Getting Kids to Write About Tragedy

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I had intended to post this week on a new idea we have for assessment of writing. I will post that next week. Events have overshadowed and overtaken that plan.

On Jan. 17 a 16-year-old sophomore in Brattleboro, VT, took her own life. Few knew outside the immediate community because it was a holiday and she had died at home. News organizations rarely report about a private suicide.

On Jan. 18, 200 miles away, a 15-year-old boy shot himself in a bathroom of his high school in northern Vermont. His death was more visible; since it occurred in the public school, it was widely reported in the news. And then, as word trickled out, the girl’s death was also reported.

Both were good students. Both were good athletes. Both were, by all accounts, well-liked and outgoing. They were energetic achievers. Their deaths were shocking, and since Vermont is such a small state, they were shocking to everyone.

Young Writers Project runs a student-led site for teens: youngwritersproject.org, and we kept the students updated about the tragedies and encouraged students to share their memories, their feelings, their grief, their confusion. Sadly, we had done the same thing in 2009 when another 15-year-old boy, a top student, athlete and musician, shot himself on school grounds.

We were overwhelmed then and now by the earnestness and openness of the students, by their respect for each other and by the complexity of their thoughts. Some were straightforward in their sorrow – either because the girl or the boy were friends. Some grieved for people they did not know. Some tried to make sense of it. Some wondered about some of their own friends’ states of mind.

Other teens expressed anger – at adults for arguing about what should have been done to prevent them or about what the schools should have done in response. They expressed irritation at their peers for being overwrought, for, almost, rushing to immerse themselves in the sorrow.

A few even wrote pieces imagining themselves actually doing what these two fine people had done. Hauntingly, YWP  had even published one of the girl’s poems in 2009 as part of our Newspaper Series; reading it now, it is eerie and heart-breaking.

It is a widespread belief by professional counselors that talking, sharing, opening up helps students – and adults for that matter – cope with sudden, tragic events. They also counsel kids to not assume that you are OK, but to reach out and talk with anyone.

YWP feels it provides a small service to these kids. We are honored to do it. But what should schools do in situations like this?

I spoke to a lot of teachers that week. Some were directly involved – in the same school systems, same schools or, even, at schools where the students had previously been. At the schools directly involved, counselors were brought in for students – and for adults. In related schools, teachers were alerted early; many told their students about the deaths – not the method, just the fact that they were gone. They directed the kids to information about counseling if they needed it.

One school talked to the kids about the girl – who many knew – and about the fact she’d taken her own life. All else stopped; for several days, whenever the kids wanted, they would talk about it. “We didn’t want them just talking in the halls,” the teacher said.

It appears that none of the schools that I know of got their students to write about it. I talked it over with practicing teachers in my two Master’s classes and while most agreed it was a good idea, they felt the incidents were too far away – not directly on the kids’ minds – and didn’t seem appropriate. A couple remarked that their school systems would never allow it. All of the teachers, though, thought it would be a good idea.

In no way am I criticizing the fine, well-meaning professionals who had to cope with the teens’ deaths – directly or indirectly. But I do think it’s time schools begin to think about bringing these topics more front and center and to think about using writing as a salve. Face it: the Internet connects student communities outside of school like never before. And writing is a great clarifier; it helps students figure out what they are thinking; it develops their own critical thinking.

And when this writing is done in digital classrooms, it is open. A very valuable exercise in my mind.

I agree with the teacher who said she didn’t want to have the discussion confined to hallway whispering: As educators we have an obligation to help kids face things head on.

If you wish to look at what kids wrote outside of school about these two tragedies, go to http://youngwritersproject.org/connor.leah.

Geoffrey Gevalt is founder of Young Writers Project, a small nonprofit in Vermont that works with hundreds of teachers and thousands of students in an effort to improve students’ writing skills and digital literacy. To see the project’s work, visit youngwritersproject.orgdigitalteachers.net or ywpschools.net He can be reached at ggevalt (at) youngwritersproject.org or 802-324-9537

Simple Tools for the Digital Classroom

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The hardest thing for teachers to do is make the transition from paper and pencils to online media: Not enough computers, not enough knowledge, not enough time and a whole new way of doing things. We work with hundreds of teachers in the same situation and we offer this advice:

  • Take small steps.
  • Find a couple of tech-savvy kids in each of your classes to help.
  • Explore the digital world on your own.
  • Seek out people in the school or in professional development spheres to mentor you.
  • Don’t be afraid to fail.
  • Don’t be afraid if you don’t have all the answers – your kids will help.


Teacher Knowledge — Exploring, a few links

As a side note, there are ways you can speed up your learning with an hour a day, or, even, a few hours a week by subscribing to digital educator’s blogs (use Google Reader — click here for 5-minute video)or by, gulp, breaking into twitter.com. I use twitter to link folks to cool posts by students at our site, youngwritersproject.org, but I also use twitter to follow folks who know a lot about digital education. As a start, you can follow me , twitter.com/ggevalt, but not to see my posts, but to start following some of the folks I’m following – many are leading experts. Their links and posts will help you explore what’s out there. (For a really basic video on what twitter.com is, go here.

 

Student Blogging – Taking a small step

Lucy Gray has a great post here on November Learning which offers some simple guideposts, apps and links. I encourage you to read it. Rather than duplicate it here, I’ll just say what our experience has been and remember our first focus is writing and our second focus is digital civility and literacy:

  • Commenting has been key to the success youngwritersproject.org and the YWP Schools Project digital classrooms. As I discuss in an earlier blog, getting kids to claim ownership of this digital space will yield great results and the secret to that is to get them commenting on each other’s work and sharing work outside of school.
  • Some software makes it difficult to easily comment on each other’s work or to see other’s comments or it puts the kids’ work out in the blogosphere where it is unlikely to get any feedback at all. Develop strategies to combat that.
  • Here are some links about commenting.
  • A how-to guide on commenting.

A forgotten aspect of getting kids to blog, is ensuring they have:

  • keyboarding skills; a site that recommends good tutorial software for keyboarding.
  • Adequate computers and/or Internet connection at home; many students do not, and offering these kids opportunity to access school equipment is a viable solution. (One teacher up here is actually organizing a project to refurbish corporate computer discards and give them to kids.)

So with commenting as a key aspect of blogging, here are a few recommendations:

  • ywpschools.net  This is not shameless promotion; we are a small nonprofit and we do not yet have the capability of setting up classrooms outside of VT and NH, but will be doing a few national pilots in the coming school year. These sites are best thought of as “containers” that allow teachers to assign, critique and track all student work – even that done on outside Web apps; and allow students to respond to assignments, give and receive feedback and incorporate any multimedia they want. (For the techies among you, we use Drupal.) FYI, one 7th grade class using our sites this year has 48 students and, in 3 months has produce 669 posts and 1,449 comments to each other!
  • wordpress.org This software is relatively easy to use and set up. It’s free. But it does take some time and effort to do right; can a school tech person help? ALSO, there is wordpress-multi-user that may be an option for your school; it is also free.
  • kidblog.org Also a free service for student blogs; good functionality in being able to encourage commenting and see what others are doing.
  • blogger.com While you can’t beat the price and it’s a great way to get started, it is hard to administer and track student work; it is also hard for students to build community or offer a flurry of feedback.
  • edu2.0.com This seems more oriented to classroom management, but it’s free and people are using it for class blogging.

Modest cost alternatives

  • edublogs.com This has a limited free offering — storage is low and some advertising. But worth looking at. This service was great and free, but they changed the financing model.
  • ning.com This was also headed in a very nice direction — intuitive, free — but recently started charging. Check it out though; has many fine features.
  • 21classes.com The free version really is not that useful — little storage, to name one drawback — but paid is relatively inexpensive and offers some good features.

In upcoming posts, I’ll offer you thoughts on podcasting, using images, video commenting, slideshows and other experiences from our digital classroom experiences.

Geoffrey Gevalt is founder of Young Writers Project, a small nonprofit in Vermont that works with hundreds of teachers and thousands of students in an effort to improve students’ writing skills and digital literacy. To see the project’s work, visityoungwritersproject.orgdigitalteachers.net or ywpschools.net He can be reached at ggevalt (at) youngwritersproject.org or 802-324-9537

Simple Communication Tools for Schools

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This is a follow up to my blog post at the end of November urging educators to improve communication with their students and their families. I contend that publishing basic class information gives parents a window into your classroom and helps students get digitally organized. It’s now easier than ever as a plethora of tools exist to help people publish without a lot of technical steps. Creating and maintaining a class web site also does not have to be a time consuming chore.

Now that holidays are over and schools are back in session, perhaps now is a good time to explore a few recommendations of simple communication tools for schools.  The following are a few that are popular with educators; start playing with one tool that appeals to you and see where it leads!

One method of publishing is through bloggling. Blogs are made up of a series of linear posts.  The following blogging tools share many of the same features which include posting by visiting their website, through mobile devices or by emailing posts. They have design templates which are generally customizable and support the embedding of media such as links, photos, and videos. A few to try are:

Many teachers prefer wikis which are easily editable web pages. Wikis tend to provide more flexibility than blogs in terms of design. Most wiki providers give you a choice of templates and allow for the embedding of widgets which provide additional functionality. For instance, if you are a Google Docs user, you can embed documents in a Wikispaces wiki or you could use Google’s own wiki tool, Google Sites, to do the same thing. While you can usually assign multiple authors to a blog to create individual posts, wikis are better suited for collaborative purposes as you can invite others to edit your entire wiki. A few wiki services to try are:

To see how other teachers are using blogs and wikis, browse through the nominations and winners of the 2010 Edublog Awards and through CASTLE’s list of blogs by discipline and wikis.

Keep in mind that Blogger and Google Sites can be used by themselves or within Google Apps Education Edition if your school has adopted this platform. Wikispaces and PBWorks also offer no cost ad-free wikis to educators and Glogster also has a version for educators. Edublogs is also geared towards school audiences. Education versions of Web 2.0 tools usually give you more security options so that students can use them as well.

Edmodo is another tool worth a look and it defies categorization as a blog or wiki. Designed specifically for schools, Edmodo promotes the concept of micro-blogging and teachers can post easily to their Edmodo space on the web or using a mobile device. Calendars, assignments, links, files, and polls can be shared with students. Groups can be created, and educators can also connect to colleagues.

The selected resources mentioned in this blog post were picked for purely their ease of use and my intention was not to create an overwhelming list that might be interpreted as intimidating. However,  if you are interested in trying additional tools, read on.

Via Twitter, I asked other educators for suggestions of simple to use publishing tools and VoiceThread, Animoto, Wallwisher, and Audioboo were mentioned. Also, Larry Ferlazzo recommends various tools within his great list of his blog posts geared toward tech novices.

If you have any additional tools or strategies that you recommend, share them in the comments of this blog!

Students as Contributors: A Podcast with Silvia Tolisano

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In this podcast, Alan interviews Silvia Tolisano, 21st Century Learning Specialist, along with other administrators, teachers and students at Martin J. Gottlieb School. Here, students are being encouraged to take more of a leadership role in their learning as they take part in a variety of jobs inspired by Alan November’s article, Students as Contributors: The Digital Learning Farm.

The jobs these students are doing give them a great deal of responsibility and provide them with authentic tasks that result in meaningful content that supplements their learning and connects them with experts from around the world.

Silvia will be a presenter at the 2011 Building Learning Communities Conference. Click here for more information and to register.

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