Digital writing teachers explore

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In late June, YWP paired with some teachers from the Green Mountains Writing Project (the VT chapter of the National Writing Project) to lead an intensive week-long course on Digital Writing to a dozen teachers. It was exhausting, fascinating and — the good news — we were able to try out a couple of things we plan to do with participants of my pre-conference workshop next Monday afternoon at the BLC2011.

What was most startling to me was the degree to which teachers demanded — and got — extra time to go deeper into their interactive projects. We focused all the daily quick writes, reflections and activities around a theme of discovery and had the teachers do things that, sometimes, allowed them to go deeper with earlier writing. I’m not sure we had fully intended the outcomes, but it was truly inspiring to see that adults can learn in many of the same ways as children.

We had the teachers do some quick writes based on words or images or a series of images or sounds. We had them reflect on one point in our discussions that stood out. We had them create fiction and poetry and essays. We had them do a Five-Card Flickr exercise and then had them respond to five related photos we chose and then collaborate on creating a best story out of it. We had them bring in a picture of an elder and write a story about them and then podcast it and then add a music track to their podcast.

They loved that one. And they did it in stages, first the short piece which they revised on the basis of comments and their own desire to improve and tweak. They then recorded themselves narrating the piece. They revised some more and re-recorded. They then added a music track.

One teacher did a piece about her husband’s mother who had died when she was 23 and he was only five months old. The teacher was fastidious and abosorbed, making sure her recorded voice sounded strong, making sure the wording was just so, making sure the music did not drown out her narration. Her piece was powerful and heartfelt; you had a sense of the woman. What was most amazing, though, was the teacher’s desire to do the woman honor. She was nervous about how her father-in-law would react, specifically, would he be annoyed and tell her, “You never knew her.” and grumble away. I have not yet heard back from the teacher, but I imagine a much different picture, her father in law tearing up, being moved by a daughter-in-law who would go to such lengths.

Another teacher wrote about a rock, yes, a rock. But not any type of rock; one that was shaped like a frog which has, all her life, watched over her favorite swimming hole in a lake in Ontario where she goes every summer. “All four seasons Frog Rock sits patiently.  Watching.  Waiting for his little children to arrive.” It is no wonder that she’s so appreciated by her students.

And another wrote about someone she had met in college who died early, unexpectedly but who had always wanted to fly, “to get his wings.” As the teacher writer put it, “Emory had dreams and aspirations as we all do. He earned his wings on June 17th, 2003, but they were not the wings that he, I, or anyone else expected.”

What was so moving about this class was how the teachers leaped at the opportunity to create, to be students, to be like their yearlong charges. It was great to see what they produced, the risks they took and, in the process, the community they created. I so wish there was more time in the year for teachers to do this sort of thing. The teachers have continued to connect online, to read each other’s posts, to comment.

We are seeing the same behavior on a number of the school sites where the kids, simply, can’t stop writing, can’t stop connecting and are posting work their during summer vacation. I visited a summer writing camp at one of the schools last week. The kids were busy with writing when I walked in and, when they were done, we all moved into the computer lab where they did a free write to a piece of music that a friend of mine wrote. Then we talked. I was reminded by the snippet of sound I have included here, some of their reactions, earlier in the year, when asked what they thought of their digital writing classroom, how the writing — not the judging — is the important part.

[display_podcast]

The teachers in our course felt the same way — how the opportunity just to write and to learn and to explore without being judged, fostered engagement and growth. These teachers, like the students we work with, took creative risks in a supportive digital community. They helped each other take those risks. And they were deeply rewarded. So was I.

I’m looking forward to BLC2011. Hope I meet you.

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. He will be presenting at both the pre-conference and main conference at BLC2011. 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

 

So Much to Write…

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And so little time.

How often we run into this time crunch in the world of writing and the teaching of writing. We don’t have the students write because there’s not enough time to get the laptops out, or there is too much required work to get done. And how often we don’t post a comment, or, gulp, a blog post, because, well, we’re too busy. But I say just do it. Make time for writing. Get kids writing often. And get them in digital spaces so they can read and comment on each other’s work. Regularly. Engagement, improvement in writing and community building will result.

Tonight we had the final meeting of the North Section of YWP’s master class in digital writing. Teachers shared their most successful experiences of the year and the discussion quickly gravitated to a fundamental observation: Peer commenting on their YWP digital classrooms had an enormous impact on the students — and the teachers.

One teacher polled the students about what they liked about the site, about writing in a digital space where they got regular comments from their classmates. “The thing that meant most to them,” the teacher said, “was getting peer comments. They really didn’t want my comments — they get those all the time. They wanted their classmates’ point of view on what they were doing.”

Another teacher talked about how she got the students to rate each other’s work on individual projects. She was stunned not only by how accurate the responses were but also how direct — they were not afraid to, politely, tell each other what they thought the other had done well and what they thought had not been done well. As the teacher was telling about this experience, another teacher said she now regularly has her students rate each other’s work — privately to her — and she then gives each student her grade and the average grade the classmates gave each student. Often, she said, the students were stunned by the grade given them by their mates. This was not possible, she added, when the students were merely writing for an audience of one and the rest of the class didn’t see each other’s work.

A sixth grade teacher had his class set up their rubrics for commenting. They jumped at the opportunity, led the discussion and established the guidelines for the commenting and even created samples for the rubric. The teacher said he had seen results: “I’m amazed at the incredible growth” of the commenting. He offered several examples, including this one:

  • Good job on the work; it was amazing. I never thought that you could go to so many places in just in one trip.  I have on question for you: How many days/weeks  was the trip? Also why didn’t you bring me anything? Just kidding. But how come going to the animal shelter was your favorite part of the trip and also going to your uncle’s was you favorite part of the trip? I am just confused.   I loved it when you said “Your heart was beating loud and how maybe everyone could hear it.” That was my favorite part.  I think your writing was great, but there were a few parts that were iffy. I hope you find this comment helpful.

What I find interesting about the teacher’s example is the tone: The care, the civility and the specific observations.

A high school teacher said that the digital spaces — and peer commenting — had allowed her to “set aside my red pen” and encourage development of ideas. She also worked with the students in her AP class to establish that “each comment had to be unique to that piece. The comment could not apply to any other piece of writing.” Gone, then, were phrases like “this is a great piece of writing,” or “nice job.” The comments had to provide specific observation. The teacher modeled the commenting but then backed off as the class took over.

One downside: One teacher said that early on it was sometimes “devastating” to a student if he or she didn’t get a comment from a peer. All had developed ways to encourage, require, cajole, trick the kids into making sure everyone received comments and that students did not comment on only friends’ work. Among them: A shared responsibility — if anyone didn’t get a comment on an assignment, everyone’s grade would be reduced. Another told the students that she would not grade any of the work if he saw a piece did not have a comment. And still another teacher got the class to buy into full commenting coverage as a shared responsibility.

In last night’s session there was a consensus among the 15 teachers in class: Their students’ writing had improved as a direct result of regular peer feedback something only possible in a digital space.

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

 

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

Student Ownership in Digital Classrooms

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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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