iPads can’t improve learning without good teaching Pt 2 – Writing

Used with permission from Debbie Ridpath Ohi at Inkygirl.com ( http://inkygirl.com/comic-use-policy/ )

Writing and technology has been a controversial subject for many traditionalists in education. “Spell check stops children from learning to spell”. “All students do today is copy and paste from Wikipedia and Google searched articles.” ” Children need to handwrite all their drafts”. “William Shakespeare didn’t have a laptop” ( OK, i just threw that in for fun!) At the same time, of course, as a teacher I have been subjected to countless reports and stories typed in ridiculous unreadable coloured fonts, decorated with superfluous clip art and WordArt headings and thousands of “death by Powerpoints” unnecessarily printed out to hand up to me. 20 years of computers as a publishing tool has not necessarily improved the standard of students’ writing skills.

The key words in that last sentence are of course publishing and writing. For too long we have seen the computer purely as a publishing tool. For me, the computer is far more effective as a writing tool. I completely understand that in the early days of classroom tech, when we only had one or two computers at the back of the room, publishing was about as much as we could do. Today, though, as we move into Personalised Learning in the Age of Technology, it is time for us to break the shackles of traditional thinking regarding writing and technology. We can no longer afford to dwell on the negative impacts of spellcheck and copy/paste. Instead, let’s focus on the benefits.

Which leads me once more to the star of “Mr G Online”, the iPad. Again, though, the iPad will not have any impact on improving student writing if its use is not accompanied by innovative teaching backed by sound literacy principles and a change in attitude towards technology’s role in the writing process. If it just becomes yet another means of publishing student work, with new bells and whistles replacing WordArt,Clip Art and fancy borders, then we once again waste an opportunity for significant change in writing education.

I’ll preface this discussion by saying that many of my suggestions can certainly be carried out on laptops or indeed desktop computers. However, the touch interface and AV tools, coupled with the portability and personal experience you get from using the iPad, makes for simpler and more practical use.

What is writing?
Before trying to convince the doubters that the iPad can impact on student writing, we have to define what writing actually is.

A breakdown of genres, their processes and products

I’m not going to use some perfectly expressed term written by literacy professors to impress anyone. For me, the definition of writing is one word -communication, either with yourself or with others. We reflect in writing to help our thinking processes. We record in writing to keep information for later use. We write to persuade others to agree with us on a variety of issues. Many of us have stories to tell, either from real experiences or from the deep recesses of our imagination. Sometimes events and processes have to be explained. All of these examples are ways of communicating.

Now originally, communication was verbal. It was immediate, person to person or within groups. We eventually felt the need to communicate with others beyond our immediate area and left images, cave paintings, carvings, statues – our first multimedia experiences. At a later time, we decided we wanted to be clearer in our communication and began recording our every thought in written forms. With the invention of the printing press, we could share our ideas with a mass audience – the early, albeit very slow, World Wide Web. At the same time “a picture paints a thousand words” was being made apparent by the Renaissance artists, with their paintings sculptures and stain glass windows educating the illiterate of their societies. Eventually we found new ways to communicate; plays,music and songs, photography, film and television, until we finally created the computer in all its forms.

You may be wondering why you are reading a history of communication when you came here to learn something about writing and iPads. Bear with me a little longer. My point here is that as teachers we have to rediscover the purpose of writing as pure communication. We have to get past our obsession with the mechanics of writing, the perfect spelling,the beautifully crafted complex sentence with all the punctuation in the correct place and get children to communicate effectively, enjoying the experience and wanting to share what’s on their minds. This, finally, is where I think the iPad can have an influence, especially if we get the teaching part right.


The planning stage
Traditionally the planning stage of writing has been that bit at the start of the lesson when students were forced to write down their key ideas on paper, regimentally jotting down our Orientation, Complication and Resolution or ordering their arguments. Let’s take them on a far more inspiring and useful track using the iPad instead. This will involve teachers challenging their idea that we don’t use computers before the publishing stage.

Use Popplet to record ideas in separate blocks of ideas that can be rearranged in any order without the tedium of rewriting. Branch extensions of those ideas off the original using its mind mapping properties. Take snapshots with your iPad camera and import them into your Popplet to inspire your imagination visually. Pass the iPad around to fellow students or teachers and let them respond to your plan without the need to scribble over your handwritten notes. They can alter the order of your ideas with a simple drag and drop, or pop a quick note in.

Alternatively students could use Evernote or Notability in similar ways with the added bonus of audio recordings of thoughts and ideas they can use for their later writing. Students can import web clips of useful pictures, videos, information websites that support the research project they are compiling and have easy access to them when they start composing. They can use social bookmarking apps like Diigo, combined with the Diigo bookmarklet in Safari to collate links to websites related to their work.

Specific apps allow for effective and engaging planning. Comic Life or Strip Designer can be used to storyboard ideas. Toontastic’s user interface is designed around the planning structure of the narrative in which each scene is broken up into parts like setup, conflict and resolution. You can add your characters and backgrounds in as you go and revisit each scene to edit. It makes for an interactive planning experience while also providing the opportunity for good teaching to happen in developing story writing skills. What I hope it doesn’t become ( after necessary early experimenting) is a cute way of creating badly written stories. StoryPatch is another option for junior grades that allows for guidance in planning and creating stories through a visual interface.

This is a major shift in the way we have planned writing in the past and it will take a lot of good teaching to embed it into the practice of both students and teachers but I really believe we have to deepen the thinking at the planning stage beyond the dot point method. And yes I know they don’t have time to do this before a standardized writing test. But are we preparing them for 40 minute tests or instilling in them a lifelong love of writing?

The Composing/Editing stage
This is where in my experience the greatest shift has to take place. In my humble opinion, it is not good teaching to NOT use an iPad or computers in general as a composing and editing tool for writing. Get the ‘spell check is bad’ mentality out of your head and teach kids to reflect on the errors that spell check has picked up while they write. Using Spellboard, a spelling program app for the iPad, they can copy and paste their errors over to the app as they show up and store them for later work during spelling lessons in class. Far more effective than making a ton of errors that aren’t picked up until a teacher or spelling buddy corrects them. Reluctant writers are reluctant because they have to make so many changes to their handwritten writing and can’t be bothered rewriting the whole text all over again or writing a detailed text in the first place.

The iPad makes for a personal, “easy to edit and enhance” writing experience. If they only have to edit the errors and not rewrite everything, reluctant writers will be more willing to experiment and extend their writing. If they have easily accessible dictionary/thesaurus and other word study apps at their fingertips, all with search functions, then they can compose and edit far more easily, without flicking through pages and pages looking for a word. Teach students to take their time. Teach them to review their writing as they write. On the iPad ( or any other word processing device ), if they take their time, edit as they go, respond to feedback on sections ( not entire texts) using any word processing app on the iPad (not going to list them here)  the result will be more fluent, quality-driven writers.

Don’t bog them down with 19th/20th Century writing practices just because you’re more comfortable reading and correcting handwritten texts. I haven’t handwritten a text since I’ve had access to a computer. I’ve written over 30,000 words on blog posts in a month without putting pen to paper. And I’m not a super fast typist. The drawbacks of the iPad keyboard ( which I have used to compose about 90% of these blog posts) actually slows me down enough that I can just write and review without doing a stack of drafts.

The publishing stage
This is the easy part because this is traditionally what teachers have seen as the role of the computer, which the iPad is just the next version of. What I want to see happening is a variety of publishing media, beyond the old Word/Publisher/Powerpoint triad ( and not just because I’m anti-Microsoft!). Spielberg, Disney and Pixar haven’t published a novel between them but are probably the greatest story tellers of the last century. THere’s more to writing than the written word. Think beyond purely written text as publishing options.

Many of these apps also provide opportunities for increasing audience for writers as well, with their integration with online services. This is another incentive for increasing writing quality and desire.
Final thought
Of course, all of this is pointless if we don’t have teaching and learning strategies in place. The apps don’t create the text. But they do make teaching writing and writing  itself a better experience. Naturally, this all just my opinion. I have no Masters in Literacy as an authoritative stamp on this post. I have taught writing, though, for 25 years and written songs, stories, information texts, Maths programs and opinion pieces over that time. From experience, computers have made me a better writer. The iPad can take me to another level. As teachers of writing, we have to move into the new millenium. What do you think?

A break from iPad talk – Open letter to our Grade 5/6 students this year about Blogging

Ready to send to the students when school is back in the swing of things and Canberra Camp is over. What do you think?For teachers reading this, you may have already read something about blogging 7000 times on the Internet. Forgive me. Kids, this is for you.

Why do YOU write? Is it because you HAVE to? Is it because your teacher has to have a piece of writing by the end of the week so they can do your reports? Maybe it’s to show your teacher that you understand a topic. That’s a good reason. Sometimes you write to inform other children in the class about a topic you have researched. Another good reason. There are probably LOTS of reasons why we HAVE to write – we go to school!

Now put your hands up if you write because you WANT to. (pause to allow time for children to raise their hands before reading on). If you didn’t put your hand up, that’s OK. No doubt, you’re not alone there. I don’t always want to write. I think sometimes we don’t want to write because we see no purpose to it. ( Before we go any further, just want to remind you that at school, you still HAVE to write, OK? I am still a teacher after all.) Anyway, my point is I think a lot more of you would WANT to write if we could give you some good reasons to write. That’s why I want to talk to you about blogging.

Perhaps you don’t know what blogging is. Blogging is a writing publishing platform on the Internet that allows ANYONE to get their message across to the world. In other words, it gives you a world wide audience. You can share words, pictures, videos, animations, quizzes, polls – anything – and find out what other people think. There are obviously lots of rules we need to go through before we start this blogging thing but we’ll go through those later. Let’s just get back to blogging.

Here are my reasons why I think you should consider blogging.

Audience. Blogging means people other than your teacher, a couple of classmates in a conference and your parents when your file book comes home at the end of the term, get to see what you have to say. Think about that. A reason to write because others WANT to read it. A reason to write about your passions and interests that your teacher and Mum might not find interesting but 100s of children around the world find fascinating.

Sharing your knowledge. Guess what? You know stuff. It’s hard to let everyone know that sometimes when you have to stick to topics in class. When do you ever get the chance to share your knowledge of African capital cities? ( OK, Mr G, this isn’t about you, move on.) Or, your skills in playing a sport, your expertise in making animations? Blogging let’s you share this knowledge with others interested in the same thing. People learn from you and in return you may learn something you didn’t know. Since I’ve become interested in blogging I have learnt so much about Web tools, teaching methods, Maths and iPad ( yes, that’s right – I’ve learnt something from others about Maths and iPads. Shocking!) I’ve taught others too through my blog. It’s a nice feeling. And I want to keep doing it.

Purposeful homework. Your blog could be your homework. Teachers get to see it. Others, including your parents, get to see it. You can toss ideas around with your friends online to support each other. The dog can’t eat your homework! ( boo! Bad joke alert!)

Reflective thinking. “OK, so this is starting to sound like school work now, not writing because I want to.” I hear you say. But hear me out on this one. Seriously, you should WANT to think. It helps you learn and improve. Writing a blog gives you a chance to write down your thoughts. Spending the holidays starting my blog on iPads in Schools has really enabled me to clearly think through what I really believe. Without writing the blog, I would not have a clear plan in my head. I would not have come up with half the ideas if I hadn’t spent the time thinking and writing. Give reflective thinking a go. After a Maths class, spend some time writing about what you just went through. It will help, trust me.

Feedback and collaboration. At school, you get, at best, one chance a week to get some real feedback about your writing and thinking. If you’re lucky, your teacher will give you advice and 3 or 4 classmates in a conference might as well. On a blog, your writing is there for everyone to comment on. Your teacher, your friends, your family, a scientist from Germany, a sports coach from Brazil. Who knows? If it’s good, they’ll tell you why. If it needs work, a random student from the UK is more likely to give you honest feedback than your best friend will. Maybe other teachers from around the world will give you added feedback to support your teacher’s advice. It happens. You can also start up shared projects through your blog. It really can be a great opportunity if you want it to be.

It helps you feel good. Sometimes there has to be selfish reasons too. I have to be honest. I got a huge ego boost this week when I saw my blog appear on Google Search, Scoop-it and Zite Magazine’s Top Stories section on my iPad. Watching 33  countries’ flags appear on my blog and seeing the views counter tick over from 800 to 1400 overnight gave me a buzz. It’s a far better feeling than seeing your writing sitting on your teacher’s desk for a week or waiting 5 days for a response to an email you send to your colleagues. Knowing that other people want to read your work inspires you to want to do more. Especially when they tell you. So go ahead, kids. Do it for the attention… But do it well or you’ll lose your audience.

There are a lot more reasons for blogging than this but it’s a start. Of course we can’t do anything without the go ahead from school. There are a lot of rules and permissions and other important necessary stuff to go through before we can get started. You can get it going, though, if you tell us you really want to do it. So I ask you – do you want blog? There are massive numbers of kids out there on the Internet doing it right now. If you want to join them, let us know and we’ll see what we can get started.