As some of you may know, I retired from public schools here in Georgia last summer because I had completed my 30 years of service and because my dad is undergoing treatment for triple hit lymphoma, a rare variant of diffuse large B cell lymphoma.  In Georgia, you can work as a 49% employee in any public school as long as you stay within the monthly hourly limits established by the state.  I have been working part-time since early September at a metro Atlanta middle school media center; it is a temporary position just for this academic year, so my time will be ending later this spring.  It has been a great opportunity to still work with kids and teachers in the media center/library after being in the ELA classroom for the last six years.

This past Tuesday I had an opportunity do collaborate with another ELA teacher here and do a classroom learning activity I did in my own classroom the last three years:  a question trail.  You can learn more about question trails here (fabulous resource), but the basic setup is this:

  • Students are given 13-15 questions to complete; you hang the questions around your classroom or learning space.
  • Students can start at any question; they record their question number and answers in the order they tackle the question on their answer ticket.
  • The question answer dictates which question the student visits next.  Hence, correct answers are vital!
  • If a student ends back up a question he/she has already completed on the “trail”, he/she has missed a question and has to backtrack to figure out which one they got wrong.

I always give students the option to work alone or with a partner; if you get beyond three, the kids tend to be off task and not do authentic work, especially with middle school learners.   It is a great problem solving activity, and I try to incorporate three levels of questions—easy, moderate, and challenging to make the assignment doable.   Bonus:  the kids are up and moving around!  There are many high quality ready-made questions trails available for sale, but you can also buy a basic template and then customize your questions—using a template to create custom question trails is typically what I’ve done in the past with my students.

For this collaborative effort, I used a pre-made trail activity for the novel in verse Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson; after meeting with the ELA teachers and assistant principal, I modified four or five of the questions to incorporate the question stems our district uses for the learning standard and to craft some questions that were higher level thinking and a little more nuanced than some that came with the question kit.

Initially, we had were going to host two class sections per period, but due to some last minute scheduling conflicts, we hosted just one group per teacher.  While it would have worked fine to have hosted the larger group, having one group allowed us to give the students more personalized help on the trail at the point of need.

We began with a brief mini-lesson outlining the learning goals, procedures, and question trail manners:

 We then turned students “loose on the trail!” and they spread out to pick up a starting point.  Because our media center is wonderfully spacious, especially for a middle school, students had plenty of room to work through the trail questions.    Students knew they could get help on the trail if needed from me or their ELA teacher; the kids were great about asking for HELP but not asking for ANSWERS to the questions.  It was truly enjoyable to be a sounding board and to help individuals and pairs/small groups at any given question think through the question and possible answer choices.  Providing a “cheat sheet” of terms or other relevant information that can help them on the trail is always a constructive tool to include in your trail activity.

For students who were early finishers, they had the option of either finishing a graphic organizer assignment for the teacher or visiting our “enrichment learning bar” for early finisher activities related to elements of figurative language, word choice, and/or the novel in verse.

One modification the teacher and I devised for classes/students who needed additional scaffolding was to come check in with us after completing their first five question trail problems.  We checked their work to make sure they had all answers correct before proceeding further.  This strategy is helpful for any class, but it is especially supportive of kids who may become overwhelmed if they get toward the end of the trail and then realize they have gotten one wrong but then have to backtrack all the way to the beginning to figure out which question they missed.

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Libraries are the perfect space to host learning activities like this because it encourages collaboration between teachers and the librarian as well as between students who choose to work with a partner.  The physical space also makes the frenetic frenzy of activity feel a little chaotic as well!  This is a medium for learning that can help you focus on a specific learning standard or skill whether it is content based or information literacy.  If you haven’t tried question trails, I encourage you to do so!  I loved doing them in my classroom with 8th graders, but I really enjoyed this one as a team effort in the library and having another way to connect with kids!

Many thanks to Abby of Write on with Miss G for so generously sharing her expertise on question trails over the years and encouraging others to try and create their own!