This year at Moving Writers, I hope to explore various ways to utilize writing practices in your classroom to build strong social-emotional relationships with students despite the physical separations imposed on classrooms by the pandemic. I hope very much that this proves to be a limited series…
When I posted my first contribution of the year to Moving Writers a few weeks ago, I offered up an idea to use informal notebook writing to get to know the students beyond the black Zoom screens and minimal contact most of us currently have with students.
In my classes, it became a fairly successful endeavor, although I still feel deeply the relationship gap I have with most of my students compared to this time in previous years (even stuff like the loss of a spirit week for homecoming has a huge impact on your classroom dynamic and relationship building). We continue to make small gains, though, and the fastest growth has continued to be in the space I’m able to create for them to use writing and workshop activities to “play” while they’re still skill building.
Our next step after compiling a few of those notebook topics I wrote about last time was to choose one they like and begin developing it into a more polished–but still informal and personality-heavy–piece. As my PLC talked about how to create a workshop process through a screen, though, we realized we’d have to get creative. Even with the hybrid classes we see in person every other day, social distancing has clamped down on the normal conversation that should start to emerge. Under normal classroom conditions, robust conferring would strengthen relationships AND writers naturally.
We decided that in lieu of those delightfully noisy classroom days full of on- and off-topic writing conversation, we needed something that preserved the playfulness and spirit of our high-interest notebooking while still pushing students toward a more developed sense of their piece. The solution came in the form of a single slide visual outline of their plans for the piece (we used Google to keep everything in a drive where we had shared access, but you could create the same thing with lots of apps). The simplicity of it almost guarantees that we didn’t invent anything new here, but I think it’s worth sharing not as an epic writing tool but as another way to build relationships with your distanced writers while keeping them engaged with something playful.
So here’s what our slide looked like:
On the top…a working title. While I’d normally encourage students to come up with titles after composing a piece (often, great titles come from some turn of phrase in your own draft!), this actually turned out to be a fun way to encourage the kids to goof around with voice. Most topics were persuasive efforts about a favorite bit of pop culture or nostalgia, so titles that leaned heavily into aggressive persuasion or excessive hyperbole were ideal. The kids had fun with it and while many of their slide titles ended up not fitting the final piece, we had a good chuckle at quite a few of their playful early visions–it gave them a focused sense of their writing goals and a bit of entertainment. Some of them didn’t get all that creative, but the title still demanded they clarify their perspective. Pandemic win-win all the way.
On the left…the plan for content and research–what’s your big idea and purpose, and what research will you pursue to help achieve it? We gave them a couple of models and encouraged them to keep this element tight and concise (after all, we already had access to their original notebooks–this is more about them clarifying their own thinking than convincing us of it). Besides offering a stripped down vision of their paper before they started revisiting their original draft (a notebook entry), this element of the slide allowed us to point out the disconnect some of our writers had between their goals for the piece and the research they were finding. Students who had a true sense of their piece created cleanly integrated summaries on this side of their slide. Writers who hadn’t really thought through their goals for the piece suddenly found themselves listing research that they couldn’t clearly connect to any particular line of reasoning they planned to use in their next draft. It allowed us to press the pause button for them gently before they dove into the deep end of their writing and drowned in the chop of misaligned ideas.
I know–so far this doesn’t seem blog worthy. “Titles and main idea proposals–this guy has officially bottomed out!” But here comes the fun part.
On the right…we had students build a visual representation of their piece using at minimum two carefully chosen images:
- One image to capture the writer’s subject and the reason they cared about it
- One image that captured the attitude (tone) they planned to convey about it in the piece. Students found everything from gifs to Bitmojis to images borrowed from their own pop culture topics to represent the tone of their piece. They had a ton of fun matching an image to the personality they hoped to capture in their own writing, and it gave them a way to think about tone without having to put it into descriptive words or justify their reasoning–skills that some of my inexperienced writers would struggle with.
But most importantly, they clearly had a blast with this visual portion of their slides. Trying to get a laugh out of me was clearly a part of the goal for many of them. And, I would argue, a worthy goal: Here were signs that on an assignment that a burned-out virtual learner could easily do with minimal effort, I instead encountered image after image that suggested somewhere on the other side of that black screen was a student who knew that I was waiting for them to produce something as playful as it was accurate. Social-emotional activities can feel like they “eat up” class time you need for other English skills but it’s helpful to remember that your classwork itself can spark joy, or at least a good laugh.
“Slide”ing into Writing
Now, in one simple slide, we had a collection of simple conversation topics to engage with our writers about. Some needed very little redirection: One look at their slide and you could envision where the piece was going to end up. For others, natural talking points emerged, but the nature of the activity allowed those conversations to remain light and informal–ideal when you’re trying to keep students engaged in workshopping as a process. Students whose tone seemed to clash with their main ideas or whose research seemed at odds with their purpose could refer to their own visual conceptualization and reconsider things in a simplified way. And since almost every student went all-in on having fun with the image space on the right, spending more time with the slide as they reconsidered elements of their writing became a non-threatening revision effort.
The activity worked much better because they’d already built a foundation in the form of a notebook entry. With their slides as a guide (and some feedback from me using the comments feature) my students began expanding and reconfiguring their informal notebook entries into voice-heavy pieces of writing. The final products were, in many cases, clear reflections of the students’ slide building efforts, but even in cases where the piece fell a little short of aspirations, the value of the fun they had in the midst of a writing project is a small victory unto itself.