I have been doing an exercise that I dare say I actually created myself (which is surprising because it seems my best ideas are always those pilfered from others). I have used this exercise for a couple of years now with consistent success rates. It’s called a Writing Roundtable.
The purpose of this exercise is to have the students writing in conversation with one another without talking. We all know the challenges of small group discussion, turn and talks, etc., and while I do feel like they have merit in the classroom, other times I just don’t want to deal with keeping small groups on task or the loudness of a room of chattering students. Other times the students, too, need a chance to read, think, and write without the distraction of too many voices talking at once. Other times, quite honestly, we just need to write it out. That’s where a Writing Roundtable comes in.
I have usually used a Writing Roundtable to have the students tackle an issue from the text we are reading on the various levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. For example, when we did our unit on War in the 20th/21st Centuries in 11th grade English, we read excerpts from survivors of Japanese Internment Camps and Hiroshima, watched clips from “Barefoot Gen” (available on YouTube--a super moving animation film on the bombing of Hiroshima that the students have strong responses to), read excerpts from The Things They Carried, and read current event articles on the War in Afghanistan. We did the Writing Roundtable exercise right after having read The Things They Carried.
How to do it: Have the students sit in groups of 4. If you have an odd number, sit 3 kids at a set of 4 desks and assign one desk to be the ghost (see photo below!). Each student (and perhaps the ghost) gets one sheet that includes the directions and a writing prompt/question at the top. Each student has a different question, numbered Question 1 through Question 4. The directions are as follows:
Directions: Answer the question(s) in a well-developed short answer (1 – 2 paragraphs) within the time allotted*. When the time is up, pass the paper to the person on your RIGHT. They will then read the question, read the other students’ responses, and respond both to the question and to the other students’ responses. Use the back of the paper if necessary.
*time allotted = I usually do 6 minutes first, than 7 minutes, 8 minutes, and9 minutes. The time needs to increase so that the students have time to read their peers’ responses. There are four intervals total.
Here are some examples of questions I used for the War Unit and their corresponding Bloom’s Taxonomy skills:
Question #1: Define WAR in your own words. What is war? Why are wars fought? List three things you think of when you think of the Vietnam War. Why do those things come to mind for you? (comprehension)
Question #2: Tim O’Brien talks a lot about a true war story in The Things He Carried. What makes a “true” war story? Is it possible to even tell one? Answer the questions using one of the war stories he shares in his novel. (application)
Question #3: An alien has landed on Earth from another planet. What is the most important war from the 20th to 21st centuries of the planet Earth that this alien should know about. Why? Justify your answer. (analysis)
Question #4: War can be global, national, local, or personal. Explain a local or personal war in your life at present. In this explanation, state who to fighting whom, what they are fighting over, and if there is a resolution in sight. (synthesis)
If time remains (if you have a long and/or double period), then after the entire writing cycle is complete, I assign each table one question to discuss and then share out with the class. This is a great activity to check for comprehension, to work on writing stamina, and to practice short answer writing.
There is the new part I added to this exercise this year. I have been reading and re-reading parts of the great book They Say…I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. Anyone who teaches high school or college writing to low-level writers should get this book. It’s argument is that we write to be in a dialogue with other texts and writers, and that once you learn some key moves(via templates) to writing in a dialogue you can master academic and argumentative writing. This reading was mostly prompted by an article in The Atlantic article called “The Writing Revolution” which discussed a high school in Staten Island that employed both writing across the curriculum and template writing to increase students’ abilities to do argument based writing (as opposed to memoir/personal writing). With these two texts in mind (read them!), I did a lesson that worked on the use of argument writing templates as a way to begin a piece of writing that first engages in the author’s argument as a launching point for then presenting your own argument. I focused on these:
WAYS OF RESPONDING TO AN AUTHOR’S ARGUMENT:
She argues ______________________, and I agree because _________________________________.
Her argument that _________________________________ is supported by the evidence of ___________
____________________________________, but I disagree with her because _______________________.
He claims that ___________________, and I have mixed feelings about it. One the one hand, I agree
That _______________________________. On the other hand, I still insist that _____________________.
In discussions of _______________________, a controversial issue is whether ________________________. While some argue
that ______________________________, others contend that _____________________.
After the lesson on these templates with some kids practicing the templates on the board, we completed the Writing Roundtable exercise but each student–after the first round–had to respond to either the question or the peers ahead of them using one of the templates above. It was REALLY hard for them to break from the straightforward “I think” answer and to first present an other person’s thoughts, but it was great practice on summarizing, paraphrasing, and figuring out the main idea of what the student before them had written. It took a lot of coaching from me walking around and saying, “NOOOOOOO! You need to state the other person’s point FIRST and then YOUR point!!!!!” but they eventually began to get it. And then I was a proud mama hen.
Does this make sense to y’all? I have always loved the Writing Roundtable exercise, but now I love it even more wit this new added element of academic writing involved. I plan on re-using it again in the next six weeks because, of course, there is a recursiveness to learning all of the tricks to writing and it never sinks in with the students the first time you teach it.
If you are confused, please message me and I’d love to explain it to you more!