Written conversations are an amazing way to engage students in thoughtful and meaningful discourse, while ensuring that every student has a voice. This instructional method gives kids a safe environment to think, question and share their opinions. I love that it puts all students on a much more equal playing field than a traditional seminar or discussion would.
Most of the classes I’ve worked with have done written conversations using the write-around method; students move around the room responding (in writing) to both texts and other comments or thoughts left by their peers. The texts have varied from primary source documents to cartoons to infographics. In reflecting on this activity, almost every time the students comment that they loved “discussing” the texts in this way. Many also say that they enjoyed being able to “hear” from all of their classmates.
Up until this point, all of the texts we’ve used during written conversations activities have been selected by the teacher or myself. This week, I had two teachers who, inspired by this method, decided to use their students to create the texts that the classes would respond to.
Our APUSH teacher used the write-around method to have students peer review early drafts of document based questions. She chose 6-7 student created introductions and body paragraphs and had the class do a written conversation to reflect on the structure and content required for this style of essay. Her students gained so much insight from reading their peers’ work and thanked her for the opportunity to learn in this way. I was ecstatic because she and I have collaborated multiple times on written conversations, but this time the activity was totally her own idea!
Today, I worked with an English III teacher on written conversations in response to the film White Light, Black Rain (about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Students watched the film and reflected prior to doing the write-around. This time, instead of choosing texts for students to respond to, we decided to allow the students to work in groups to create their own texts.
Students were given sheets with 4 quadrants, each with its own prompt (questions, quotes, etc.) to work in a small group to reflect on.
The prompts were:
A. Respond to the following:
On August 6, 1945, the crew of the Enola Gay watched in awe as their payload detonated over the city of Hiroshima. “As the bomb exploded, we saw the entire city disappear,” said Commander Robert Lewis. “I wrote in my log, ‘My God, what have we done?'” Below, thousands of people were instantly carbonized in a blast that was thousands of times hotter than the sun’s surface; further from the epicentre, birds ignited in mid-flight, eyeballs popped and internal organs were sucked from bodies of victims.
B. Respond to the following:
Harry Truman, the then President of the Unites States who had ordered Hiroshima destroyed, later said: “We have discovered the most terrible weapon in the history of the world,” but steadfastly defended its use and said it had ultimately saved lives. Truman’s successor, President Dwight Eisenhower, also had reservations. In a 1963 interview with Newsweek magazine, he said: “The Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”
C. After viewing the documentary, how has your view or opinion changed? (This turned out to be a favorite prompt to both respond to initially and during our write-around.)
D. What advice would you give to world leaders as they consider the reality of nuclear warfare?
Once they had discussed, they compiled their group answers onto the large butcher paper. These 4 answers then became the texts that the entire class would use during our written conversation. Having students use their own opinions and thoughts to create the texts lent itself to more written discussion from the very first round of our write-around. The kids were very interested to see how everyone felt about these very debatable topics. This also gave them a great opportunity to practice kindly disagreeing with each other (both during their group work and during the write-around) and stating opinions with factual evidence to support them. After the activity concluded, we followed up with a short exit ticket that asked for reflection on how students felt about this activity – the response was overwhelmingly positive!
I LOVE written conversations and have had the opportunity to use them in many different formats with my teachers and students. I am thrilled at the prospect of having students do more text creation within activities like this!