I could talk for a long time about the numerous ways that written conversations encourage student engagement, ownership and voice. This approach, which I first read about in a blog post by my librarian she-ro Buffy Hamilton, is deep rooted in the idea that students should be participating not only in discussion, but more importantly in deep thinking. In the book The Best Kept Teaching Secret, Daniels describes written conversation as students engaging with each other through various types of texts, including, but not limited to, “handwritten notes, emails, dialogue journals, write-arounds, silent literature circles, collaborative annotation, threaded discussions, blogs, text messages, tweets and more” (Daniels 2).
One way to do written conversations is with the write-around method. In this technique, students work in small groups to write and exchange notes on specific curricular topics. This is done in several rounds, with students participating in sustained writing for anywhere from a few minutes to 15 minutes. Students then actively engage in out loud conversations about what they’ve written and learned.
This method is an excellent way to give all students a voice and allow the to work collaboratively to create meaning and analyze and synthesize various texts. Students are given the opportunity to share without fear of ridicule or being “wrong” and are able to learn collaboratively by being exposed to the various perspectives of their peers. During many in-class discussions, a small handful of students are engaged, while the majority either sit passively or zone out. With written conversations, all students are engaged and have the responsibility to add their thoughts to the discussion in a safe way. Another plus of this method’s effectiveness is that it’s entirely low/no tech. All you need to get started is a purpose for the activity, bulletin board paper, the texts you want to use and sharpies!
I recently partnered with the AP US History teacher at my school to collaborate on a written conversations activity. She came to me with concerns about her students’ ability to analyze and synthesize primary source documents when writing document based questions (DBQs). She wanted to work on a way to help her students ease into writing quality DBQs. The write around was a perfect match with DBQs since her students struggled most with analyzing and synthesizing the primary source documents. In the end, her students were able to “discuss,” through their writing, the 7 primary source documents that they had to include in their essay. This gave them a chance to make insights, pose questions and offer responses to others’ questions in a safe environment where everyone had a voice. The students gave us great feedback and loved the activity. Mrs. Crank was also pleased with how well they were able to discuss the documents in their essays.
Written conversations are like any other teaching method or learning opportunity. You must have a purpose in mind, as the technique is only a tool to facilitate thinking and learning. We began by identifying what her students were struggling with and decided the the write-around method would be a great way to allow all of her students, even the most quiet and shy, to work collaboratively to understand and apply primary source documents.
Once we had our purpose determined, we worked to find the primary sources that we would use as our “texts” and the building blocks of the students’ DBQ they would eventually write. With this activity, there is a lot of front loading involved. Almost anything can become a “text,” including things such as infographics, student work and even Tweets. After blowing up the primary source documents (so they would lend themselves to easy reading and annotating), I taped them to large sheets of bulletin board paper. These become the vehicles for the written conversations.
We spent about 10-12 minutes introducing the method to her students. I prepared slides to give them an overview of what a written conversation is (with picture examples), our procedure for the activity and how we would share both silently through our writing, and out loud during small and large group sharing. After allowing them to ask questions for clarification, we jumped right in. The students were slightly hesitant during the first round, but once they moved to their second document, they were very enthusiastic to read and respond to what their peers had written.
You can view the slides I used to introduce this method to our students below.
They moved through all 7 documents with 1 small group share done half way through the activity. After they had commented on all of the documents, we had a large group share where we allowed them to discuss what they were still unsure of, make comments about their synthesis of the documents and how they feel the activity would benefit them. We ended with them completing a very short Google Form to give us feedback for next time.
The students’ feedback was overwhelmingly positive. All of them commented that this activity 100% helped them to write a better response to the DBQ that followed. They told us that discussing the documents in this way was low pressure and made them more willing to share their ideas. The one criticism we got was that they wished we had done this activity more throughout the course!
I have since done this activity with other classes and even done variations to suit the purposes of other teachers. If you’d like more information on how I set this up or just some help getting started, feel free to contact me!