Monday, October 13, 2014

Write arounds for topic selection

A couple weeks ago one of the Humanities teachers approached me about introducing some resources for students who would be doing research papers on World War I. As we talked, I realized that my introduction of resources would be the the introduction students would be getting to this research paper, and so I asked about doing some topic-selection work with students to get started. I then briefly outlined the concept of write-arounds, and the teacher was excited to try something new as an opener for the research paper.

I'd never done a write around before, but I'd read about all of Buffy Hamilton's work with the idea and was eager to try it out. I was also a little nervous, as this was my first time collaborating with this teacher and I really wanted this to go well.

After a little consultation with the teacher, I dug into our primary source databases, and did some other World War I searching (the 100 year anniversary of the start of the war means that there is a LOT of great World War I resources out there, including several excellent Twitter feeds). I tried to pick out things that would provide some background knowledge and also spark questions that could lead to future research. Since this was an introduction to World War I, I couldn't rely on students having any background knowledge.

I found a pile of great articles and images, and then sifted through to find the best of the best. We had a class of 28, so I made seven groupings of five different passages and images. Often there were connections (direct or implied) between at least two of the articles submitted, but each collection represented a range of events. Some of the articles appeared in more than one set, but no two collections were exactly alike. I taped each grouping on a separate piece of large chart paper and I also bought a bunch of different-colored pens, so each group member would have a different color--I almost forgot to do this, but am so glad I did. Everyone having a different colored pen makes it easier for me and the teachers to "see" the conversations, and to better understand how different students interacted with the text.


 And it was awesome. I was amazed at how quickly students engaged with the text. We have a strong culture around annotation here, which definitely helped, but it was still amazing to see how focused and engaged students were. Papers quickly filled up with writing and lines and questions and images--and the occasional disagreement about an interpretation.

After--this represents about 10 minutes of write-around time

After giving them some writing time, I asked each group to select a scribe who would write down "What we discovered" and "What we're still wondering about" lists for their group and email them to me. Students quickly moved from quiet work to small group discussions about the texts they'd been reading.

Next, we came back for a large group discussion and I asked students to share what they discovered and what they were wondering about. Several hands shot up immediately, and students added to their peers' questions and discoveries by sharing what they'd learned from their own write arounds. Eventually I had to cut off the conversation so I could review next steps in the process--and several students were visibly disappointed. I want to emphasize this--I had to cut off an intense conversation about World War I research at 3:00 on a Friday afternoon. I was there and I still can't quite believe it.

I spent the last portion of class giving them a brief overview of some of the sources on the LibGuide for their class that would be helpful as they explore these questions and settle on a research topic. No database reviews or source-type requirements--just a "choose your own" exploration to help them get a bit more familiar. 

After class, I compiled each group's "Discovered/Wondering" lists into one big document and posted it to the class LibGuide so all could reference it. I also took pictures of each write around and compiled it into a slideshow--both so students could reference their own work, but also so they could see what their peers had been learning about. I'm excited to go back to this class and see what kinds of research topics they've settled on. 

If I were to do this as a pre-searching activity again (which I think I may have the opportunity to do), I'd like to try having students move between different sets of articles--perhaps moving between different themed groupings or responding to the same articles/topics in different contexts. I loved how the low-stakes process of the write-around made diving into a new topic so inviting--I think this is a process that will definitely help nudge more research towards inquiry. 


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