Blogstitute Week 4: Get Real!

August 1st, 2011

In this week’s Blogstitute entry, teacher and author Julie D. Ramsay (“Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing?) discusses why it’s important for students to have real reasons for writing and to connect with other student writers. “…providing my students with a real reason to write — and a real audience (besides me) to read that writing — completely changed my students’ perspective of writing,” Julie says.

Weigh in with your own experiences and questions and you will be entered to win a package of five writing books. Next week (August 8) you will hear from Carolyn Coman, author of Writing Stories, on how to make time for your own writing.

Get Real!

Now that another school year has ended, most of us are already contemplating the changes that we want to make for our upcoming students. Quite often I hear from teachers, “I don’t know how to teach writing” or “I feel my writing instruction is nonexistent.” In the school system where I’m currently teaching, we have such a rigid schedule that writing is often left for the last few minutes of the day—which means we have no time for writing workshop and very little time for structured writing lessons.

In spite of that, when I reflect on what has made the biggest difference in my students’ enthusiasm and drive to become expert writers, I have to say that providing my students with a real reason to write—and a real audience (besides me) to read that writing—completely changed my students’ perspective of writing.

The evolution of new technology tools has given us access to the world at our fingertips. Although providing an authentic audience for our students may take a bit of time to set up, if you know where to look this summer, you can make the connections necessary to provide your students with a plethora of real writing opportunities for the upcoming school year. These connections will prove invaluable to our students, regardless of grade level, ability level, or content area. They will become so excited about writing that they will beg to have more time during the day to write. Following are some ways to help make this happen.

1.    Find teachers with similar writing goals. “How do I do this?” is often the first question people ask. Many of us will spend at least some of our summer pursuing professional development opportunities, whether these are in our own districts, at national conferences, or via webinars attended at home. While you are there and chatting with other educators (whether face-to-face or online, keep in mind that all of these people can provide potential writing partners for your classroom. If you feel that certain people might be a good match for you and your students, ask them if they are interested in having their students connect with your students through their writing. Be sure to get a feel for their expectations up front so that your students won’t lose their writing partners halfway through a project.

Another great way to connect with other educators is through Twitter, where you can find a large contingent of educators learning from one another and participating in a constant flow of conversation, sharing, and connecting. If you are unfamiliar with how to use Twitter, here is a blog post that I wrote for the Alabama NBCT Network about how to get started. Through Twitter, I have discovered many like-minded educators who feel passionate about giving our students the kinds of opportunities they crave in the classroom today. I have connected with other teachers and formed yearlong connections between our students, providing both sets of students the opportunity to write and teach one another through an ongoing project.

When your students know that other students are the ones who will be reading what they’ve written, they take what they write much more seriously. They realize that their audience is depending on them to communicate clearly through their writing.

2.    Collaboratively publish. Now that you’ve made some connections, your students need to publish their writing for and with their new writing partners. My students are currently engaged in a yearlong collaborative project with students from across the United States. All 300 of these students create and publish an online digital journal that the students named The Coast to Coast Chronicles. They collaboratively publish four editions; each edition has a theme that the students collectively choose. They publish and house all of their work on Wikispaces, a free tool that is fairly intuitive to use. If you’ve ever used word processing software or written any e-mails, Wikispaces will be right up your alley. You can set the security parameters to meet the needs of your projects, and it’s easy to add URL links, photos, and files (including audio files, PowerPoint presentations, and Word documents) and to embed actual projects into a page.

Another tool that is very useful when students want to collaboratively publish their work is Voice Thread. Voice Thread not only allows users to set up viewing and editing parameters, but collaborators can work on it from anywhere. With Voice Thread, you can upload files and record comments via voice, text, doodle, or video. Then the friends you’ve invited to edit can go in and make comments of their own. As one of my students commented, “The more you add to it, the better it gets.” When students know that a much wider audience is going to not only see and hear their writing, but also learn from and comment on it, it changes the assignment from something that is static to something that is alive and growing. There is a real purpose to what they are collaboratively publishing, and their partners are depending on them to create quality writing for the final project. You can see an example of a project that my students published with their collaborative partners here.

3.    Bring experts into the classroom. How many of us want our students to really connect with the importance of writing? What better way than to actually get to talk to experts and then spend time sharpening their own craft? Today, our students can easily do this with professionals from around the world by using Skype. There are many authors and writers out there who are more than happy to speak to your students. If you let your guests know what your students are practicing, they can weave it into their lesson and make it interactive for your students.

These experts don’t necessarily have to be writers for your students to gain a perspective of how important communicating with others can be to them, both inside and outside of the classroom. Although my students enjoy their conversations with the professional experts, their favorite experts were a group of older students. We had the opportunity this year to Skype with astronomy and anatomy students. My students were learning real things from real students and applying them to their lives. Then they were using their newfound knowledge to write and create new projects for their real audience. Their enthusiasm was infectious. You know you’ve hit on something remarkable when students are diligently writing late on a Friday afternoon and complain when it’s time to go home.

4.    Encourage self-reflection.  What better way for students to really connect with their learning than by reflecting through their writing on what they’ve learned? I begin this practice the first day of school. My students understand that it is their responsibility to share what they’ve learned and how they’ve grown, and to set goals for the future. Although they are writing for themselves, they know that their learning can impact others.

An excellent way for students to reflect is through blogging. After some extensive modeling and exploring of blogs (good, bad, and ugly), my students set up the basic criteria for blogging. A tool like Kidblog allows teachers control over what is published and what is not. This is also an excellent venue to connect with another class; students from each class can comment on one another’s posts. This gives the students a real audience and a real reason to share their learning through their writing.

So this summer, while you’re discovering new professional practices, keep in mind the idea of connecting your students with others, which will provide them with a real reason to write and create. You’ll be amazed at how much your students will crave writing when they know they have a real audience to read what they’ve written. Before you know it, you’ll have your students begging to skip lunch so that they can keep writing.

Entry Filed under: Technology,Writing

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Michelle  |  August 1st, 2011 at 3:01 pm

    I saw the title of your book a couple months ago and I just HAD to have it! This last year I jumped into blogging with my intermediate students. What an awesome experience — and to know that they were going home and posting from home in the evenings! I love that the students have a purpose and choice for writing and an audience as well. Isn’t that what motivates us? This year I’m hoping to incorporate the use of Voice Thread. Still trying to figure out exactly how I want to use this tool. I also found Kate Messner’s resources of authors who skype for free: http://kmessner.livejournal.com/106020.html But I’m intrigued with your idea of moving beyond “chatting” with writers, but to other experts or students practicing a craft! Great ideas for a new school year! Thanks so much Julie!

  • 2. Linda Baie  |  August 1st, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    I am a literacy coach for my school, & am happy to receive & share all your ideas to get students connecting in so many ways. Our school’s students study various individual topics & it would be wonderful for each to find an expert or two to stay in touch with throughout the year. I’m hosting a blogging class this year & will use kidblog, & am looking forward to seeing the students so empowered by those connections, too. Thanks for the variety of ideas!

  • 3. Mrs. V  |  August 1st, 2011 at 11:40 pm

    I love your idea of having students from classrooms across the country collaborating on a wiki, and especially enjoyed the aspect that it was a multi-age project. Thanks for all of the ideas.

  • 4. Tracy  |  August 3rd, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    Your ideas have pushed me to begin exploring the use of Wikispaces in my own classroom. This resource/tool is mentioned in so many things I come across, I now know I’ve got to check it out for myself! You are so right, kids should have an audience beyond me, and their own classmates. Thanks for sharing.

  • 5. Elizabeth G  |  August 3rd, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    You have given me so many things to consider. Thankfully I have a month to pull it all together. I’m eager to start a blog for my students but haven’t figured out the logistics yet. You gave me a great place to start. Thank you!

  • 6. KimberlyGutierrez  |  August 8th, 2011 at 6:52 am

    I teach first grade, so having my students use a WIKI, SKYPE, or any of the others mentioned would be a little hard. However, our building this past year had a discussion about how conventions has taken a second seat in writing and it is really showing in our scores. I have been trying to find ways to add more convention work in my classroom for the upcoming school year. I felt that shared journalling would be a great way to go. I am modeling then for them and really focusing on the conventions while we share the writing for anything (I plan to do it for all subjects). As I was reading this, I thought that maybe I could encourage my colleagues to email with me a shared journal writing page that we can then display on our promethean boards. Then we can see what others in our school and friends in other cities are doing in their classrooms.

  • 7. Julie D. Ramsay  |  August 14th, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    Thank you so much for all of your comments. I’m glad that all of you were able to find something useful or inspiration from this blog post.

    Michelle and Linda- in addition to Skyping in authors, there is a list of experts in other areas that are willing to Skype with your students across content areas. As writing teachers, we know that writing and communicating bridges the gap across grade levels and content areas. You can find that list here: http://www.skypeforeducators.com/educators.htm

    Best wishes to all on an exciting school year!
    ~Julie

  • 8. Cathy Gassenheimer  |  August 18th, 2011 at 10:39 am

    Hi Julie,
    We just posted a link to this story on the Alabama Best Practices Center’s Facebook page. Would love to learn more about you and your work. All the best,
    Cathy

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