Learning that sticks

Posted by Rebecca Moore - 06 November, 2012

Old school pen and paper and their 20th century cousin, the sticky note, can be a powerful social media tool, online or on an actual, physical wall, engaging people in face-to-face social interactions. More importantly, these simple materials are used to engage students more in what they are learning. More voices are heard, more modes of learning are in play, and ideas, literally and figuratively, become sticky so that they might be better explored and remembered.

Making connections
At the teacher inservice discussion of our summer reading of Brain Rules, faculty and staff took part in an exercise called "Chalk Talk." Facilitators posted questions on large sheets of paper on the walls and handed out colored pens. Without speaking, faculty and staff wrote responses both to the posed questions as well as to each others' comments, starring or underlining points with which they agreed or drawing arrows to connect ideas.

You will find these kinds of conversations taking place at a TEDx event. Randolph has hosted the last two TEDxHuntsville events and will host a TEDxYouth@Huntsville event this weekend. It is another way to involve participants in the TED mission of "ideas worth spreading."

Sticky notes seem to promote a more playful, creative approach. Middle School students used them to create temporary murals for their Houses in a house competition that was inspired by “Sticky Note Wars” between European office workers. At Under the Christmas Tree, Randolph’s holiday market event, we borrowed the sticky note approach to make our admissions booth more interactive and fun for the students who stopped by. We covered a table with butcher paper and invited our students to draw what they were learning in science, share what they wished people knew about Randolph or consider the question, “Are leaders born or made?” While this was fun it was only a slight representation of the real learning that this approach encourages.

Sticky Note Conversations, Chalk Talk and Affinity Mapping were three of the protocols that a group of 17 faculty learned over the summer to foster collaboration and conversation with colleagues and in the classroom. Betsy Allen, 8th grade history teacher, and Patrick Green, 8th grade English teacher, both started the year with a simple sticky note exercise from their summer workshop. Why study history or English?, they queried their students. "It was a great way to start them thinking about why U.S. history is a required course," said Mrs. Allen. "Students answered the question individually and posted it so we could talk about the answers as a group. It helped them to think abstractly and take the focus away from facts about events and have it be more about why things happen and how they could make connections to our country today."

Mr. Green hung his students’ answers to "Why study English?" in the hallway outside his classroom so that it will remind them of why they are there. Some of the answers students gave included: “So that when u need to, you can describe things well,” “English allows us to express our thoughts to others,” “English helps you to learn others’ personalities by speech and writing,” “I want to be a writer… I NEED this class,” “So we know how to speak our own language.” Sticky notes allow everyone to have a voice but the anonymity allows individuals to be less self-conscious. “Because it teaches me how to talk to people. And sometimes gets rid of some of my fears,” wrote one student, a thought that perhaps that he or she wouldn’t have contributed to a spoken conversation.

Mr. Green got the sticky notes out again when the class read a story from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. In an exercise called Affinity Mapping, he asked everyone to write what they thought was the message of the story. Once the answers were posted the group worked together to categorize the answers, name the categories and decide whether or not the ideas belonged in that group. This helps the students develop their critical and abstract thinking skills as well as to take responsibility for their own ideas, said Mr. Green.

If you visited the 5th/6th grade hallway in the beginning of the year you might have noticed that 5th grade social studies students have been writing on the walls. As teachers Jenny Lenz and Kathleen Brewer explained, “Our curriculum focuses heavily on inquiry, encouraging students’ own investigations into history. As we prepared to begin our exploration of the Underground Railroad, we used Chalk Talk to introduce the concept of slavery. From primary sources, we selected eight images of slavery in the southern U.S. The one rule we gave was this: students were not allowed to talk. Instead, we invited students to use markers to comment on the pictures, to draw connections between ideas, and to ask questions.”

“This became fodder for a fruitful, exciting conversation as students debriefed the images and debated what they had seen. We could so easily have stood at the front of the room and told them about slavery or given them a book to read on the subject; it was much more powerful to watch our students ask, engage, ponder, and discuss. It was much more effective to let them explore.”

Active reading
Middle School Librarian April Stewart uses sticky notes to teach 5th graders to identify different parts of non-fiction books as they learn to create a bibliography. “I use sticky notes to illustrate the parts of a book—title, author, index, glossary, table of contents, call number, bold word, chapter heading, topic heading, caption, illustration—in a slideshow, which is much more interesting than a teacher showing them. Then I have students work together to find the parts of a nonfiction book. The final step is a relay. Team members are handed a Post-it and run—the physical movement adds excitement and increases learning—to a table with huge non-fiction books to place the sticky note where they find an example of the target word. This prepares students to create a bibliography in Noodletools, to cite resources used, and avoid plagiarism. We want students to always mention where they get their information.”

Nichole Liese’s 7th graders use sticky notes for active reading. “When they read books for our book groups they write down observations and questions about their reading as they read. When they finish the book they use these questions and observations to lead their discussions,” explained Mrs. Liese.

It's a process
Sixth grade social studies teacher Trish King uses sticky notes when introducing a new project. After she has introduced the new project she asks students to write down their fears about it. After they have discussed them, she throws the sticky notes away. “We let go of our fears and move ahead with task.”

Once the lesson has begun, Ms. King says, “I ask the kids to CONNECT what they are going to learn with what they have already learned (build a bridge). These notes are posted on the section of the wall. As they learn new information they EXTEND this section. As questions form about new information we talk about HOW to we create the right questions, HOW do we find the answer, WHERE do we find the answer? As a librarian researcher,” she added, “I love this part of it – teaching research skills… we have phones that give us data, but the skill is how to find the best data. It is not what you know but how you get the answer.”


If you are interested in learning more, here's a recent Edutopia video that shows how one middle school teacher uses sticky notes to help her assess her students.

To see examples of sticky note art and office wars, check out our sticky note pinboard on Pinterest.

Thanks to April Stewart and all the teachers who contributed to this story.
TEDx photos by Celeste Nelson '16

Topics: 5th grade, 6th grade, 7th grade, 8th grade, Academics, admissions, art, community, creativity, curriculum, English, history, learning, Middle School, professional growth, teachers, technology

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