Writing Our Way Into Critical Thinking

Way back one month ago, I made some resolutions for my classes. Among them was a switch-up that would turn the Quick Write into a broader Notebook Time — giving my students lots of varied opportunities to play with words in different ways.

In short, switching things up has been invigorating for my students. I no longer hear a low groan reverberate throughout the classroom when “Quick Write”  appears on the board. In itself, that feels like victory.

By far, their favorite way to spend Notebook Time — and the way that has proven most profitable — is playing with raw data.

I got this idea from Penny Kittle at a workshop this winter. In speaking with college professors,  she has discovered that college freshman are grossly lacking in the ability to interpret and make meaning out of raw data.  Kittle suggested that Notebook Time is a good opportunity to put charts, graphs, and statistics in front of students and ask them to say something.

This is the first chart I gave students:


With each chunk of data, I give them a simple charge: write what you notice. What do you see? What does this make you wonder about?

After students have a few minutes to write, we share out. I encourage them to begin by observing the obvious — it’s a starting place. After noticing things like “Print is declining”, “Online news sources are rising”, students begin to get more creative in their thinking.

And this takes time.

With this first chart, only a few brave souls state something that pushes beyond the barriers of the literal and easily observed. One student noted, “Maybe Germany is a more traditional country because they use more print sources than the others listed here.” Another asked, “How were these countries chosen?” I celebrate these speculations and what-ifs, encouraging students to go farther — where might we find that information? Where could we research? What might it mean?

Because I want my students to also become critical media consumers, I end each raw data Notebook Time by pulling our conversation back to the writer’s purpose, asking, “What point was the writer of this chart (or graph, or statistic) trying to make?”  Allison also asks her students a brilliant final question — one I am stealing immediately — what kind of writing might this lead to?

Another fun source for raw data is Harper’s Index.  I often put a handful of these statistics on the board and let students choose what they want to write about.

One favorite statistic was found in the December 2013 issue. It read:

Number of Chicken McNuggets Usain Bolt ate during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, according to his autobiography: 1,000

Students postulated — are Chicken McNuggets actually athletic power food? Did Bolt perform better in the 2012 London Olympics because he ate too many McNuggests in Beijing? Another student wondered if Bolt was sponsored by McDonalds. This led to a flurry of cell phone web surfing: Who were Bolt’s sponsors? Whom did McDonalds sponsor? How much did Chicken McNuggets cost in 2008, and in what quantities were they sold?  Does McDonalds provide free food to athletes?

While charts and graphs initially felt like the domain of other content area teachers, I have been amazed and encouraged by the thinking that has come out of our 5-10 minutes of writing and chatting. It sparks students’ curiosity and creativity — something they desperately need in their writing. It often leads to follow-ups, to debates,  to research, to wonderful tangents of real thinking. Most of all, we have fun, and Notebook Time finally feels like play.

This play propels good writing forward. Students generate ideas for writing. Students build the ability to interpret their world — this interpretation extends to interpreting their experiences in memoir, interpreting literature in a critical analysis, interpreting a film in a critical review. Pushing students’ thinking pushes students’ writing.

Allison and I have shared some of our favorite examples of raw data in our Mentor Text Dropbox Project (you can find the link at the top of this blog). Please feel free to use and share these resources. You can add your mentor texts, too! Share what works for you!

What are your favorite sources for finding raw data for students to play with? What kind of writing has come out of this sort of play? Share in the comments below or find us on Twitter @rebekahodell1 or @allisonmarchett.

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