Digital Notebooks, Remixes and Infographics: The Stealth Writing Workshop

A few weeks ago I outlined my peculiar teacher headspace this year as I face the challenge of teaching AP Lang after years of working to perfect English 11, a course I helped design from the ground up and continue to approach eagerly every day.  In that post I outlined my major goal for the year: To figure out how to engage with ALL of my students as readers and writers, regardless of whether or not they think of themselves as those things.

Since then, both classes have engaged in extensive writing workshops, and I was struck by how different my conferring with most of my AP students went in comparison to my English 11 students.  Certainly, there was huge variation even within a class: levels of preparedness differed, efforts during the writing process were uneven, and often student comfort with talking to a teacher at all proved to be a barrier.

But there was also a clear trend:  Overwhelmingly, my AP Lang students have adopted the best habit of all for young writers:  They think actively about their writing and they make choices.  And, shyness aside, they ask questions about those choices when given the chance to.  Many of my English 11 writers–especially the ones who would benefit the most enormously from really thorough writing PROCESS time–do not have that habit of mind.  At all.

As we approached our second unit assessment, my PLC decided to get a little more creative with our end of unit project.  As luck would have it, that move, paired with a practice we adopted a few years ago, resulted in a sort of stealth writers workshop for my English 11 students.  They thought like writers without exactly being aware that they were doing so.  I know–sounds shady.  Read on.  You’re gonna love it.   

Notebook Remixes

It all started with a  “Notebook Remix”.  I’ve noticed this year how much more comfortable my least-confident writers were adding to and expanding on what they perceived as formative–or in their mind zero stakes–writing than they were with engaging deeply and creatively with, say, a summative essay.

I’ve mentioned the idea of the “remix” here and there before in my posts, but I had never before this year thought of them as a fundamental tool for synthetically creating good writing workshop habits for my reluctant writers.  

Note the color variation–students and I can see the growth and changes at a glance. This one deepened the thinking beautifully!

The process is simple: Kids revisit a notebook topic and expand it in their digital notebook (much easier to do this with the magic of Google Docs).  We do our remixing in a new color font so they can visualize their changes easily.  Sometimes it’s bullet-pointed ideas (like adding new evidence from a text) and sometimes it’s about trying out a specific writing element (like using parenthetical asides).  

This time, my students were looking for “trends” in House on Mango Street. Our goal with this particular notebook was to notice things that Cisneros seems to either do (writing moves) or repeat (thematic trends or “big ideas”) in the text and try to make sense of her choices as a writer.  We gave them some starting points (she loves metaphors in this text, she often focuses on women as role models for the narrator, etc) but I was immediately struck by how many of my students ventured off into their own independent territory instead.  Some were struck by how honest the book is about sexual assault, other noted the strained relationship between the narrator and her little sister.  Thinking like writers already–it’s just a notebook.  Why not take a risk?

They started off with two trends they noticed, and tried for two examples of each–a notebook of about 10 sentences, which most chose to structure into brief summaries with bulletpoints.  When they “remixed” they had a specific task–find more (maybe better?) examples from the text, but also, make sense of it all.  In other words, why does this trend matter to the storytelling?  What does Cisneros want us to understand or appreciate or notice?  These are the sorts of higher order questions that develop into good pieces of analytical writing.

But to my writers who don’t think of themselves as analytical writers or thinkers or even “good students”, it was just writing some more notebook stuff except this time using that super loud magenta color Zig never lets me type in otherwise.  

Once they were done remixing, I asked them to select one of their two trends from the updated entry and commit to it for a project for the end of the book.  Make sure you’re content with your entry and smash that submit button!

I tried to keep feedback simple and with a focused direction forward–the goal was to be supportive while giving writers a path forward.

I looked over them that night to provide quick feedback (I cannot emphasize enough the importance of the Google Comment feature for “slow conferences” with kids) and the next day every student in my class had a writing outline and some personalized feedback from me.  

Infographics: “Wait a minute…is this…writing?!

The final product was an infographic: A visual representation of their observations about their chosen trend.  We used piktochart.com which worked great, but I’m not shilling anything–these could be hand drawn if you like.  We were just looking for a reading assessment about making inferences, but looking at the finished product, it hit me:  The kids had created a thorough outline of a writing piece filled with writerly choices and voice and perspective.  Without ever thinking of it as a writing assignment.

No big deal for some.  But for my low-confidence writers!  Look:  They considered a topic completely independently (notebook).  They stepped away from it for a couple of days, read and thought a bit more, and revised their thinking (the remix).  They got some feedback from me in written form, which will (eventually) help develop good workshopping habits (Google Comments).  And finally they fleshed out their initial ideas into a fully realized exploration of a focused topic with multiple pieces of evidence and elaborative analysis.  

One element from a finished infographic–student thinking aligned with evidence from the text. The addition of a simple stock visual helps emphasize the thinking and tone.

In short, we took away a few key words like “rough draft” and “thesis” and “transitions” and uhh…well…“write an essay” and suddenly my least-confident writers produced almost all of the writerly thinking I’d hope for them to pursue during a normal writing workshop!  It will take a couple more months for me to get them to fully shift their thinking, but for now, it’s a victory that my students found success in the writing process without even knowing the process was underway!

Now I just need to figure out how to break that news to them in their feedback…

–Mike

What do you do to get your reluctant writers to engage in workshopping habits? Come find us on Facebook or let me know on Twitter at @ZigThinks!

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