Nov. 4, 2010
Young Writers Project teaches a Master’s Practicum in Digital Learning. It’s yearlong, and we supply teachers with a customized digital classroom site, built in Drupal, that we refer to as a “creative management system.” The Master’s class focuses on having the teachers learn by doing; we help them fold the site into their curriculum as they go, and they reflect on what happens and what they learn on a private space on another of our sites, digitalteachers.net, that mirrors their school digital classroom. Teachers can see and feel what it’s like to be a digital classroom student.
I love this class. The teachers come from schools that are 220 miles apart. We have teachers from grades 3 through 12; some are brand new some have been teaching for 20+ years. We have two librarians, two science teachers and an art teacher. Apart from their different styles, experience, knowledge of technology and personalities, they have enormous differences between their schools — in terms of leadership, policies AND students. For instance, recently we spent quite a bit of time in one group talking about the startling difference between three teachers’ requirements for assessing student work. One teacher has to post data responses on rubrics for each kid once a week; another has to devote 8 classes during the year for on-demand portfolio writing that is sent out for external assessment; and a third said, “I’d die if I had to do that; I grade them. And I write up my observations about their progress at the end of the year.” And knowing the latter teacher, I bet those are detailed, useful, observant assessments. But more on that at another time.
What is great is to see the very different approaches the teachers are taking in their digital classrooms.
Two teachers in the class are a team — she language arts, he science. I’ve known these guys for nearly 7 years and this story should tell you what kind of teachers they are: Three years ago YWP held a kid-organized writing workshop on a day that had the most miserable weather of the year. And for those of you who’ve never been to Vermont, well, it ain’t no Arizona. Thirty-two kids came to the session (we had no power for the first hour) and the language arts teacher drove almost two hours to bring two of her students. (Her science partner was flattened with illness so couldn’t make it.) Oh, I forgot to mention, it was a Saturday. Why did she make the trip? “Because I knew how much this meant to the kids.”
So flash forward. The two teachers love the digital classroom. They’ve never used one before, but they are finding all sorts of uses for it as they go. And their involving the kids in how it gets used. The other day, on a whim, the language arts teacher decided to create a tag on the site called “extra.” Then she told the 7th and 8th graders that they were free to use the “extra” tag anytime they wanted to post something they’d done on their own or anything they wanted to share; but she also said there’d be no additional credit, no assessment and she and her partner probably wouldn’t have time to read them all. That was 10 days ago.
So here’s what the 46 seventh graders have done: They’ve posted 52 “extras.” Just for the heck of it. (Some important context: This school has only one computer lab that’s in constant use and you have to sign up a week in advance. So these guys haven’t had that many class visits to the site. Additional detail: Last Sunday at 7:30 a.m. eight kids were logged onto the site.) In 6 weeks, with only a few visits to the site in class, the 7th graders have posted 245 pieces of writing and 810 comments to each other. Er, make that 811, a kid just posted something.
Here’s an excerpt of what one of the teachers posted on her own blog in the Master’s class space:
Every so often, we have them work on a piece that is graded. Because we talk about the requirements for the graded pieces, and because we give feedback for pieces to be submitted to be published with Young Writers Project, students are beginning to understand the value of good comments.
So what does all this tell me? That these 7th graders are beginning to own this space; never mind that it’s part of school; never mind that it’s a place where they also do homework. And it tells me that this pair of teachers is allowing these kids to set their own course, take control of what’s going on and engage. On their own.
So this is further evidence that when you use digital classrooms, and I’m not talking about individual student blogs that are oprhaned somewhere by their lonesome out there in the ethernet, but when you have your students post on digital spaces where they can easily see each other’s work and freely comment, help the students feel like it’s their space. Here’s how:
- Let the students post freely with no moderation.
- Don’t give them the power to delete; they’ll figure out that in a nano second and will know that if they post something inappropriate everyone will see.
- Lead them in an exercise where they set the rules for commenting.
- Gently nudge them about the quality of their commenting (and model with your own commenting) until they begin to realize its true value.
- From time to time, show them some of the comments and ask them whether they’re following their own rules.
- Let go a bit; give them control on what’s going on and be comfortable with the fact you are NOT going to be able to read everything.
- Create an “extra” tag.
So I appreciate these teachers and what they are doing. Their names, by the way, are Cindy Faughnan and Rick Schluntz and they teach at Hartford Memorial Middle School in White River Junction, VT.
Geoffrey Gevalt is founder of Young Writers Project, a small nonprofit in Vermont dedicated to helping students become better writers. To see the project’s work, visit youngwritersproject.org, digitalteachers.net or ywpschools.net He can be reached at ggevalt (at) youngwritersproject.org
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