Helping Writers Listen

I split my teaching days between AP Language and Seminar and working one-on-one as a writing coach with struggling students. Two weeks ago I got to the spend the day at the AssisTechKnow conference to learn about how we can use assistive technology to support students. It was a great conference, but one session in particular has me thinking already about specific ways to improve my practice.

Presenter Craig Steenstra (@csteenst), an Ed Tech Specialist from Kent County ISD, encouraged us to think about ways we can help students “record the storm” of ideas and phrases and words jumbling around in their heads. So many students have a hard time getting their ideas down on paper and, unfortunately, get frustrated and give up.  Craig walked us through several examples of ways to use various audio recording apps on phones, iPads and Chromebooks, and I realized quickly that this was something I could apply right away. My students are willing to listen to me when I talk to them about their writing, but I’m starting to wonder how I can help them listen to themselves as writers.

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Finding Time for Technology in Writing Workshop

I think my students would tell you that our classroom is a happy, productive place. They would also tell you that it’s predictable. Monday through Thursday, we write during notebook time, read mentor texts and take notes during the lesson, and write and confer during workshop. We do this for 46 minutes four times a week. On Friday, we read. We repeat this schedule the following week.

For a long time, I worried that students were bored. I feared they found my class plodding. I would hear them talking about the simulations they did in history or the fun activities in science and wondered if they compared those activities to workshop. Our simulation was the writing. Our fun activity was the reading. How was this for them?

I wrote on this topic last April after coming across a quote by Katie Wood Ray on the predictability of workshop. In Study Driven, she writes, “Now the fact that it is predictable doesn’t mean in any way that it is redundant or boring. The way you go about a study is predictable, but the content that comes from the study is anything but predictable” (2006, 110). These words we so reassuring to me then and now.

Still, I felt a little guilty. I felt guilty at technology workshops. I assumed the apps and programs they were offering wouldn’t plug into workshop without unhinging the essentials: time to write, time to confer. I followed plenty of technology blogs and was so intrigued by what they had to offer; nonetheless, I dismissed the ideas, thinking I would have to sacrifice what mattered the most. I could barely squeeze everything we needed to accomplish into a 46 minute period as it was. How could I possibly add something in?  I wanted badly to leverage technology in my classroom, but didn’t see how it would be possible.

That is until my colleague Maria introduced me to Socrative.

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(Maria rocks.)

It seemed simple enough — after all, she had explained the gist of it in an email. And Maria was doing reading workshop with her writers at the time, too. So I decided to look into it. I played around in the website a little bit, and within 20 minutes, I had a plan. A plan that I hoped would add a new dimension to my workshop without sacrificing valuable writing and conferring time.

What I Did

The next day I projected our notebook time prompt as usual. That day we were studying a sentence written by James Wood from the New York Times article “Why? The Fictions of Life and Death”:

Here he was, jumping off a boat into the Maine waters; here he was, as a child, larkily peeing from a cabin window with two young cousins; here he was, living in Italy and learning Italian by flirting; here he was, telling a great joke; here he was, an ebullient friend, laughing and filling the room with his presence.

As usual, I asked students what they noticed about the craft. Here is their list:

  • He repeats the phrase “here he was” several times
  • Each “here he was” phrase is followed by a comma and an -ing word (participle)
  • The entire thing is one sentence
  • He presents little scenes from this person’s life in chronological order
  • He does all of these things to give a broad picture of this person’s life — like a sweeping brushstroke
  • All the commas and semi-colons create a musical rhythm

Then I gave students four minutes to write their own version of this sentence. I told them to close their eyes and visualize a person they knew well, someone whom they could picture in multiple settings. I provided laminated photographs from Work and Love for students who needed more support.

Then I asked students to take out a device, go to socrative.com, and choose Student Login.

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They were prompted to enter a Room Name (you have to set this up before the lesson — see here for a very basic tutorial showing how I prepared for this lesson).

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Then they were greeted by this screen:

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I asked them to carefully type the sentence they had written for notebook time. While they worked, I logged in to Socrative.com and pulled up the Live Results page.

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Suddenly, my screen became populated with all of their responses, and since I was projecting it, everyone was able to read the sentences as they were submitted in real time. Fingers flew across keyboards as students raced to get their sentences up on the board for all to see. For the record, I had not framed this activity as a race!

We ended up taking a few extra minutes in notebook time that day to read the submissions out loud and share in our writing reverie. It was FUN and different and meaningful and essential.

Some of the students even had the idea of supporting the writers whose sentences needed some help in the punctuation department. I quickly copied and pasted these sentences into a Word document and invited student volunteers to come to the board and use the noticings they had made during notebook time to add punctuation to the sentences.

kara

Here are two of the sentences they made stronger with semi-colons and commas:

Here we were, playing with our action figures; here we were, going to the neighborhood pool; here we were, gradually falling off during middle school; here we are, not talking anymore.

Here he is, hanging on to his life; here he is, clutching his wound with blistered hands; here he is, watching the light fade from his eyes; here is is, listening to the chorus of war play in the background; here is here, knowing he isn’t coming home.

nick

The Results

The energy going into the lesson that day was palpable. Students who have never volunteered to share after notebook time had shared — though anonymously — and received positive feedback on their work. We had engaged in a mechanics lesson with students up at the board assisting their peers. This small bit of technology hadn’t eaten into our workshop time at all. If anything, it had begun to eat away at the trepidation that many of my ninth graders feel about sharing out loud.

After my short but powerful bout with Socrative, I’m convinced there must be other forms of technology — apps, websites, digital tools — that could compliment the routines and structures of writing workshop without sacrificing what’s important. So now I’m on a mission to find them.

How do you incorporate technology into your workshop without forfeiting the essentials? Do you see other uses for Socrative in workshop? Please tweet us @allisonmarchett and @rebekahodell1 or respond in the comments below.

Mentor Text Wednesday: China’s Web Junkies Op-Doc

MentorTextWednesday

Mentor Text: “China’s Web Junkies,” an Op-Doc from The New York Times

Skill: Using evidence to support a position

Background:

Every year it seems that more and more of my students are denouncing Facebook. They talk about it freely during passing time as they unpack their bags. “You’re still on? I’ve been off for a while now. It’s pointless.”

“Yeah,” another student chimes in. “It was ruining my life.”

Sometimes the things we hear our students say in passing can be great fodder for important classroom and life lessons. This is one of those conversations worth bringing into the classroom.

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