Today’s students, who have grown up with the emerging technologies at their fingertips, really challenge teachers to find new ways to engage them in their learning. These students operate in a global environment where information is just a click away and feedback is expected to be instantaneous. Their communications are brief and their emotions are shared via emojis. They are a visual generation whose first port of call to learn a new skill is YouTube. So as teachers of writing how can we use their preferred tools to not only engage them but to also ensure we are delivering the curriculum in a manner that they can relate to. This was the challenge I started to address a few years ago. I realised that teaching the way I was taught, by having students write narratives for me in their books and then providing them written feedback on completion was not addressing the needs of today’s students. Changes had to be made by me!
So 3 years ago I made some big changes in my teaching practice, and in return, the students made some big changes in their output. The first thing I did was to give up being the expert in my class on writing and brought in some help. Who better to teach lessons on the writing process that award-winning authors. So where do I find myself an award winning author who will come and teach my class for free I hear you ask. Well, that’s easy, Skype for education!
At Skype for education, they put you in touch with authors of all different genres who are willing to share their expertise for free via Skype. Each year my class takes part in 3 or 4 Skypes with amazing authors. I like to have a number of authors share their methods because when the students hear the same message from multiple sources they understand that this is what they need to do as well. As a teacher, I have learned so much from these Skypes! Students not only find out specific methods they can use to improve their writing and editing skills, but they also get practical knowledge of how to get published. It is always inspiring to hear the different journeys authors take to become a published author, but even better when the students see that they can do that too.
Every author we have Skyped with has been amazing, but my 2 personal favourites are Chris Tozier and Sean Fay Wolfe. Both of these authors really connected with my students and truly made them believe that they could become authors.
So after lighting the fire of inspiration, we get started as fast as possible. I always try to create unit plans so we are writing about topics or in a style that the students are truly interested in. The last 2 years we have written our on own Choose Your Own Adventure Stories and narratives that can be the basis for a video game. By taking note of what the students like to read from my extensive class library, as well as what they love to talk about when they are supposed to be working hard in class, I then look for ways to incorporate that into our writing.
Drafting & Editing
Students write their drafts using Google Docs. The reason for this is three-fold. Firstly once they share it with me I have a copy of their story, if something accidentally happens to their story I can always restore it through going into the revision history. We have learned the hard way how easy it can be for some students to magically delete all their work but with Google Docs that can’t happen. The second reason we use Google Docs is the ability to provide timely feedback. The first time I used Google Docs I was extremely surprised when I went home that night and checked out their narratives and found out that not only had they shared their stories with me but also their classmates and that they had all read each other stories and shared ideas and suggestion. It is powerful and motivating for students when you are able to be read their stories and provide them feedback in real time. It is also interesting to be able to see how much writing students are actually doing and when. No better way to keep students on task than to leave them a little message reminding them that you can see exactly what they are doing. This year I actually had three of the boys in my class not known for their writing collude to have their stories connect to each other. Their stories all originated in different settings (video games) but they all had a common protagonist and in the conclusion, to all their stories the characters all joined together to fight this protagonist. It was very cool to see this level of collaboration taking place and the excitement the boys had as they plan for the part 2 of their stories.
The last reason we use Google Docs is the ability for students to edit their work and add to it. The importance of using a word processor when writing narratives really hit home to me last year when my son was in another class and had just finished handwriting his final copy of a narrative he was writing. When he showed me his work I asked him a few questions about his story which he realised he needed to expand on so it made sense. All of a sudden I had my son in tears because he did not want to have to rewrite his story as he had put so much effort into his handwriting. He preferred to hand in what he recognised as a substandard story rather than rewriting it. I offered him my iPad and suggested he write his story in Google Docs and even if that wasn’t what the teacher wanted he would at least end up with a story he was proud of. His original story was 300 words, his typed story 585. This year he is my class and his latest story was 3629. I challenge anyone to write that many words out neatly. All the authors we have Skyped with have told us that the editing process actually takes the same amount of time that it takes to write the story and that the writing is a process of constant improvement and that a story is never finished. Producing a handwritten final copy of their narrative takes away this ability.
After my students have put so much effort into drafting and editing their stories I feel that it is imperative that I give them the opportunity to publish their work in a professional manner. To do this we use a simple yet powerful app called Book Creator. Book Creator is an extremely user-friendly iPad app that allows students to create e-books that can include text, images, audio, and videos. These books can then be exported as pdf’s or even movies which turn the pages and play any audio on the page.
I like to have my students work on their reading fluency as well and ensure we reach the largest audience possible, so I have them record themselves reading their stories so when exported as movies younger students can still enjoy the stories as audiobooks. This in itself is a challenge when you are working in a noisy classroom. To ensure we record books with high-quality audio I developed my own iPad recording booths. These have proved very efficient at removing unwanted background noise and are extremely cost effective. (Click here if you want to know how to construct them)
Another app we like to use to enhance our finished products is a green screen app called Do Ink. Using a Greenscreen allows students to set up and shoot photos to illustrate their stories and works perfectly with Book Creator. We painted a wall in our classroom green just for this purpose.
In my opinion, the way to best motivate young student writers is to provide them with an audience. When students write for a teacher they will produce work that is good enough, when they know they are writing for a global audience then they are highly motivated to produce work that is perfect. We love to publish our work on our class Kidblog and YouTube accounts. We have partnered with a number of schools overseas and this then allows the students the opportunity to share their work with other students their age from all over the World. We then also use Twitter to publicise what we have been learning about.
My students love to blog and each morning we spend the first 15 minutes of our day writing our own blog posts or commenting on other classes blogs. I have blogged about how much of a difference blogging has made to my students writing, reading and spelling in the past and this year is no different. My students are so excited to see comments on their posts and this then motivates them to write more.
Another recent addition to our writing routines in class is Penpalschools. Penpalschools not only links your students as pen pals with students of a similar age and interests from somewhere else in the World, but they also provide the students with lessons they can work through and discuss with their pen pals. This has proven to be highly motivating.
Where to for you?
When it comes to writing I believe the most important aspect we as teachers need to consider when it comes to having our students engaged with the writing process is the purpose for writing. By showing the students that their work is not just for a mark but rather it’s an opportunity to tell their story or share their experiences you will find you will engage even the most reluctant of writers, but in my opinion, this can only be successfully achieved through the use of digital technologies. If you haven’t tried these various apps or websites then I urge you to give them a go for your student’s sake, but if you have used other forms of technology successfully, please share as I am always looking for better ways to motivate my writers!
Blair Smith is a year 5/6 teacher in a small rural catholic school in Central Queensland, Australia. He is passionate about giving his students a global education , using technology to engage and enhance learning and embraces flexible seating in the classroom. He is a Microsoft Innovative Educator, Skype Master Teacher, Book Creator Ambassador and PenPal Schools Global Ambassador. Follow him on Twitter @mrsmiths56class and on his blog at www.blairsmithteaching.com