Monday, October 31, 2011

The Transformative Power of Writing

Today, I want to tell you what I learned from a student that we'll call Thomas. At the beginning of the week, we read an article by National Geographic Kids entitled, "Jane Goodall's 10 Way to Help Save Wildlife." This interview with Jane Goodall tied in beautifully to the pieces that my students are writing with their collaborative partners in another state about how they can make a difference in the world.

This led to a great discussion about other ways we could make a difference in the environment. One student suggested picking up trash when they were at one of our local parks. She explained how it would improve not only the park for each of us, but also for the wildlife in the area. The rest of the class were chiming in their agreement when Thomas spoke up and said, "I don't roll like that. It can just stay there 'cause it doesn't bother me and I'm not touching someone else's mess." Many of his peers tried to persuade him otherwise, but he just crossed his arms and shook his head. We returned to our discussion.

A couple of days later, Thomas was sitting with me as we were conferring on his research and ideas for the piece he is preparing for our collaborative journal with the theme "Making a Difference." Each writer chose a topic that interested them. As we spoke about what he had discovered on his topic (for privacy reasons his topic will remain anonymous), I had a lot of difficulty getting him to focus. He set a plan of action and returned to work on his writing. While I conferred with my other students, I was constantly having to redirect him back on task, reminding him of the plan he had laid out for his project.

The next day, while we were working on our writing, he came running over to me with a shocking fact. Not only was he upset by it, but he had come up with several solutions. His focus changed; his pace accelerated. When it was time for lunch and I'm trying to get my students out of the door, he kept stepping in front of me to show me what he had written. Telling him that I would look at it after lunch or even during lunch wasn't good enough. He wanted me to read what he had put together right then.

I was amazed at his dedication and enthusiasm when the day before he was busy doing anything but this project. He was outraged with the injustice of his topic and he wanted to change something right then; he felt strongly that he needed to share it with me without delay. I agreed to confer with him while walking down the hall (we are one of the last classes served lunch...we cannot be late without some unpleasant consequences). As we walked and conferred, I marveled at how expertly and passionately he discussed his topic. When I asked him why this topic meant so much to him, he referred back to that shocking fact he had shared with me earlier. He explained how it made him think of something that had happened in his family. This experience made him re-evaluate some of his thinking. As he wrote, he examined ways that he could affect some change to make the world a better place.

After lunch, we had a guest come and lead my writers in an activity. She had them write letters to a community member who was away at basic training and missing his friends, family, and community. My students were very excited and wrote heartfelt letters. So what about Thomas? Was his new found determination to help make the world a better place a one time experience? After they had been writing for several minutes, Thomas spoke up, "I really like this. I think this is good for us to do because it's really going to make him happy. I fell good about it too." Hmm, I guess Thomas does "roll like that" after all. And what made the difference? Giving him the opportunity to learn and write about a topic that interested him. Writing has the power to help you explore, grow and change your thinking. Writing can transform who you are as a person as it did for Thomas.  I wonder what else he will roll with this year. There is no telling, but I can't wait to find out.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

What's In Your Writing Tool Belt?

With today being the National Day on Writing, my students and I have spent some time discussing "why I write." They have actually created tweets to add to the hashtag #whyIwrite throughout the day today. When I think about the what has made the biggest difference in my students' perception of creating and writing, it has to be that they now write and publish for an authentic audience...not just for me or some mystery scorer. Their writing has an audience and a purpose.

So on this National Day on Writing, I would like to share our top ten favorite tools that support writing. These tools empower my writers by strengthening their voice.

  1. KidBlog- Those of you who have been following my blog know that my learners have latched onto blogging like a fish to water. They have become voracious writers sharing what they are learning, reading, exploring, or contemplating. Rarely is there a time when at least one of my students isn't blogging. They have found the power of personal reflection and love the aspect that what they write has an audience who will continue their conversations and challenge one another's thinking.
  2. Voice Thread- This is a truly collaborative tool that allows participants to make comments and continue conversations. Usually my writers create a piece of writing, upload it, record it and then their peers will comment upon one another's writing. Comments can be done with text, voice, video, or doodling. 
  3. Wikispaces- Wikis are a fast and simple way for students to collaboratively publish their writing projects. It gives you the ability to not only insert text, but also insert Word documents, audio files, URLs, PowerPoints, video files, spreadsheets, and photos. And if that wasn't enough, you can also embed projects like VoiceThread, ToonDoos, Vokis, Xtranormal, Wallwishers, and Livebinders directly into a wiki.
  4. ToonDoo- ToonDoo is a tool that lets the writer create a comic strip. They provide a huge gallery of clip art and speech bubbles, my my creative students love drawing their own illustrations, scanning them and uploading them into their ToonDoos. You can also upload photos. If your students want to create more of a comic book page than a comic strip (like my students), you can try using ComicLife.
  5. PhotoStory-My learners love taking their writing and turning it into a digital story. When they finish publishing,  we often have a viewing party.  The tool that we turn to most often is PhotoStory.It is very intuitive to use as it walks the user through every step of the publishing process.
  6. Audacity- If you are looking for a tool for your learners to create an audio file or podcast, Audacity is user friendly. There are the basic functions of recording a piece of writing as well as a lot of bells and whistles which can really tap into a student's creativity.
  7. Lintor Publishing- I described Lintor Make-a-Book in this blog post.  Because sometimes writers still want a tool that allows then to hold, carry, and physically share their books with others, my writers love using Lintor's products. They provide a variety of templates as well as book sizes so that students have the opportunity to create their own hard copy, hardcover book from start to finish.
  8. Twitter-In class, we have a Twitter account. Many of you may be wondering about this as a publishing tool as a user only has 140 characters. However, with Twitter, my learners have to learn about being succinct and powerful in their words choices. It has really helped them to focus on their message and the best way to get that message across to their followers. They all agree that standard English is what we use when we tweet from "text speak" so that all of our audience understands what they are saying.
  9. StoryJumper-In this post, I wrote about a project that my writers created using StoryJumper. StoryJumper allows students to create digital storybooks which can also be purchased should someone want a copy. StoryJumper has huge selection of clipart and backgrounds, but writers also have the ability to upload their own artwork and photographs, which my learners love.
  10. Voki- I wrote about Vokis in this blog post.Voki allows the user to create a personalized talking avatar that can be easily embedded into wikis, blogs, profiles, and email.Voki has the option for the creator to type the text they want spoken or record their voices with their avatar. 
So there's our list...for now. Ask us again what our favorite publishing tools are in an hour and you would probably get a different list. The one constant is the role that these tools play in our stduents' writing....they support the writing; they are not the driving force. We would love to hear about any publishing tool that your students enjoy. Have a happy National Day on Writing today.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Students Seeking Validation Through Writing

Those of you have been reading my blog know that I recently had my book published. In fact, while I was in DC, I made a trip to the Library of Congress.  Not only is it a beautiful place, it is the home of books, learning, knowledge, and wisdom. Many people do not realize that it is solely a research library where books are not checked out. Also, many people do not realize that the Library of Congress only physically houses 10% of the books ever written. I was curious...would my book be one of the 10%? After asking several people to help me find the answers to my curiosity, I finally found a librarian who was willing to dive into their records. A few bated breaths later, she turned the screen to show me that my book was not only registered there (which I knew Stenhouse had done), but it was also one of the 10% housed there onsite as a physical book. She and I both did a little jumping and clapping to celebrate. I was waiting for another librarian to blow us over with her powerful, "Shhh!"

Afterwards, I have been thinking about the power of publishing your work for others to read...especially in regards to our students. Those of you who are familiar with my classroom know that my students use a wide variety of digital tools for publishing their work for a much wider audience. They love all of the different publishing tools that they use (and are constantly finding new ones), but one of their favorites is still using Lintor Make a Book to create their own hardcover book. It still surprises me that with all of the other digital tools that they use, my students thoroughly enjoy...and seek out new publish a hardcover, hardcopy version of one of their pieces of writing.

Lintor Publishing makes publishing a hardcover book extremely user-friendly. Their product makes it simple for students to create and publish their own hardcover books from start to finish. They have a variety of book publishing packages to fit most needs.

Just like me, (I wanted tangible evidence that my book was in the Library of Congress) sometimes our students enjoy having that tangible book in their hands as evidence of their hard work.They like taking it to share with others. My authors love taking their books to read to younger students.We keep a library of their books for them to be read by everyone in the class.They are shared with anyone who will take time to listen and look at their books. Their books always receive a lot of attention at our Young Authors' Conference because they look so professional and my students are so proud of and enthusiastic about what they've created. After all, they created it so that others would read it.

So next time your students begin to publish, remember that sometimes students want to have that tangible book in their hands to share with others. It's a way for them to receive validation for all of the hard work that they've done.

(As a side note: Many of you know that the community where I teach was hit by the April 27th tornado that came through Alabama. One of the first people to reach out to us was Janice Miller, owner of Lintor Publishing. She not only reached out as concerned  for our safety, but she suggested that the students have the opportunity to do some therapeutic writing about their experiences with those storms. She generously sent my class book covers so that they could publish their own books. Her generosity touched my students and they treasure those books that they wrote.) 

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

An Afternoon in "Pleasantville"

Today, we had the most pleasant afternoon. My students spent this afternoon blogging, answering questions and making comments to their collaborative partners on Moodle, and working on a Global Read Aloud Project. They were all sitting in different small groups all over the room, occasionally chatting about what they were thinking about, writing, or creating. There was just a nice, low hum of happy kids discussing what they were learning with one another. I loved it!

Moments like this just make me want to do a little dance. They are so highly engaged and independent from depending on me to tell them what to do. Of course, this afternoon didn't just happen. It's taken weeks of modeling, discussing and practicing how and why we use these tools and what behaviors they deem appropriate. They've set their own expectations and they are holding one another to those expectations.

The great thing about this afternoon (besides listening to their happy, thought-provoking and somewhat humorous comments) was that this gave me the opportunity to work with some students one-on-one. While they were all actively engaged in meaningful work, I was reading through their pending blog posts. By looking at their writing, I was able to determine if they had a misunderstanding with their grasp of not only content area but also with grammar and mechanics.

It was a great opportunity to visit with my students and have them explain what they saw in their writing that could improve it for the reader. Almost all of them would take a minute to look at what they had written and determine what should be corrected. Others needed a bit more prompting, but by leading them to making those discoveries meant much more to them. They found the error; they determined what needed to be corrected; they determined why it needed to be corrected. (By the way, those of you itching to write a comment about how blogging shouldn't be evaluated, need to read these previous posts: Did I Make the Grade? The Reading Log Conundrum and What is Homework? It's not a luxury that I have where I teach right now.)

This method of conferring, letting the students make the edits and corrections with your guidance, is much more powerful for the students. We use this in my classroom for all of our writing assignments regardless of genre, content area, or method of publishing. It allows them to make these discoveries for themselves. It's no longer a teacher telling them what to do and how to do it. It's them making these choices because it strengthens their voice in whatever they are writing.

So, I look forward to many more days like this where my writers are all engaged in meaningful, (and let's face it) fun and yet rigorous work. Now back to reading those blogs....they have passed 400 blogs since school has started. What do you think? Do my kids like to write, or what?