May 7, 2015

Collaborative Thinking Through Writing, Libraries, Markerboards

Categories: Educational Practice, Research
students gathered around table in library working on writing project

How might mediums for writing in school libraries be opportunities to grow academic literacies for students across different grades and academic tracks? How might these opportunities to engage in both individual and collaborative writing experiences as pathways to academic literacies close participation gaps and make literacy as a social practice more visible to students and teachers (Kiili, Mäkinen, and Coiro 224)? I recently partnered with teachers Sean O’Connor, Dan Bynre, and James Glenn to incorporate writing literacies as part of larger inquiry activities for two very different classes: 9th-grade Language Arts and IB Theory of Knowledge.

Formulating Research Questions with Birds of Feather Groups and Markerboard Surfaces

We’ve been partnering with Language Arts teacher Sean O’Connor the last few weeks as his students have been engaged in presearch around topics that students identified and developed around motifs and themes of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” After participating in the reading frenzy activity, students left with a topic of interest that they wanted to explore further and refine through presearch. After several days of gathering information and sources to build background knowledge, the students were ready to think about focusing their topics even more by developing a refining research question. After some conversation, Sean and I thought it would be meaningful for students to collaborate and use the question lenses activity that my friend Heather Hersey shared with me last fall and that I piloted with Sarah Rust’s students. We felt the question lenses would give our students a way of looking at their presearch information with fresh eyes and alternate perspectives. Inspired by both Heather and Sarah Ludwig’s adaptation of the activity, Sean and I decided to do our own variation on Sarah’s version of writing around question lenses using our new dry erase tables (we purchased the Expanse and Nebula tables with dry erase surfaces).

We began by introducing the question lenses and activity procedures to Sean’s students:

After showing and discussing the five question lenses and examples (see slides above), we asked students to form “birds of feather” groups around like or similar topics at the dry erase tables. Once students had formed their groups, we asked them to write their topic(s) on the table and to get a variety of dry erase markers we had available. We gave them 10-12 minutes to talk and draft at least two questions per question lens for a minimum of 10. We encouraged them to keep a tally on their pink sheets (every student received one to have as a guide and to record questions they liked for personal keeping) as their groups composed their questions.

Some groups were initially a little quiet and needed some encouragement/nudging from us to help them get their conversations and group thinking going. Sean is especially gifted at helping students communicate and helping students tap into their cognitive processes as he circulates about and engages in discussions with the students without giving them answers or leading them to a response.

After the question incubation period, we asked each group to look at their questions and come to a consensus about which question they felt was the best one and to be able to articulate why it was the best question. They then composed their top question on one of our Verb whiteboards. Next, we did a large group share out of questions and rationales. As each group finished its brief presentation, they placed their Verb Steelcase whiteboard onto the Verb easel.

Students then had an opportunity to vote for best question of the period by placing a checkmark on the easel with their favorite question. As we voted, students also finished recording favorite questions on their pink sheets; other students also used this time to photograph their group table.   We asked students to reflect on the questions they had seen both in their groups and from the other groups as we thought about what makes a good research question; this activity was our springboard for helping students either draft their own question or to use one of the questions from their birds of feather topic group that resonated with them as their focus question for moving further into search. They are now doing additional search and are starting to think about multigenre element products they’ll craft to represent their key understandings and insights.

Two aspects of this activity that we loved are reflected in many of the inquiry-driven activities we’ve done this year in helping students move, begin or move through presearch:

1.  Writing is a medium for processing ideas and thinking in a visible way.

2.  We move through a continuum of individual, pair/small group, and large group work that ultimately helps students experience learning in a social and way and that will inform their individual work.


Providing students these kinds of learning opportunities is essential to the work of providing equitable access to learning opportunities for our students, especially for those who may not have had many of these learning experiences prior to high school and/or during their previous high school research/inquiry experiences.

When librarians talk about equitable access, they frequently refer to resources and information, but I believe we need to be thinking more intentionally about equity and learning opportunities. Reading literacies alone will not provide our students the academic, social, or workplace capital they will need beyond the world of K-12 or post-secondary schooling. While I know there are virtual mediums for doing this activity, I increasingly feel that being “unplugged” and having students do this work in a tactile and physically present way makes the thinking more concrete and gives students chances to interact socially in an academic context that would not happen through a virtual tool. This face-to-face modeling and opportunity to practice these skills and grow these cultural, social, and cognitive dimensions of academic literacy is especially important for students whose opportunities to do so have previously been limited (Kiili, Mäkinen, and Coiro).

Flexible Writing Surfaces and Spaces in Libraries as Incubators for Inquiry and Academic Literacy

Another recent use of these dry erase surfaces in our library learning studio that informed my practice was with our Theory of Knowledge (TOK) students. This was an activity that came together very quickly Thursday morning and while not tied to a formal research project, threads of inquiry were essential to the learning experience. The group came to the studio to watch a short clip of a PBS video related to their content/unit of study. Dr. Glenn and Mr. Byrne developed discussion questions around this segment and composed them on our dry erase surfaces.


After watching a short segment of the video, students had 10-12 minutes to visit each table; students were encouraged to discuss their thoughts and reflections with their peers and then jot down their responses.    We also observed students continuing the conversations around the written responses as they engaged in some truly meaningful and deep dialogue with each other.

Students were able to jump into the activity quickly and confidently and participate in richer, more nuanced conversations (both written and oral) because Dr. Glenn and Mr. Byrne consistently integrate learning/thinking structures as a regular part of classroom life. As I watched these students immerse themselves into the learning activity with depth and intensity, I could not help but think of the huge participation gap that Jennifer and I have observed the last two years. We have seen a wide range of academic and social skill sets across multiple content area classes, course levels, and grades; I feel I have struggled to articulate what I’m observing and to contextualize it although the recent readings are helping me to take first steps in doing so. The academic discourse and social behaviors of the TOK students were reflective of the academic literacy framework I referenced in an earlier post; in particular, these students were demonstrating:

1.  Disciplinary literacy: “…the joint understanding of discipline-specific literacy features through which knowledge is created and practices are shared” (Kiili, Mäkinen, and Coiro 225).

2.  Argumentative literacies:  “As students work to establish themselves as contributing members of a domain-specific discourse community, argumentative literacy practices enable them to consider alternative perspectives, broaden and deepen their knowledge, and make judgment to inform their decision making. As a result, students are able to identify, evaluate, and produce arguments within a wide range of individual and social literacy events…students are able to effectively compose, evaluate, and learn from arguments by adopting the social practices of the target discipline” (Kiili, Mäkinen, and Coiro 225).

3.  Collaborative literacies:  “…those literacy practices in which two or more persons engaged in reading and/or writing together are equally responsible for negotiating meaning through talk. The goal of collaborative literacy practices is to produce a joint interpretation of a text” (Kiili, Mäkinen, and Coiro 225).  In this case, our texts were previous knowledge and the PBS video segment.

We then moved to a large group discussion facilitated by Dr. Glenn; students from each table had the opportunity to share their thoughts about the question posed at their table.

Because we ran out of time, the activity was continued into the next day.  Many students captured the ideas on each table with their cell phones as they prepared to leave for lunch.  A few days later, three of the students from the TOK course stopped by to share their reflections and thoughts on the experience of using the markerboard surfaces as a medium for thinking and growing their academic literacies:

Reflections: The Library as Learning Studio and Site of Literacy Practices

While not a formal research type of activity or project, we love working with teachers and students to provide them space and assistance for these kinds of learning opportunities. So, often we call the library the “biggest classroom” in a school, yet learning experiences are often limited to formal research projects and/or storytime. In many schools, it’s a challenge for teachers and administrators to see the library as an additional learning space that can accommodate many kinds of experiences because the quiet, book-centric model and/or prior experiences dominate their perceptions. In other school libraries, limited budgets and restrictive physical space hinder the efforts of librarians to sell the library as a studio and alternate kind of classroom. When our spaces are designed with flexible areas that can be repurposed quickly, mobile furniture, and technologies for multiple modes of learning (low tech and high tech), the library can support a more diverse range of learning experiences and be better positioned to support the growth of academic literacies for all students throughout the school year, not just when it is time for formal or informal research projects. These learning space design drivers expand the possibilities of libraries as sites of practice for multiple literacies and can potentially position the library as a “commonplace for interpretation” in exploring, expanding, and theorizing the literacy practices within its learning community (Sumara), hence shifting and expanding the role of the librarian as a sponsor of literacy (Brandt).


Brandt, Deborah. Literacy in American Lives. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print.

Kiili, Carita, Marita Mäkinen, and Julie Coiro. “Rethinking Academic Literacies.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 57.3 (2013): 223-32. Professional Development Collection [EBSCO]. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.

Sumara, Dennis J. Why Reading Literature in School Still Matters: Imagination, Interpretation, Insight. Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum, 2002. Print.

Photos by Buffy J. Hamilton