one, just click here. If you are interested in reading part two, just click here. If you are interested in reading part three, just click here

For years, I have asked my students to write in response to their reading.  I have asked them to write reading response letters to me, I have asked them to write paragraphs in their reading journals, I have asked them to write letters to each other about their reading. None of it ever gave me what I wanted.

Look back on it now, I realize there was one HUGE reason that I never got what I wanted.  And it was this: I had no idea WHAT I wanted.

I didn’t know why I was asking my students to write about their reading. I knew that they were supposed to write about their reading, but I never really stopped to give much thought as to why.  What could my students gain by writing in response to what they have read? Why should I ask my students to do this kind of writing?

So the place that I needed to begin this year was not with fixing my students’ thinking, but with fixing my own thinking. I needed to figure out my purpose in having kids write about their reading. And here is where I landed: I believe that when we write about our thinking, our thinking deepens. In the same way that conversations can deepen our thinking, writing can deepen our thinking too. Often when I write a blog post, I end up in a different place in my own thinking by the end of my writing. I want this for my students. I want them to know the power that they have to deepen their own thinking by writing it out in words across a page or across a screen. I want them to feel the power of using their own words to bring them to a new understanding and a new place in their thinking.  This is why I want them to write about the thinking they do as they read. I want them to deepen their thinking through writing.

But there is more.  I also want them to be able to share their thinking with others. So often, I am in awe of the thinking that my students share with me in our one-on-one conferences. I don’t want to keep this incredible thinking just between us. I want their classmates to be able to learn and grow from their thinking and I want people beyond the walls of our classroom to learn and grow from their thinking.  I want to show my students how they can use writing to share their thinking with the world. I want to show my students that this world has something to gain by reading the words that they write about the thoughts they having inside of their own minds. This is why I want them to write about the thinking they do as they read. I want them to share their thinking with the world through writing.

Once I had a better understanding of my purposes, then I was better able to create a task for my students that would be able to meet these purposes. Here is what we have done so far:

I have already talked about how I have changed the way that my students use their reading journals this year.  This year, their reading journals are a place to take notes on the careful observations they are making and the investigations they are doing as they read. Their journals are filled with charts and bullet-pointed lists and drawings.  Their journals are filled with the pieces of thinking that they are gathering as they read.

This year, my students’ journals are not where their writing about their reading is taking place. Instead, they are a place to gather that thinking.  One of the complaints that I heard from my students in the past is that they felt that when I asked them to put together a weekly written response about their reading, they were just rewriting the things they had already written in their reading journals in order to hand them in to me.  They felt this was a waste of time. They felt it held no meaning and no purpose. They felt that they gained nothing from it.

They were right.

And so, as the purpose of our reading journals shifted, so did the purpose of our writing.  Now, the writing that I would ask them to do would be a putting together, a synthesis, of the notes that they took in their reading journals.  And I couldn’t just ask them to do this work and expect them to understand the purpose.  I quickly realized that I had to explicitly show them the purpose of this kind of writing.  They are used to writing for an audience.  They are used to their writing serving the purpose of entertaining, persuading or informing the reader. They had never been taught that sometimes, writing is for the writer. Sometimes, we write in order to deepen our thinking. Sometimes, we write in order to end up in a new place in our thinking.

So I spent a lot of time modeling for them how I took my own notes from my reading journals and I took those notes and started writing about what I realized from my notes or what patterns I noticed in my notes or what understandings I arrived at from putting together my notes. And I modeled for them how sometimes as I write, I end up with new thinking and that new thinking becomes a part of my writing as well.  I had to show them how to write for this new purpose, because it was not something that they had been asked to do before.

Too often, I assume that my students will just “get” things and then I get frustrated with them when they don’t. And so often, when I stop and reflect I realize that they don’t “get” things because I have not done enough modeling or guiding.

So once I began to show them this new purpose for writing, once I began to show them how writing could deepen their own thinking, then it was time to ask them to give it a try.  But, I didn’t want this writing to happen in their notebooks because that would not serve my second purpose, which was that their writing should help to share their thinking with the world.  When I ask students to write in their notebooks, I am sending the message that this writing is only worthy of being seen by me, their teacher.  I am sending the message that this writing is only worth doing so that I can see it and assess it.  Instead, I wanted to send the message that this writing has value to others, to the world.

Enter our blogs.

This year, for the first time, each of my students is keeping his/her own blog on Kidblog.org. It’s been an incredible learning experience for me and an incredible opportunity for my students. I have seen so many benefits in asking my students to blog and I know there are so many undiscovered opportunities for me to still realize.  These blogs also provided the PERFECT place to ask my students to do their writing about their reading so that they could share their thinking with each other and with the world.

Like everything else, I began slowly with this work.  I first shared a blog post about my own reading that I had written.  I showed my students my reading journal and the notes that I had collected in it.  Then I showed them how I took these notes and synthesized them into a blog post.  Here is the first blog post I shared with them: http://kidblog.org/MrsLifshitzAMClass/7dca61ad-b26d-4a15-a791-0f8dc327cec2/this-week-as-a-reader/

As a class, we analyzed my writing. And my students created a list of the kinds of things that they might want to write in their own blog posts.  The list that we began with was:

1) A brief description of the book you have been reading

2) An explanation of your reading focus: what you have noticed and what you wanted to pay attention to

3) An example or two of the things that you have collected so far in your reading journal

And this is where we started.  After reading their first reading blog posts, I was blown away at what I was getting. Their writing had voice, it sounded so natural, they were sharing deep pieces of thinking instead of listing a myriad of unrelated, shallow pieces of thinking.  They were great!

I also realized that I had not shown them yet how they should be coming to NEW realizations in their blog posts. Things that weren’t already written in their reading journals. So I wrote another blog post where I tried to do just that.  Here is the second blog post of mine that I shared with them: http://kidblog.org/MrsLifshitzAMClass/7dca61ad-b26d-4a15-a791-0f8dc327cec2/my-reading-work-with-the-witchs-boy/

After reading this blog post as a class, we added something to our list of what the kids should include in their own posts. Here is what we added:

4) A new realization or understanding that you have reached as a result of looking at the notes you have gathered and writing about those notes.

When looking at my students’ second round of blog posts, I saw that some of them had already started to include this kind of thinking.  Before writing their third round of posts, I shared one more of my own reading blog posts. Here is the third one that I shared with them: http://kidblog.org/MrsLifshitzAMClass/7dca61ad-b26d-4a15-a791-0f8dc327cec2/the-paper-cowboy/

Again, we looked at this as a class and we realized that we could also try to include some writing about what we were learning from the books that we were reading.

What I noticed is that each time I modeled a new way to write about our reading, there were kids who went off and tried to do those things in their own writing. Of course, there were also a lot of kids who weren’t able to do those new things just yet and that simply provided me with teaching points for those students.

So we have now reached a point where the kids know that they are expected to write one reading blog post every two weeks.  At first, we all wrote them on the same day and submitted them on the same day, but now, the kids have the set expectation of needing to write one blog post every two weeks and they are able to choose when they want to write that post. In this way, they can write when they feel they have something to say.  On the final Friday of the two-week span, anyone who has not yet submitted a blog post is asked to write one during independent reading that day.  This system seems to be working well for us.

I do not grade these blog posts.  Instead, Kidblog.org allows me to write private comments that can be seen ONLY by me and by the writer of the blog post.  The kids LOVE getting this kind of feedback.  I often point out things that I notice the student doing and I also offer suggestions on how they can push their writing and thinking next time. I have loved seeing that most of my students respond to my comments without me ever asking them to do so.

Another wonderful thing about these blog posts, is that they provide ANOTHER opportunity for the kids to learn from each other. We take time in class to read each other’s blog posts and leave comments for each other.  The students often choose to leave comments for their classmates filled with incredible feedback.  I am also able to use the kids’ blog posts as mentor texts and as a class we analyze what we notice writers doing well so that other writers can try to do similar things.

I realize how incredibly long this blog post has gotten. If anyone is still reading, let me begin by saying how surprised I am by that! I really just wanted to solidify our journey with our reading blog posts so that I can look back and realize how far we have come.  This new way of writing about our reading has really energized my students.  I even overheard a reluctant reader and writer saying to her friend, “This is actually fun!” as she was putting together her first reading blog post.  It warmed my heart to hear what a change in attitude these kids were experiencing as we began to change the way that we wrote about our reading.

And finally, if you are interested, here are a few examples of my students’ blog posts that have really blown me away and impressed me:

Danielle’s Post on Rain Reign

Morissa’s Post on The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Sari’s Post on Unstoppable

Drew’s Post on Breaking Stalin’s Nose

Brady’s Post on The Unwanteds #3

Getting Out of the Way and Letting the Kids Lead the Learning (Action Research Part 3)

This is the third post in a series of posts I am writing about my action research project. If you are interested in reading part one, just click here. If you are interested in reading part two, just click here

After a few weeks of working one-on-one with students, modeling the kind of thinking that I was expecting in their reading journals in whole class lessons and small group lessons, each of my students was working on specific reading focuses in their reading journals.  Each student was paying attention to something and collecting his/her observations in a way that worked for that particular student.  And I was so proud.  And then I realized that we had a really, really long way still to go.

While I was happy with the work that my students were doing, I realized that they were still pretty much completely dependent on me to help them find a reading focus.  They were not yet noticing their own observations and they were not able to craft these observations into something that they wanted to know, something that they wanted to pay attention to, something that they needed to discover.  Instead, they patiently waited for me to come and meet with them to figure out what they should be paying attention to and how they might pay attention to it.  While I was thrilled that this work was taking place, I was unsure of how I would ever break their dependency on me.

Enter my students.

One day, one of my students asked if he could share the work he was doing in his journal with the rest of the class because he was really proud of it.  This year, I began the year with a goal of talking less and allowing my students to talk more. I wanted them to create ideas that worked for them. I wanted them to take ownership over their own learning.  And one way that I had started to try to do that was to really listen to my students’ ideas. Not just listen, nod and then forget about the idea. But, listen, agree and ask them, “What do you need from me in order to do that?” I quickly found that as I put their ideas into action, they trusted that I wanted to hear their ideas and they kept coming up with more and more of them to share with me. It was a wonderful cycle.

So when my student asked me if he could share his reading work with the class, I said, “Of course!” And what began that day was perhaps the most powerful piece of my action research project so far. Because that was the day that I finally got out of the way and allowed my students to teach each other.  And that was the day that the “share” part of our reading workshop finally became valuable and meaningful and purposeful for all of my students.

What I saw that day was that a “share” session could be more than just one student talking about his work in order to make that student feel good about the work he had done. What I saw that day was that the last few minutes of our reading workshop could be the most important because they could allow my students to learn from and be inspired by each other.  I wasn’t the only one who could help show them how to notice their own thinking and use it to come up with particular reading focus and a way to keep track of the observations that came from that focus.  They could share their work with each other and learn from each other.

But they had to really learn how to learn from each other.

One of the first things that I did in order to revamp our reading share, was that I asked my students why they thought teachers had students share their work. The answers were, again, so honest and so eye-opening.  One student said that he believed teachers had kids share their work because then people got to talk about what they were proud of.  One student said that she thought it was because it motivated kids to do good work so that the teacher would choose them to share with the class.  One lovely, and oh-so-honest, child told me that she believed that teachers let kids share because it took up time at the end of the class. I love hearing the reasons why kids think we do what we do. And who knows, maybe for some teachers, this last student is right!

What I noticed right away is that not one child said anything about having kids share so that other kids could learn from the brilliance of the work being talked about. Not one child seemed to realize that they were supposed to listen in order to learn from each other. And who could blame them? I, certainly, have never bothered to explain to my students the purposes for sharing our work. Yes, I told them they should listen to each other. Yes, I told them to be respectful when other students were talking. But, I never even thought to tell them that they should listen to each other in order to be inspired by each other and to gain new ideas for their own work.

And so, we started to have these conversations. I started to share with them ways that I heard ideas kids shared and thought about how other kids could use those ideas. I started to share with them that when I heard a good idea, I often asked questions to help me better understand how I might be able to use this idea too. I started to share with them that when I heard an idea that I liked, I often made sure to tell the person with the idea a specific thing that I thought would work for me. And as I started to share these things with the kids, I noticed that they were beginning to do them as well.

And every single time that I noticed a child was listening in a way that allowed her to learn from someone else’s ideas, I complimented them and pointed it out to the class. When a student shared how he might use someone’s idea in his own work, I made sure the class knew what a huge deal that was. When a student said that what she saw one child doing in one book could be something that she could do in her book, I made sure to acknowledge just how smart that student was being. And the kids began to notice and our sharing time began to change. It had more meaning and it had more purpose and it was actually helping the kids to begin to break their dependency on me.

As our reading share began to evolve, I noticed that kids were stating how they planned to use each other’s ideas in their own work. I noticed that the feedback that they gave each other became more specific. And, most importantly, I began to see the students trying out the ideas of other students in their own reading journals. I had proof that they were learning from each other. I had proof that I was officially not the only teacher in the room any longer.

I also noticed another exciting change in the way we shared our reading. In the past, my reading share quickly morphed into kids providing five to ten minute summaries of the books they were reading. Other kids would ask questions about the plots and maybe, just maybe, the child sharing would talk about a prediction they had.  However, now, our sharing time has finally become more about the thinking that the kids are doing as they read than about the books themselves.

Don’t get me wrong, I love having kids talk about the books they are reading with each other. It’s just that I think there are more effective ways to do that. We share the books we are reading through a Google Doc and Google Form that one of my students created for the class. We share the books we are reading through the QR codes we create that are linked to 30-second audio recordings of book commericals that the kids have made. We share the books we are reading through the informal conversations and book talks that the kids are constantly having. We share the books we are reading through the blog posts that we write about our books. There are many opportunities for the kids to talk about and learn about the plots of the books that we are reading.

And now there is also a time where we get to learn about the thinking that we are doing as we read. This reading share has become such a purposeful and meaningful time of our reading workshop. Where it used to be the first thing that I cut out when we didn’t have enough time, now it is something that the kids really demand because they are eager to share AND they are eager to learn from each other.  Now it has meaning. Now it has purpose. Now my students have a chance to learn more from each other than they do from me on any given day. And we still have a long way to go in order to break their dependency on me, but changing our reading share was a huge step in the right direction. Getting out of the way and letting the kids lead the learning, has been one of the most powerful changes I have made this year.