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.

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?