Writing in Libraries: Processes and Pathways to Inquiry and Learning

Earlier this year, I wrote about the possibilities for libraries that embrace writing as the literacy of the masses and how libraries might function as more powerful sponsors of literacy if they were to be more inclusive of writing literacies. During the last year, my colleague Jennifer Lund and I have been collaborating with our faculty at Norcross High to explore the use of written conversation strategies with students as a starting point for inquiry and participatory learning. Inspired by a December 2013 Harvey Daniels workshop sponsored by our school district on written conversation strategies, Jennifer and I have explored the use of these strategies across different content areas with a variety of texts, teen learners, and adult learners.

One strategy in particular, the “write around text on text,” has yielded powerful results with our students. With a write-around, “small groups of kids write and exchange notes about a curricular topic for several rounds — maybe 5 to 15 minutes of sustained writing — and then they burst into out-loud talk that’s rooted in their extended written rehearsals” (Daniels 155). The write around text on text variation calls for students to “…annotate the same copy of a text at the same time, jotting down their responses in the margins” (Daniels 184). Students not only annotate multiple texts, but they then can dialogue with their peers by responding to the written annotations with a question, an opinion, a request for clarification, or further developing the idea with their own response that may be developed with evidence from the texts, personal experience, and/or prior knowledge.

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The texts may be teacher selected, student selected, or some combination of the above. While we use traditional forms of fiction and informational texts, we also sometimes throw in questions for students to write around. In addition, we interpret the notion of “text” broadly by including a variety of texts, including photographs, charts with data, infographics, videos, social media texts composed with tools like Storify, and physical objects. Student responses can be a statement, a question, or even a drawing/graphic representation of their ideas. The write around text on text can be an effective medium for students to either engage with texts they are using as part of content area study or as springboard to inquiry and topic selection for investigation. Our typical structure for writing around text on text includes:

      • 5-7 minutes to review some basic protocols of the activity; some teachers will preview these with students the day before if they feel their students need extra scaffolding or have not had much experience with written conversations. Some teachers will also scaffold student learning by integrating a smaller scale version of the activity in class with pairs or small groups of four students.
      • Depending on the texts, the learning targets, time constraints, and needs of the learners, students will then write quietly around the texts and their peers annotations for 10-25 minutes. For a class of 30-35 students, we will typically place two texts on a large sheet of butcher paper and place that butcher paper on a large table. We have found that eight tables with two texts for annotating is a good fit for most of our classes. Students can move about freely as they are ready, and we encourage them to take at least two passes by each table and its texts so that they can not only annotate the text but then respond to their peers annotations. We also tell students they can stand or sit as they write — we let them choose their comfort zone.
      • We then move to a small group response when the silent writing time is finished. We typically have students form groups of 3-4 people, and we provide them some type of open-ended prompt or reflection strategies to help them synthesize what they have read in terms of both the texts and the responses from their peers. 
      • We conclude with a large group share out that is usually co-facilitated by Jennifer, me, and/or the teacher. Students report out to the large group the highlights of their reflections and questions they’ve developed during the small group share time. One of our favorite ways of facilitating large group share is to use the large easel sized post-it notes or our Steelcase Verb whiteboards for students to record their ideas and to help them remember their talking points when it is their turn to share in front of the class. 

The beauty of the write around text on text is that it a flexible learning structure that can be adapted for multiple learning contexts across any subject area and with learners from kindergarten to college-age students. While we have followed the basic guidelines provided by Daniels, we also give ourselves permission to improvise and adapt in response to the needs of our students or to tailor it more specifically to learning goals that can further inquiry.

Feedback we have received from students includes:

      • They enjoy and appreciate hearing many student voices, something that sometimes gets silenced in traditional class discussions.
      • They like being able to see different perspectives on a text or topic; several remarked how the written conversations helped them see something they had not noticed before or how the responses of their peers changed their stance on a text or topic. We see that they begin to understand learning is social and how meaning can be constructed together.
      • Students like the freedom in being able to physically move about and respond at their own pace during the write-around.
      • Students are focused on ideas, not grammar or spelling.
      • Everyone has opportunities to contribute to the written and oral discussions.
      • Students often remark that this activity is one that helps them think more critically and deeply.
      • Students are usually surprised by how fast the time passes and they can do sustained writing as long as they do.
      • Many students love the “freedom” of the space of the media center/library and being able to participate in the activity without feeling “confined” by the space constraints and seating arrangements of the traditional classroom (a point which we feel supports our efforts in progress of transforming our library into a learning studio for teachers and students!)

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What has struck us time after time is how deeply so many students (adult and teen!) engage with the texts and the activity. Jennifer and I are continually astonished by the impact of these low-tech learning tools: markers and butcher paper. The trajectory of energy has been consistent with nearly every group as the writing intensity is like a crescendo in music. For us, we love that learners get to use writing as a process for metacognition and that it is a pathway to learning with many points of access. This type of writing is a departure from the other types of formal or creative writing students do in the library that are usually summative in nature; instead, these written conversations are a formative means to help them move from point A to B in their learning.

As I have been sharing out my efforts on my blog over the past year, I’ve been delighted to see other school librarians adapting these strategies as a mode for learning with students and teachers in their libraries this year. My friend and fellow librarian Sara Kelley-Mudie of the Hawken School in Northeastern Ohio recently used the write around text on text strategy to help students select topics for an inquiry unit on World War I. Sara and I recently chatted about her experiences and thoughtful insights in using write-arounds to help students discover and introduce topics for research:

I invite you to read Sara’s recent blog post about her use of written conversation strategies.

As you can see, we are all excited to continue to interpret written conversation strategies and to utilize them for a variety of learning contexts as part of our collaborative work with teachers and students. When I think about Deborah Brandt’s assertion that writing literacies will become the dominant literacy of the masses (161-162), I can’t help but wonder how opportunities to utilize writing in ways like these will help our students for real world as well as academic learning situations and how we as librarians can re-invent the ways that libraries function as meaningful and positive sponsors of literacy. If you are interested in reading more extended pieces, viewing videos, and seeing photo sets about the ways librarians and teachers are using written conversation strategies, please bookmark my Pinterest board that is a work in progress. In my next post, I will share additional ways (low-tech, high-tech, and a hybrid of the two) I’m integrating writing literacies into inquiry processes through collaborative partnerships in the library. 

Works Cited

Brandt, Deborah. “How Writing Is Remaking Reading.” Literacy and Learning: Reflections on Writing, Reading, and Society. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2009. 161-76. Print.

Daniels, Harvey, and Elaine Daniels. The Best-kept Teaching Secret: How Written Conversations Engage Kids, Activate Learning, and Grow Fluent Writers, K-12. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2013. Print.

Photos by Buffy J. Hamilton