Jul. 18, 2011

Digital writing teachers explore

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.


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


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