Connecting Through Words: Kids as Writing Coaches, Part III. The finale!

We have loved bringing you Chris & Robyn’s exciting project this week! Today marks the final installment in the series, but if you want to hear more (and hear it live!) find their session at NCTE16 in Atlanta in November! They will be presenting under this same title!  Thank you, Chris & Robyn, for sharing with our community! 

modern day pen pals- (1)

Part Three

We hope you’ve enjoyed our journey as told in the first two blogs in this series.  If you haven’t yet read parts one and two, please check them out; we promise you that this piece will make much more sense if you have read the first two.

This year has been – by far – the most enjoyable year of our teaching careers, and that happiness, the quality of our instruction, and the success of our students’ learning can all be traced back to this project.  Our focus on CLEAR learning (collaborative learning through empathetic and authentic relationships) motivated us as teachers and our students as learners to remember the human side of school. We refocused our instruction and assignments and asked our kids to be mindful of relationships first and foremost—relationships with others, with texts, and with the written word. Nothing we did was revolutionary; we simply refocused our efforts, through collaboration, on what matters most: building empathy.  So, regardless of if you plan on trying some of the activities we have written about in the last two pieces or not, we sincerely hope that your takeaway from our work is simple: don’t lose sight of the kids, the relationships and the empathy—the standards and test scores will take care of themselves if we take care of the caring.

With that said, we wanted to leave you with a few suggestions if you are to try to create CLEAR Learning in your class (or by collaborating with another class, ideally!) as well as share a few changes we will make next year based on student feedback.

  1. Establish a system for workflow

This is really essential; as anyone who works with Google Drive knows, it can be very easy for students (and often times easier for teachers) to get lost within their own Google drive.  So, early on in the collaboration, be sure to establish the workflow for the collaboration.

When we built student partnerships, we used Google Spreadsheets to keep a record of partnerships; this was easily made viewable for all our students and included contact emails and first and last names so students could refer back to it as needed. When it came time to assign work, Chris used Hapara to push the assignment/document to each of his students, and then each of his students shared the document with his/her partner and with Robyn. We also had students copy us on essential emails so we were in the loop for specific projects (and this reinforced how to write a friendly yet professional email – a skill so necessary for all kids today).

This entire collaboration used the spectrum of GAFE; students commented, chatted, and embedded links and images into work done in Drive. These systems worked for us, but they are certainly not the only way.  Whatever you choose, be sure to think that through from the start.

  1. Join the fun

For every writing assignment that we gave to our students in this collaboration, we joined in on the fun. As busy as we all are as teachers, it is all too easy to get caught up with the more mundane tasks of our job, forgetting how much fun we had writing poetry analyses during undergrad or giving a friend feedback on a piece of their writing. We co-wrote, responded to each other’s poetry analyses, and tried to provide real-time models of our work. In addition to showing our kids our own writing processes, we also had FUN. Take the time to join the fun; you will love it, and your students will love seeing it.

  1. Practice Patience and Persistence

This should come as no surprise because, regardless of the task in teaching, we have all learned the even the best of plans come with their share of unexpected chaos! However, when working with two classes (or in our case three) in two different schools that meet at different times during the day, an extra pile of patience and persistence is needed.  There will be times when you dedicate class time for your students to work on their half of the new assignment only to find that their partners didn’t do what they were supposed to the night before, thereby “ruining” your plan for the day. Adjust for things like the November 1st college application deadline, prom, senioritis (ahem), and/or other activities.

Being flexible is so essential in collaboration! This is just one example of many that we experienced along the way in which even the best plans didn’t go as expected.  But for us it was simple: there’s always tomorrow. If we want to teach empathy, we need to practice empathy as educators; there are bigger issues in life than having to alter a lesson plan because your students’ partners were too busy with life, and all that comes with it, to finish their paragraphs the night before.  The chaos was a constant reminder to us, as teachers, of the human side of teaching, and it gave us a consistent opportunity to show our students that we care.

So, what next?  Lessons Learned from Student Feedback

  1. We want to meet our partners sooner and more often.

We waited too long; it is that simple.  While the field trip was a smashing success (you can read about it in blog #2), we learned something very quickly: we waited too long to give them a chance to talk to and see one another.  Maybe it was fear of the logistics (of course there are all sorts of hurdles to jump with this sort of collaboration), or perhaps just not knowing, but the reality is, we plan on getting our kids talking face-to-face via Google Hangouts much sooner into the process.  We will still develop the foundation of the relationships through writing, but not too soon after, we will get them talking with one another.

  1. We want to talk books, darn it!

While they had a chance to annotate poems together (you can read about this in blog #1), it is clear that they wanted to create lit circles with members from each school mixed into the same team.  The best part: they didn’t want it to be part of a grade or have any points or any assignments: they simply wanted to read together, talk together, explore together through literature. If that isn’t an English teacher’s dream, we don’t know what is.

  1. Can we just have more time to write?

Speaking of English teachers’ dreams, it doesn’t get much better than this. Simply put, they wanted more time for writing, and while that in and of itself sounds great, it is even better when you dive into it. They didn’t just want more time because they were lazy or procrastinated, but they wanted more time to draft, to explore language, to revise based on feedback, to get more feedback to revise again, and to learn from one another.  They wanted to be authors – totally free to play with words, to take risks, to FAIL, but to have the time to pick themselves up or to be picked up by their partners and to know that the right product was within them the whole time, it just hadn’t had the opportunity to jump out onto the page yet.

If you have any questions about this work and/or would like to get in touch with us, Chris can be reached at cbronke@csd99.org and Robyn at rcorelit@hinsdale86.org.  Additionally, we will be presenting on this at NCTE this year on this very topic, so please come by, say hello, and learn (and maybe write!) with us.

 

 

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