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February 20, 2014 / Sarah Ludwig

Butcher paper, Post It notes and Sharpies changed my life: collaborative learning and inquiry

I was recently inspired by Buffy Hamilton’s series of posts about Write Arounds, an activity I’d never heard of that sounded like a concrete way for me to partner with some of our English faculty. What began as a fun experiment bloomed into a bit of a breakthrough for me.

Write Arounds are a way of collaboratively reading, annotating, and questioning texts. Students sit at tables covered with butcher paper and read, as a group, a passage from a text they’re investigating. They can work together or alone, and can ask questions, take notes, highlight, draw pictures, etc. Their only limit is the size of the paper.

Student annotations in Montana 1948.

Student annotations in Montana 1948.

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I tried Write Arounds with an English teacher in both his 9th grade English class–in both the Catcher in the Rye and Oedipus units–and with his ESL class, on the text they were reading (Montana 1948). In all cases, the students seemed to enjoy and benefit from the activity. I especially enjoyed watching the students in Scott’s ESL class. In his other two classes, we left the activity fairly open-ended, having all the girls start in pairs or teams of three at one table and then moving around the space to read and respond to each other’s work as well as to the new passages. In his ESL class, Scott had the students color-code their annotations, focusing on theme, characterization, and questions. This guidance allowed the girls to read closely and identify details in the text that were connected. It also allowed Scott to identify their level of understanding of the text, as well as directly answer questions they had.

Student annotations on Oedipus.

Student annotations on Oedipus.

Within Scott’s English 9 class, Catcher in the Rye was “easier” to work with. The girls were done reading the book and had spent ample time discussing it in class. They were ready to go. That said, Scott told me that the activity allowed some girls, who might feel less comfortable speaking up in class, to express themselves. He was also able to notice gaps in the students’ understanding of the text, things that might not have come up in discussion. When we worked with Oedipus, the students were not done reading and had not spent as much time talking in class. Therefore, it was a slower start and a bit more frustrating for the girls. Once they got going, Scott was able to watch them form their initial thoughts about the text–information he could then use to guide discussion.

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Last week, I worked with our sixth and seventh grade on a cross-curricular project. The students were competing in their own Olympic games (pairs figure skating in socks, etc.) and then writing a bid to have the next winter Olympics hosted in their assigned country: South Korea, Russia, Norway, and Canada. The girls were in teams of 4-6 and had an application to fill out as well as a presentation to make to the “IOC,” made up of administrators.

To help the girls get organized, I had them sit in teams around our big library tables. I taped the rubric and presentation requirements onto the paper and handed them Sharpies. Each paper had three things written on it: TOPICS, QUESTIONS, and WHERE CAN I FIND ANSWERS? I had the students read through the project requirements and identify major themes in the information they needed to find. They then started writing down specific questions that they needed to find answers to. After this, I introduced a research guide with various resources and gave them time to explore. They then needed to think about where they could find information for their topics and questions. Using the paper and the markers, they were able to draw physical connections between topics, jot down ideas, and assign themselves tasks. As time went on, the papers grew beyond these parameters, turning into giant notebooks full of information, drawings, to-do lists, and notes.

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This was a fairly unfocused use of the paper on my part, but I loved that they were using it to record information. The students have saved their paper from one class to the next, stashing it in my office and then bringing it out again every time they come into the library. Essentially, it’s become the repository for all of their ideas.

I was able to refine this with our AP Chemistry class today. In a long block (80 minutes), the students divided into three groups with specific tasks: summarize big ideas, take notes on specific content, and find connections (“why is this important?”). The topic? Maple syrup. They can choose any topic they like, as long as it’s related to maple syrup. For 20 minutes the students read through the Wikipedia article on maple syrup and browsed the Google News feed on the topic. As they read, they jotted down notes that connected to the theme of their table.

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Next, the students moved around to other tables so that they could find connections between their own notes and the notes of others. They talked to each other, commenting on how they’d discovered the same information or elaborating on each other’s ideas. They also wrote down their thoughts on the other tables. Throughout the process, the AP Chem teacher and I circulated among the tables, asking questions and helping the students stretch their ideas.

After this mingling, I had the students go up to an easel with two columns written on it: New Information and Questions. They wrote out a handful of ideas and questions on sticky notes and stuck them on the board, and then took time to examine the board and think about the topics that appealed to them the most.

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Finally, I told them to take one sticky note off the board to use as the jumping-off point for their research.

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  I handed out paper and had them start writing, using the following questions as a guide:

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Of course, because they’re just starting, they will not be able to answer all of these questions right away. But because they had already spent an hour reading, talking, and making connections, they were ready to immediately begin to dive into the research process. Many of them developed question lists that were ten lines long…and that’s just the beginning.

By the time the class was over, the girls knew a ton about maple syrup…perhaps more than if they’d just spent 80 minutes reading and taking notes. They were able to add their own insight and information to the many cross-conversations that were taking place among each other, their teacher, and me. In addition, as with all of the other exercises I’ve written about, their teacher was able to watch the process of them learning and sharing, as well as to ask questions that helped guide them along the process. And the students ended the class with a topic that genuinely interested them as well as successful inroads into the research process.

The last thing I’ll say is that I find it fairly remarkable that something as simple as butcher paper has had such a significant impact on my instruction and the way that I think about learning and research. What I’ve learned over the past couple of weeks is that it’s about thinking, not about mimicry. Walking students step-by-step through the process of using a database, for example, is not nearly as valuable as helping them think and question.



Leave a Comment
  1. David Theriault / Feb 21 2014 8:18 am

    This is FANTASTIC. I’m going to need to read this more than once to fully process all the possibilities this makes me think about. Have you thought about using pictures of their notes in ThingLink or other apps to CREATE a new demonstration of their learning and to make the notes interactive?

  2. Danesa Menge (@Jepson) / Feb 21 2014 10:49 am

    I love it! I am definitely going to try this! David, I love the idea of making them interactive as well. When we go one to one, the text could be uploaded to Google Docs and the same interaction could happen. Great ideas!


  1. Librarians and Teachers as Instructional Partners: Written Conversations with Write Arounds Text on Text for Inquiry, Participation, and Social Construction of Meanings | The Unquiet Librarian
  2. Librarians and Teachers as Instructional Partners: Written Conversations with Write Arounds Text on Text for Inquiry, Participation, and Social Construction of Meanings | The Unquiet Librarian

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