Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Tuesday Slice of Life: Written Conversations in Music

Last week I spent teaching a graduate level course on Disciplinary Literacy to a small group of local teachers. I've instructed a few adjunct courses before, but by far, Disciplinary Literacy is my favorite course to teach.

One of the requirements for my course is for each student to lead a demonstration lesson using literacy in their content area to their peers. First, each student explains the strategy or mini lesson, how it works, and its purpose. As a large group, students participate in the strategy or lesson and then reflect on how the strategy/lesson could be applied to their content area or grade level. After leading the strategy lesson, each student writes a reflection of how the lesson went with colleagues, the purpose of using this strategy, and how the teacher plans to use it with his or her students.

I was fortunate to have three students who instruct music in my Disciplinary Literacy course last week. This led to some fascinating discussions of how we approach text as musicians and how literacy could be applied in music class. One of my students - I'll call him Eric - was interested in how to use a strategy from Harvey Daniels and Steven Zemelman's Subject's Matter, Second Edition (Heinemann, 2014) called Written Conversations. Written Conversations is a strategy that can be used with students after they have read a text or participated in an experience or activity. Below are a few steps for how to use Written Conversations with students:
  1. Students can be placed in pairs or in small groups.
  2. Explain the activity to students. Students will write notes back and forth to each other about the text or experience/activity on a piece of paper. For most of this activity, there is no talking (this may be the most challenging part of this activity). All students write at the same time. During Written Conversations, students should not focus on spelling or grammar.
  3. The teacher can invite students to write to a specific prompt or students could leave the topic open. Each student must write something on his or her paper. (Note: Many students benefit from sentence starters or a model, especially using this strategy for the first time.) Students should write for about two or three minutes. 
  4. Next, each student switches his or her paper with his or her partner or within the small group. That student responds in writing to what another student wrote. Students should respond in writing for about two or three minutes.
  5. If working with a partner, that student hands his or her paper back to the original author and the written conversation continues. If working in a group, a new person reads the writing and responds to the conversation. It is recommended for students to exchange papers at least two to three times.
  6. Following about two or three exchanges, invite students to talk (instead of write) about the topic in the partnership or small group.
  7. Finally, ask students to highlight an important line or two based on the Written Conversation and share out with the whole group for discussion.
Eric brought in acoustic guitars for each member in our class. He taught us how to properly hold a guitar. In addition, Eric taught us how to play two chords on the guitar. For most of us, it was our first time holding and guitar and strumming a chord. Immediately after, we wrote about our experience of holding and playing a guitar using Written Conversations. 

Our class learns how to hold and play guitars!

Eric plans to use Written Conversations with his eighth grade students this year. His music colleagues plan to use this strategy in their music classes as well (#win). One of our art teachers shared about how she thought Written Conversations could be used after studying a piece or artwork or after trying a technique. In addition, I was reminded that my students can also use short writing activities like this to reflect from an experience, not always about a text. 

I have used Written Conversations with middle and high school students before in English Language Arts and in adjunct classes with adult learners. I have found it to be an effective and easy way to build writing fluency; I like how it helps all students participate in a conversation. You can read more about Written Conversations in The Best-Kept Teaching Secret (Corwin, 2013).   

At the end of the course we had rich conversations about how effective instruction is not simply about using strategies. Yes, strategies are helpful to use and can enhance student learning. However, teacher expertise is what is the most important - this means determining what each student needs when and making the right match of which strategy best helps that learner. 

Join Two Writing Teachers and write your own Slice of Life! Everyone is welcome! 

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