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.
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.