A Thinking Routine as Pre-Writing

This quarter, my students are writing a journalism article about the significance of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire as one of their summative assessments.  As I read through their first drafts, I noticed that there was a lot of writing about “unfairness” and how “many people died,” yet very little mentions of the actual importance of this event and how it changed working conditions and laws in America.

In order to get my students to a deeper understanding of this event, I decided that we had to make their thinking visible in two ways:

1.  A Socratic Seminar about the topic of our writing

2.  A thinking routine that will help us connect the ideas discussed in our socratic seminar to our writing

The Socratic Seminar allowed students to locate and analyze evidence about the significance of the factory fire, as well as hear the thinking of others and building off those ideas.  It also gave me a clear understanding of where my students were at in their thinking.

As we returned to our writing the next day, we used the thinking routine Generate, Sort, Connect, Elaborate to brainstorm and plan our journalism article.   To begin, I write “Significance of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire” on the board and I told students to generate a list of ideas and thoughts that come to mind when you think about this topic.  I drew their attention to the word significance, reminding them of its meaning and how we are not simply writing facts about the fire.  Working with their elbow partner students wrote their lists down on their desks.  Some of the ideas were simple words such as “unfair” and some were more specific ideas such as “because of union protests worker rights improved.”IMG_1380

Next, we checked in on our progress and shared out our ideas with the class, documenting our thinking on an anchor chart.  Then, students chose a digital tool, whether it was popplet, padlet or google docs, to sort their ideas into a mind map according to how central or tangential they were.  They had their own map, but were also discussing their ideas with partners.  These discussions were vital as they allowed me to hear the thinking behind why students found one idea more central than another.  Raj explained that he thought the improvement of workers rights was central because it represented a change that happened as a result of the fire, and changes, he explained, are significant.  Sofia explained that what she found most central was the fact that the factory was made up of women workers with few rights.  Women have better rights now, she explained, and they are about half the population so they are a significant amount.

Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 12.33.29 PMAfter sharing our thinking with the class, I asked students to individually connect the ideas on their mind maps by drawing lines between ideas that have things in common.  They were also invited to write an explanation of how the ideas were connected.  I found this process provided enough structure that everyone had to really think through their ideas and because we checked in frequently, students were never completely off base.  However, it is not too structured and formulaic that it forces students’ thinking into a step-by-step equation for writing the perfect essay.  Students connections showed this because not everyone’s connections were the same, or even similar, but their explanations made sense.  For me, this felt much more like real world writing than a one-size fits all outline.

Finally, students began elaborating on their ideas by expanding, extending or adding to the initial ones.  This was the most challenging step, but I found it helped students if I modeled what this would look like.

In the following class, students will begin to link these ideas to actual evidence from texts.  We will use these maps to guide our search for evidence and we will revisit them to assess if we have any holes in our evidence (or places we need more or better evidence).  Then, we will begin to redraft our journalism articles.


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