What are you doing to make writing real in your classroom?

Are your students writing for you or themselves? Are your students writing for you or for a real audience? Are your students writing because they have to and don’t know or because they want to and have a purpose? Have you thought about what you are doing to make writing real in your classroom?

  • Do your students write the school newsletter and fill it with interesting student generated content or is just full of a bunch of reports from teachers, parents and the principal?
  • Do they publish their writing as ebooks that are uploaded to the school website or a class/personal blog so that parents, friends, other students and any other interested reader can download it onto their iPad, Kindle, smartphone and read it, giving them a audience beyond their teacher and classmates?
  • Are your students writing advertisements on fictitious products because it’s the genre of the month in your class or have they made a connection with a local business and put forward a proposal to create some real ads for them to promote their product in the local community or on YouTube?
  • Do your students write a news report so it can be checked off as a non fiction piece of writing to contribute to the requirements for Term 3 writing OR are they part of a dedicated group of students across the school publishing a school newspaper or online news service including school and local news, sport, editorials on important issues they are concerned about, restaurant, music, book and movie reviews, comic strips or satirical cartoons, letters to the editor as well as ads for school and local events? OR Have you made contact with the local newspaper and set up a program allowing children to have their articles published on a regular basis in an actual newspaper?
  • Are you singing Silent Night and Jingle Bells for the 30th Christmas Concert in a row or have you used the talents of local songwriters to run workshops to write some student created songs to perform instead?
  • Have you contacted and made arrangements with an interested author to run workshops with budding writers and possibly collaborate on a book together instead of relying on your own limited narrative writing abilities to teach them to write something with a decent plot?
  • Have you thought of students creating textbooks for other grade levels to use for their next inquiry topic instead of just finishing the unit off with long winded presentations in front of the whole grade and then filing them under “Done”?
  • Have you given them the opportunity to collaborate on a play that they will write and perform for an audience of their choice? Have you given them the opportunity to write a letter to the local theatre company and put forward a proposal to gain their support in the production?
  • Have you considered contacting the local community radio station and booking a regular spot for your class to present a radio program, reader’s theatre performance of a play they have written, conduct an interview of a local celebrity, participate in a debate,all of which have been written by them? OR if not the radio station have you published them as podcasts online?
  • Instead of getting them to write expositions in preparation for the next state or national standardized writing test, have you given your students opportunities to send persuasive texts to the principal, local councillors, members of parliament, major newspapers, TV and radio news programs to argue for change?

(There are a lot of other great examples teachers are using. I’d love to hear them in the comments below.)

If we want to know why our students are still not correcting their spelling errors or leaving out punctuation and paragraphs, maybe we need to consider whether we give them reason to. So let’s make writing real. if you at going to put all that effort that teachers do into conferencing, feedback, exposing them to all those great tech tools for publishing, surely we should give them a reason for all that effort to be put in.

So what are you doing to make writing real in your classroom?

Quality story writing through the power of Pixar

Thanks to PBJ Publishing for this infographic and link to the power of Pixar! A text based list of these points is also available on their website.

20120714-081438.jpg

Narrative writing is probably the hardest writing to master. For many, it’s definitely the hardest to teach. Possibly it’s because we as teachers haven’t written many Narratives in our adult lives. So maybe we should source out the experts when it comes to narratives. Of course, we all have at some stage. The librarian has brought out the famous author as a guest speaker or to do workshops, Skype has possibly brought some writers into our classes, and we have all used great stories as models for great writing.

What I love about this list from Pixar, though, is its breadth of ideas.

  • It goes well beyond the limitations of that rusted in scaffolding template of “Orientation, Complication and Resolution”. Love No. 4 – simple but powerful story telling structure.
  • It emphasizes the importance of character, not just describing them but developing them. Following the points on character alone would improve any story.
  • It stresses that the audience’s interest is the key to the story content, not the writer’s. This brings in the importance of purpose. What are you writing the story for? If not to be read by others, then why write it? ( which could explain why so much substandard writing gets produced when the only audience is the teacher and the only purpose is to get an assessment score). Getting student writers to focus on audience encourages them to think beyond their interests alone.
  • It makes clear the importance of planning. Ideas that stay in your head don’t get written. Write down everything and ignore the first ones. The more you think, the better the idea.
  • It admits that it’s OK to use other people’s ideas. Pull apart the great stories and analyse what’s great about them. Critique the bad stories and avoid what went wrong.
  • It outlines what’s needed for a great story.

Pixar is the Shakespeare of our time ( without the incomprehensible language 😜). Their story telling is almost flawless ( Cars 2 notwithstanding.) Any advice they give us should be cherished. Share this with your students and teachers. Let’s inspire great writing with something different.

Creativity and Quality vs Time Constraints and Quantity

Thanks to Dangerously Irrelevant for the video and the spark for this post

What do we hope to achieve as teachers? Good grades for our students? Year over year growth based on testing, standards and outcomes? Engagement in life long learning? Develop fully their talents and creativity? All of these are important goals in education but at some point we need to decide which is the most important in this “21st Century/Contemporary Teaching/Personalised Learning Education Environment we purport to be in today.

This simple video has made me think again about my philosophy of teaching and my dream for education. Creativity is one of the great goals that drives the push for contemporary teaching and learning. Do our actions support its development?

For me, we are still driven by time constraints in the day to day reality of school. This hampers creativity.

Instead of expecting a student to write, edit and publish (whether teacher or student is satisfied or not) a text every week so we have “enough” evidence to justify the grade on the semester report card, why can’t we allow the student time to work on one or two texts over a long period of time until we are all proud of the result? Did the D student get a D because he can’t write or because he didn’t get the opportunity or support to improve his text before moving on to task 34? ( It reminds me of 2007 when my daughter came back from our Europe holiday and had to complete the statewide Gr 5 writing test, a 40 minute exercise in putting words on paper. She was ‘slightly below standard’ on the report because she didn’t finish. I should have sent the assessors her 100 page journal she compiled while on our trip, the writing that captivated family and friend alike for its detail and reflective depth.) What is it as teachers we are assessing – product or process? The time limited end result or the growth and improvement over time? Do children have to write a persuasive text, a narrative, a report, a review, an explanation, a recount, a book response all in one term or semester just because they’re all written in your system’s curriculum document? Was Shakespeare not “at standard” because he didn’t write an expository text on the strengths and weaknesses of Queen Elizabeth?

Is it more productive to assess ONE 15 page piece of quality writing over the course of the term or semester (not just at the end when its finished-no one wants to do that), progressively monitoring and assessing the language conventions, sentence structures, use of literary devices that you have discussed and taught the student over time OR give a score to 15 “OK” pieces of writing the child gets no opportunity to improve? I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

Our students may not want to persist at editing and improving a text over a long period of time because they have grown up in a system ( and I’ve been part of it for 25 years so I’m not criticising anyone without taking the blame too) that values quantity over quality, product over process and finishing over creating. If we really want to bring about Sir Ken Robinson’s revolution, this has to change. Collecting 20 samples of writing that are not good enough has to be replaced by a paradigm shift to working on a text until it is great. Ticks, crosses and percentage points don’t teach a student how to improve their writing ( or counting, calculating,thinking, questioning,researching, drawing). Guidance, tracking, encouragement, constructive feedback, expectation and TIME does.

Can we do it? Should we do it? What do you think? Would love to hear what others have to say. Join the conversation.

Digital Portfolios – is Blogging a good option?

cartoon from www.weblogcartoons.com

Cartoon by Dave Walker. Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons.

A couple of things happened last term. My school finally took the plunge and allowed the Grade 6 students to replace their file books with digital portfolios as a means to collate their work to share with their parents at home and during parent/teacher interviews. The other thing was that a small group of teachers dipped their toe into class blogging. By the end of the term, we ended up with two problems – How do we create the best Digital Portfolio and Do we want to really blog?

Let me explain.

During my ‘Techie Brekkies” before school, I introduced blogging to a group of interested teachers. They had lots of questions and not all were answered but we ended the couple of sessions with setting up blogs, but apart from one grade level who used their blog for Camp updates and reflection, not much happened after the meetings. Then I introduced Edmodo and it seemed to be a more useful and easier to set up option. Edmodo now has full adoption across all Grade 5/6s as a collaboration/work sharing/assessment and class organisation tool. It was seen as more relevant than having a class blog at this stage in the development of the teachers involved. ( Note: the whole “Techie Brekkie” thing went into hiatus during report writing season and so there was no follow up to blogging session. We’ll pick it up again next term).

In terms of the Digital portfolios, there was a push for them last year in the 5/6 area but because they were just an add on to the  school wide  file book/work sample policy, they were not fully embraced by teacher or student. In 2012, however, change came about and the Grade 6 students moved from paper based file book to digital portfolio. They adopted Powerpoint as the platform ( not my personal choice nor my decision to make) and then last term decided they would  export them over to Sliderocket so that they could be accessed via the internet at home. It was soon apparent, though, that this was a fail as a workflow as the export experience didn’t upload attached files or links. This was compounded by SlideRocket’s sudden policy change which locked the children out of accounts ( hence my recent posts about Web 2.0 for the Under 13s).

When this happened, I started thinking of alternatives. The teachers initially decided to stick with PowerPoint but start a new portfolio ( the originals quickly became bloated, growing to unmanageable sizes that took forever to load over wireless networks – need to invest in video compression software!) I started thinking of blogging.  From reading about blogging over the last year, however, from the likes of Kathleen Morris, Linda Yollis and Langwitches Blog ( who seem to respected in the field of class blogging) and reflecting myself earlier in the year in this post (and here as well),  my quandary is that I may be blurring the lines between blogging and digital portfolios. Am I rushing the students and teachers into blogging by attaching the importance of the official digital portfolio to it without going through the process of preparing them for blogging as outlined by the aforementioned “experts”?

Nevertheless, today, I am pushing ahead with a “Pros and Cons” list to help me decide what the best choice might be from my point of view. Obviously, I would like feedback from you, my readers, on what you think is the best option. It’s a work in progress and would like to hear suggestions from you for both the pros and cons. 

PROS FOR BLOGGING AS DIGITAL PORTFOLIO

  • “Anywhere, any time access” to their work for composing, editing, publishing and sharing with their parents. One of my problems with the whole twice a year file book access is that parents aren’t kept informed on the progress or quality of their children’s work. With the blog as portfolio option, the child’s work is more transparent and because the parents can see the work during all stages of the year, children may be more motivated to work at the standard Mum and Dad expects of them.
  • A bigger audience for greater purpose and motivation. Opening up their work to a wider audience puts the responsibility of quality back on to the students. It should also motivate them to publish quality work as well since it is being viewed by others.
  • Feedback and collaboration. Through moderated comments, parents, friends and the wider world audience can provide feedback, encouragement, praise and advice. With access controls, individuals can be invited to collaborate on posts under the supervision of the teacher to ensure collaboration goes smoothly. Shared posts can be linked to each others’ blogs so that the work can be shown to both students’ parents and audiences.
  • Controlled environment and ease of communication between teacher and student. With student blogs linked to a teacher blog, teachers and students can control the level of privacy and access to their work. Students can save their work as unpublished drafts and teachers can review their work before they go further. Students and teachers together can make decisions about which posts go public and which remain private. This gives a student control over what he/she wants to publish to a wider audience while still being able to show their parents all their work.
  • Wide range of publishing options available through uploading, hyperlinks and embedding published work from other web tools. One of the time wasting tasks I have seen through the PowerPoint Digital Portfolio option is organising file storage, folder structures, hyperlinking to files, linking to work published with software not available at home and the resulting broken links when all of these tasks are completed effectively. An online version with links controlled by the blogging platform and a central storage area coupled with the ease of linking and embedding to work that exists on the internet, not in random folders spread across the school network is a more user friendly option. Having the online option may also encourage students to try out more web tools for composing and publishing their work. It may move them away from just typing words out in Microsoft Word and onto Prezis, comic strips, slideshows and audio presentations that can easily be embedded in their portfolio blog.
  • Purposeful blogging. I’ve checked out a lot of student blogs in my research for setting up blogging at school. While there are some outstanding examples from very talented student writers, there are also a lot of blogs out there that don’t meet the standards and guidelines outlined by the blogging experts above. Like a lot of technology, many teachers never progress their students past the experimental stage and we are left reading unedited “my Favourite……” posts by the truckload. Using the blog as a digital portfolio gives a consistent purpose to what is being posted and students won’t spend time wondering what to write next.
  • Part of whole school program, not an added extra. A digital portfolio blog would include work from all areas of the curriculum and would encourage publishing of work in the Arts, Sport, Mathematics and other subjects besides Literacy which can dominate a blog as the “writing subject”. Hopefully, this would encourage the use of technology for reflecting upon and showcasing learning in the non text based subjects.
  • Consistent, purposeful reflection across all curriculum areas. By using the blog as a digital portfolio, students will have an accessible place to store their reflections on learning side by side with the actual work they are reflecting upon.
  • Easy to use publishing and organisational platform. Thoughtful tags to identify each post, organised in Portfolio categories ( subject areas ), pasting the embed code or link from work done on another web tool – and we’re done. A simple to organise workflow that allows easy access to all files with a simple click on a link.
  • Home/School Link. On top of the connection between school and home available to the parents through the blog option, the maintenance of the blog becomes purposeful homework in all curriculum areas.
  • Teacher Accountability/future direction. Access to student work is soon to become part of our Educational landscape in my system. I can already access individual files of my own children’s work, albeit work that is uploaded and commented on by their teachers in their own time. Having the blog as a digital portfolio easily accessible by parents places some onus on teachers to be consistent and up to date with their assessment and feedback, which helps with teachers planning for children’s learning and improvement.

CONS OF BLOGGING AS DIGITAL PORTFOLIO

  • Rushed process without preparing for the responsibility of online publishing. This is not a problem with blogging itself. Rather it’s more a problem with moving straight into using it as a Digital Portfolio platform without having already having experience in blogging. When we adopted Edmodo, there were plenty of teething problems with getting the students to use it appropriately ( that is now ironed out). Morris, Yollis and Langwitches all emphasise the need to for a gradual release of responsibility and training in posting and commenting. Having said that, as a Digital portfolio, the work that is published on the blog will be controlled in some way.
  • Maintaining feedback. There is a danger that teachers will find it too difficult to maintain the same level of feedback and commenting over the duration of the year, considering the public nature of the blogging platform.
  • Negative feedback. How students react to possible feedback of a critical nature is something to consider. Does the digital portfolio component of the blog remain separate from other posts through privacy settings?
  • Separation of Teacher/Student/Parent Comments during the composing process and once published. How do we manage the situation of comments from teachers at the composing/editing stage being misunderstood by parents? Does the student want their classmates’ comments being seen by parents or vice versa? Should the teacher comments be privately viewed?
  • Making a blog “all work and no play”. When you look at successful blogs, they’re about building relationships with audiences, being free to publish posts of your own choice, having fun with the layout, plug ins etc. By making it the Digital Portfolio, you run the risk of sucking the joy and freedom out of blogging and making it all about school work.
  • Access/Connection issues. 90 students simultaneously trying to blog at school can play havoc with the wifi. We run the risk of making the students’ work inaccessible during high traffic periods. Not all students have easy and regular access to the internet at home.
  • Quality control/Teacher accountability. Keeping track of 30 student blogs is no easy task. If students have publishing rights, unchecked work might slip through to public viewing and cause concern for teacher responsibility. Teachers who aren’t confident with technology may find the blogging platform difficult to manage.
  • The linear blogging structure. While tags and categories can make linking to individual post simple, the scrolling, back dated, linear structure of a blog is not always the best way of presenting a large body of work.

I personally think my pros outweigh my cons, although their are some definite issues to address. But I’m a prolific blogger and a confident user of web tools. That doesn’t make it the best choice for everyone. I know there are alternatives but I haven’t experimented with them as much as blogging. As I said earlier, I would really like some feedback from others who have used Digital Portfolios with their students. Do you use blogs or something completely different? What have been your issues and challenges? Please leave a comment and join the conversation. I’d really appreciate it.

The Literacy Shed – A great new resource for Visual Text Literacy Teaching

screenshot of Literacy Shed homepage

Every now and then you come across a resource that makes you go “Wow! How useful is this?” Thanks to one of my teacher colleagues, I have had the chance to explore one such website. The Literacy Shed,created by UK teacher Rob Smith, is a fantastic resource for Literacy teachers looking for short video clips to support their teaching.

The site is organised into 24 different ‘sheds”, each providing a selection of quality visual texts (mainly 3D animations) accompanied by very useful teaching notes outlining how you can use the clips in exploring themes, characterisation, narrative, plot, mood, use of audio, body language, inferences,deductions, predictions  – the notes cover just about everything. It’s equally useful for reading comprehension and writing development. The use of the resources also go beyond just Literacy. Many of the resources are also useful for Humanities subjects as well and Smith points these links out in detail. What I especially enjoy is the number of foreign animations that expose students particularly in USA and Australia, my home, to different cultural and creative perspectives beyond Hollywood story telling.

In the table below, I’ve shared the different areas (sheds) of the site. As you can see, a large number of story genres are provided. Following the table I’ve provided an example of teaching notes that accompany a video clip.

The Fantasy Shed The Other Cultures Shed The Ghostly Shed The Inspiration Shed The Moral Shed The Picture Book Shed
The Great Animations Shed The Love Shed The Fairy Tale Shed The Inventor’s Shed The Reading Shed The Poetry Shed
The Adventure Shed The Mystery Shed The Film Trailers Shed The Fun Shed The Lighthouse Shed The Flying Books Shed
The Resource Shed The Blog Shed The Non Literacy Shed The Weblinks Shed The Literacy Shed Home Contact Us

Teaching Ideas (based on the animation Alma – a chilling Doll story


Let the children listen to the soundtrack of the film, turn off IWB, can they guess what kind of film this is? Thriller etc?  What moods? There is quite a lot of suspense etc.

Children could predict what happens at certain points e.g. what will happen when she goes into the shop?

Children could ask questions at specific points e.g. Why is the town empty? Why does the doll just look like her? Where is the shopkeeper?  What does he do with the dolls?

The children could write a sequel to this film perhaps changing parts of it.

Can the children draw/describe what they think the owner of the shop looks like? Maybe produce a wanted poster.

Here is some fabulous work create by the Year 6 class at Greenfields Primary School.

http://www.mapleclassgreenfields.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/story-writing.html?m=1

These are tremendous stories with some very sophisticated plots and sentence structures

Children are becoming more and more tuned into visual texts in an increasingly multimodal media-rich world. Storytelling for children today is more about movies, animations and interactive digital books. Just providing the written text alienates a large proportion of your class. The Literacy Shed provides a wealth of resources that will engage students and the teaching ideas shared on the site will develop a range of high calibre literacy skills. I recommend this site to all teachers ( mainly aimed at Primary/Elementary schools but still relevant for older children in Middle School) who are looking to use more visual texts in their lessons.

The power of Social Networking in Grade 6 with Edmodo

I had a big week in class last week. As I’ve said earlier, my role this year in the 5/6 level has led to me being, among other things, a support teacher in a variety of curriculum areas. The week just past saw me taking workshops and lessons across Reading, Writing and Inquiry. I had a similar role last year but always felt like I wasn’t accepted by the students as their ‘teacher’ because I wasn’t always around due to my other responsibilities. It was only late last year after I attended a Tech Conference and was introduced to the potential of Edmodo that I was able to make a real and lasting connection with the Grade 6 students in a real way. After the conference, I was asked to take a Literature Circle group by the Grade 6 teachers and I quickly saw Edmodo as a vehicle I could use to work with them outside of physical contact time. It worked really well as a test case. This year, with that experience behind, I decided to go full steam ahead with every workshop and lesson group I plan.

At the moment I am involved with the Grade 6 students in a Ballad Poetry workshop ( I wrote about that last week), an Inquiry workshop investigating the issue of Urban Sprawl and a Reading Comprehension group with both Grade 5 and 6 students. ( I haven’t signed the Grade 5 students up with Edmodo yet).

Each of the Grade 6 groups are connected to each other and myself through an Edmodo small group within the main Grade 6 group. I decided to use small groups so that it is easy just to switch groups of children in and out of focus groups rather than give them codes every couple of weeks to join new groups. It has also allowed the other Grade 6 teachers to create and manage their own groups easily while also having access to their students who are working for me.

What I have found already is how engaged the students immediately became the moment they were given the opportunity to use a social networking environment. Children who never open their mouths in discussions were suddenly asking and responding to multiple questions from teacher and student alike. Students who rarely express opinions were involved in debates, linking to websites and Youtube videos to back up their opinions. Individuals who in the past have found it difficult to submit any work on time were uploading multiple revisions of assignments after getting timely feedback. This is just a snapshot of the response I, and the other teachers who quickly jumped on board over the course of the week when they saw the initial response from my groups, received during the week. I want to go into a bit more detail about each group interaction now.

URBAN SPRAWL INQUIRY

I began this inquiry workshop with a shared text outlining the basic premise of Urban Sprawl. What I did differently from the past was I allowed the children to sit with laptops beside them as we read the text. They were allowed to use Edmodo to post reactions, new learning and questions that arose from the content of the text. I had worked with many in this group last year in a variety of settings and some rarely provided any feedback or made any meaningful contributions. It was these very students who became key contributors to the conversation here. The freedom to use Technology and their natural environment of social networking/chatting opened up channels of communication that traditional chalk and talk or rotating brainstorm sheets didn’t engage them in.

One student’s question led to multiple responses from others that deepened the inquiry beyond my initial goals. Questions about the content enabled the group to post new concepts to investigate within the broader topic. As a result, within 3 sessions, I have teams of children investigating issues of traffic and transport, access to facilities like education and hospital services and the pros and cons of megacities, all without me suggesting any of it. I strongly believe based on past experiences without technology that this would not have happened without my encouragement if we had just read the text.

The engagement was evident when they posted their own links to Youtube videos of local politicians talking about Urban Sprawl issues, Annotated Google Maps showing distances from outlying suburbs to city hospitals, and links to maps of train networks as they discussed online the inequalities of train travel for some outer suburbs. I’m away with the Grade 5s on Camp next week but I know that I leave this group with a shared understanding of the issues to discuss with other class members without me being there. HAving said that, as an ubergeek teacher, I have also said I will be checking in via my iPhone or iPad from camp to see what they are doing and would be available to support them online if necessary.

BALLAD POETRY GROUP

I spoke at length in my last post about this so this is more of an update of how these sessions have progressed. All students have taken the opportunity to post attempts on Edmodo. Admittedly, there has not been much interaction between the students in this case but they have appreciated the timely feedback to their questions ands attempts from me. As a result, some (but not all) students have posted drafts of verses for me to feedback on and then responded with edited posts. Each student has uploaded their ballad plans for me to have access to, enabling me to provide advice directly to them. The fact that using Edmodo means submitting digital texts means they are more willing to edit their work instead of rewriting entire texts each time if done via pen and paper.

On Friday, we collaboratively drafted a rubric to support them in their writing but I took it away to polish it up and structure in more detail. There was too much of a delay for some who wanted access to it straight away ( One girl posted a request for it at 7 am Saturday morning) and so one of the students took it upon herself to post a link to an online study guide about Ballads which was quickly appreciated by others through replies. Again, while I’m away on Camp, I promised them I would continue to check in and provide feedback to them, something I couldn’t have done in the past.

THE READING COMPREHENSION GROUP

I had two aims for this group. One was for instant responses and shared feedback on comprehension questions in an open forum. The other was to encourage independent editing and revising of work through the Assignments feature of Edmodo.

We started this group work with a shared reading of a newspaper article, using 3 Level Guide statements to encourage conversation on the article. The children were asked to justify the accuracy of the statements by providing evidence in the text. By having the article linked to our Edmodo group, the children had quick access to the article for cross referencing and were able to copy/paste quotes to back up their arguments. By posting their responses online, we could challenge each others opinions instantly, either through verbal feedback with our online conversation on the iWB or through posting replies either during the group session at school, or as often occurred, continuing the discussion online at home. This challenged the children to question their responses and also to provide further explanation rather than the quick responses we often get through one off replies in standardised tests or one session tasks. The inclusion of social networking tools gives that extra think time and the opportunity to add to your opinions after hearing what others have to say. This helps to develop a deeper level of thinking than we get from one chance only tasks.

As a follow up task, I set them an assignment to submit by the end of the week. I made it clear that I wanted them to submit their drafts online through Edmodo’s Assignments section and that I would respond quickly with feedback and expected a second ( or third) edited response. The students responded positively to this and all but one of the 15 students gave me at least a second revision, responding effectively to the feedback in both structure and additional detail. I’m a strong believer that word processing tools should be used at all stages of the writing process as it encourages students to make revisions if they don’t have to do complete rewrites of handwritten texts. My role as the teacher was to give timely feedback so that they saw the worth of early submission and multiple revisions. All the students who participated fully produced a final copy at the expected level.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Part of adjusting to the concept of 21st Century Learning or Contemporary Learning  (whatever you choose to call it) is playing to the strengths of your students. Social Networking is ingrained in their way of being so it use seems like a no brainer that we utilise that in our teaching. The increased engagement I have seen in just one week of using Edmodo with this years’ Grade 6s for the first time makes me even more convinced of its merit. If it gets more than just that usual 20% who contribute to every lesson involved then it has already made a difference. From what I have seen in this short time frame, along with last year’s experiment, it does a lot more than that.

I’d like to hear from other teachers of your personal experiences of using this type of social networking in classrooms, both successes and challenges ( it wasn’t perfect -one child did manage to post a picture of a mouse on a mouse during the Urban Sprawl lesson!!). Join the conversation.

Writing Ballad Poems through ICT tools

After a lot of administrative work last term, I’m finally back regularly doing what I like best – teaching. In my role ( one of many ) as a Lead Teacher supporting the 5/6 Team, I get to teach small groups of students in workshop environments in areas of need and/or choice. This term, the Grade 6 students are beginning their writing workshops by focusing on different narrative forms. As a songwriter, I’ve written many songs in the Ballad style, telling stories through song. This was a natural fit for me to take on a Narrative Workshop based around Ballad Poetry. Combining my talents in writing and ICT, I have decided to heavily incorporate Web tools to teach this unit. Here’s a rundown of how I plan to do it.

My main tool for delivering this unit of work will be Edmodo. I’ve created a subgroup within the main Grade 6 Edmodo group specifically for Ballad
Poetry. Before the lessons even begin next week, I have posted links to Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, a YouTube video of the Ballad of Paul Bunyan for an American ballad example, a site showcasing all the ballads of Robin Hood as an introduction to how traditional ballads as story telling originated and a link to a website that has a published version of ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s “Mulga Bill’s Bicycle”, ensuring the students are also exposed to our native Australian ballads. During the next 3 weeks of the unit, I will be encouraging the students to post their own search results of ballads so that they can be exposed to a wide range of the ballad poem form. I think exposure to examples are important in any writing unit, especially in a form they are not accustomed to.

A final link I have provided on the Edmodo page is a excerpt from the Simpsons’ episode, “Bart the Daredevil”, in which Homer goes hurtling down a slope on a skateboard and over Springfield Gorge, with disastrous results as always. When I read and chose Mulga Bill’s Bicycle as an example ballad, my mind immediately flashed to this episode as it related beautifully to the experience of Mulga Bill crashing his bicycle in similar circumstances. I felt that the students would need a contemporary link to this century old poem, and despite the objections of some in educational circles to the Simpsons, I get great engagement from my students whenever I use the cartoon as a crossover into other literature and thematic discussions.

My plan is to begin the unit reading Mulga Bill’s Bicycle and break the poem down into a sequential series of events. I’ll then present the clip of Homer’s disastrous skateboarding experience and do the same breakdown of events. Using the stanzas in the Paterson poem as a guide, we will co-write a ballad of Homer Simpson’s Skateboard. Here I will introduce the students to another Web Tool I like using for quick and easy collaboration – WallWisher. I’ve embedded the shared Wallwisher Pinboard into a post on Edmodo already. The students will review the Simpsons clip while working collaboratively on building the ballad in WallWisher through post-it notes of individual stanzas of rhyming verse. As they experiment, we’ll be able to see everyone’s attempts on our interactive whiteboard. As each stanza appears, we’ll be able to arrange them into a sequential order to tell the story.

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This way, I’ll be able to emphasise the idea of freely writing parts of poems that flow easily from your imagination instead of being stuck on a particular part and not progressing. By using the post-it notes on WallWisher, we will be able to manipulate individual verses and insert new ideas that fit when they arise. By having the board embedded in Edmodo, we will be able to continue this collaboration beyond the classroom lesson time for homework during the week or during independent writing time.

Once the students start drafting their own poems, we will use Edmodo as a collaborative platform for supporting each others’ writing. Children will be encouraged to post their drafts for others to comment on, allowing them to get assistance from myself or classmates if they get stuck for ideas, rhyming words, rhythm and structure. Once their drafts are ready, I will ask them to submit the writing through the Assignment feature of Edmodo. This will allow me to annotate their work with my suggestions and note, but not correct, grammatical/spelling issues ( correcting doesn’t teach them to edit independently).

We’ve identified that this cohort of students is reluctant or lack skills in editing their writing. I want to address this by allowing them to draft, edit and get teacher feedback through ICT. It means they don’t have to rewrite texts completely, instead just making changes where necessary. I’m hoping this will encourage them to make several revisions to their text, rather than the draft/correct/publish cycle we have perpetuated too much as teachers. Edmodo’s Assignments allows for several revisions to be submitted with the ability for teachers to feedback on each new attempt.

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Early on in the unit, we will be co-creating a rubric that will guide the students in composing their ballads. This will be posted to Edmodo so they can constantly refer to it as they are drafting and be aware of expectations as well as the structures and features to include in their ballads.

Finally, I’m going to spend a short time near the end of each lesson ( one hour duration ) presenting publishing options. I’ll be encouraging but not requiring the students to consider multimedia tools to present their ballads. By the time the unit is over, I would have already seen and assessed their ballads through the Assignments submissions process and as a result they will already have a written option available. I want to encourage the idea that publishing is not just for the purpose of handing up work for the teacher to assess. We should celebrate the creation of the ballad through a movie version, a multimedia slideshow, a comic strip, a blog post for others to see and comment on, or maybe turn it into a song Mr G style!

I’m looking forward to how this process will pan out. If it goes to plan, I hope that other teachers will try out the lesson structure and the use of Edmodo to encourage better editing of written work by students. I’ll return to this post at unit’s end to reflect on how it went. In the meantime, I would love to hear from other teachers about how you have used Edmodo or similar Web Tools to track writing progress.

Writing Prodigy or not, this is also about expectations, support and technology

A lot of you have probably heard of Adora Svitak.The now 14 year old literacy prodigy, came to prominence at the tender age of 7 (!) as a prolific writer. On her blog is a referenced article about a report on her by Diane Sawyer from Good Morning America. After reading the article and viewing the popular TEDTalk Adora presented a couple of years ago (as seen above), I started thinking about the impact of her story on education. Many have commented on Adora Svitak. Some comment on her unusual prodigious talent. Others ( not that much stock should be taken of the views of faceless YouTube commenters) question the “coaching” of her parents and how much of her ideas are truly hers. However, I approach her story differently. I focus on what has made an impact on her astounding growth in literacy skills and wonder whether the same influences can have similar, albeit not at the same level, effects on other children’s learning. Can Adora’s story be the story of every student in your grade?

Writing as means to express ideas
“On Good Morning America, Diane Sawyer called Adora Svitak a ‘Tiny literary giant.” The title seems astute when you measure her diminutive stature against her accomplishments. Though only four feet tall, seven-year-old Adora has written over 250,000 words this year alone. Try that one on for size. She may be small, but she has big ideas, and, thanks to writing, she has the means to express them.”

While I don’t expect many children in Grade 2 to be churning out 250 thousand words this year, this highlights the importance of valuing their ‘big ideas’ and giving children the opportunity and time to express them. I used to love watching those interviews Bill Cosby did with kids. Those little wonders could talk about amazing things. Cosby let them be the star of the show. Do we give our children enough opportunities just to express what they are thinking? Or do we only let them talk about topics we plan to cover our curriculum? Have we ever considered that its not that little Johnny is struggling in class because of poor literacy but because we don’t let him share what he likes and knows about?

As we continue to teach in this new Age of Personalised Learning, has our mindset changed enough to stop pigeonholing class timetables into pockets of time limited rotations of lessons or 40 minute standardized tests and start giving our students the time and freedom to express what they are really thinking? If we do, maybe we’ll get more Adoras writing 250,000 words in a year.

Early Support, genuine interest in the child’s passions and pushing your own passions, time and effort is important even before they are ready. Over to you, Parents (and teachers).
“At an early age, Adora’s passion for reading inspired her love for writing. Although she was originally not so confident in her spelling and grammar and her early writing depended on help from her mom, her sister, and her tutors, she refused to be discouraged by her mistakes and kept asking for help. Pretty soon she was able to write simple stories that were a few pages long. Her ideas and vocabulary were now advanced beyond her years, but she was still hindered by a typical five-year-olds’ limited handwriting skills”.

Obviously, Adora wanted to write and loved to read. Where did that come from? Her parents. What’s important in the reference above is that her parents and others recognised she wanted to write, had some limitations but didn’t let those limitations get in the way of Adora’s passions. We need to find ways to support students to keep pumping their ideas out and not hold them back because they have not achieved mastery in all required areas. So what if we can’t read the student’s work? Write it for them. That’s what publishers do for authors. JK Rowling didn’t personally type the 450 million copies of Harry Potter books. If we want students to develop as writers we have to teach writing as expression of ideas, not as a series of perfectly constructed letters spelt correctly and in beautifully constructed sentences. I’ve sat through too many writing moderation sessions where teachers are automatically drawn to the poor handwriting and spelling mistakes before they even read the content of the text. This has to change. Adora wan’t discouraged by her mistakes or issues with spelling, grammar and punctuation, or her five year old handwriting skills. She and her parents were determined to get the stories told one way or the other. Did it make it any less of a story because Mum wrote the words out correctly? I don’t think so. Children end up hating writing because we focus on the mechanics and aesthetics, not the content. Let’s shift the focus.

Watch the  video from 4:50 onwards. She tells of the other support her parents gave. I love the fact that Dad read Pioneer Germ Fighters and Aristotle to her as well as the Wheels on the Bus. As parents ( I have 2 brilliant (not quite Adora) kids of my own) it should be our goal to push the limits with our children. And it doesn’t have to be writing for parents who don’t have that passion. But push those boundaries. Teachers, I’m talking to you too. It is an abrogation of our responsibilities to let our our own limited interest in certain areas restrict student development. It’s also a crime not to share your own passion for learning, whatever it is, with children. Reach high. Expect greatness ( but not be disappointed if it doesn’t come ) Don’t be afraid to challenge your children and let them struggle. Support them through the struggle, as Adora’s parents did. This is not pushy parenting I’m talking about. This is just expecting the best for ,and from, your kids.

Technology plays its part. Don’t fear its influence. Embrace it.
“Her breakthrough came in the form of a used Dell laptop that her mother bought her in the spring of 2004. She was fascinated by what she could do with Microsoft Word. After her aunt and uncle showed her some of the functions, she was very eager to experiment and discovered many tools on her own. With the help of “JumpStart Typing for Kids” and DK’s “Creative Writing” program, she was soon typing 60 words a minute.

Her passion for writing grew as Word helped her surpass technical limitations. She could now check her own spelling, which helped her gain confidence. Even if she was not 100% sure of a word’s definition, she could now use the program’s simple ‘Look Up’ feature (Encarta Dictionary) or Dictionary.com on any new word she discovered in her reading, and she began using synonyms or antonyms to make her writing more exciting and precise.”

The key focus for me here ( and from the content of my blog my obvious bias is showing) is that technology enabled the breakthrough from struggling to prolific writer. As mentioned earlier, Adora’s writing was restricted by the limitation’s of a 5 year old’s physical writing skills. Using a laptop to compose her writing changed all that. I’ve made this point in another post, but I’ll say it again. We must stop seeing technology as an easy way out for writing. Spell check is an enabler, not the systematic destruction of spelling skills through laziness. Adora could concentrate on her ideas and let the computer help with the mechanics. From what she has become, it certainly didn’t affect her development as a writer. Access to computer based reference tools helped her expand her vocabulary far easier than flicking through page and pages of paper thesauruses and dictionaries. ( and when it didn’t help, no doubt her family was there to support). She didn’t have to wait for ‘teacher’ to correct her work before she moved on and I’m sure she wouldn’t have handwritten 250 thousand words in a year.

I’m not saying we just let computers take over the whole writing process. I am a major proponent of scaffolding writing, modelling text writing and improving grammatical and spelling knowledge. I’m saying that computers/laptops/tablets need to be part of the whole writing process. If we want more Adora Svitaks in the world, then we don’t just pray for good DNA; we need to build the environment she flourished in. TEchnology was a big part of that and continues to be today. She blogs, she authentically publishes for the world ( not just her classroom teacher and parents), she writes with other children. She’s done it all with technology at the forefront. We need to take notice of that.

What kind of person do we want our children to be?
“Adora has imagination, an ability to distill her vast learning into dynamic prose, the courage and curiosity to explore different genres, the wisdom and maturity to accept and learn from criticism, and a tireless desire to better her craft by writing and revising every day. She truly is a working literary giant.”

As teachers and parents, we have to develop these qualities in all of our children, not just the prodigy and the gifted. Not every child can be Adora Svitak. But every child has an imagination, which is sometimes repressed by the limitations of classroom protocols and restrictive parenting. Every child has curiosity, which can be killed off by the restraints of a prescribed curriculum focus. Genres are just different ways of communicating, which every child can explore if we allow them to, instead of mandating expositions for term 1 in preparation for standardised tests. As adults, we have to be brave enough to be critical so children can learn from their mistakes and our constructive feedback, instead of worrying about their fragile self esteem that can only handle ” that’s a great effort” when they write 1 sentence. Every child wants to be better, which will only happen in writing if we focus on revising. If we shift the focus from quantity and speed to quality, and allow technology to support revising instead of rewriting, there will be a lot more children out their writing as prolifically as Adora Svitak.

There will always be child prodigies in the world that stand out from the crowd. Little Mr “one sentence a week” in Grade 5 will never be Adora Svitak. Get him early, though, and with expectations, encouragement, support and a healthy dose of technology to guide him along, we can get him a lot closer. That’s my opinion, anyway. Am I way off? Without any research to back it up other than an amazing talent’s story, can I get this to happen? Over to you, readers. What do you think? Is it possible to create a world of Adoras if we get education right? Can all parents be this supportive? Join in the debate.