Digital Storytelling Workshop

storytelling photo

Thanks to my school, I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in a digital storytelling workshop with the Center for Digital Storytelling in Denver at the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop.

I will admit that I went into the workshop with a fair amount of hubris. I thought to myself, I’ve been teaching English for sixteen years. I know a lot about these kinds of projects. I’m a technology integrator. I know iMovie pretty well. I’d go so far as to consider myself an expert in comparison with many teachers—though I’d not go so far as to say I know everything there is to know about it, I can do pretty much everything I might want to do for school purposes. I didn’t really expect to learn very much from this workshop, but I was glad I would have the opportunity to visit my grandparents, who live in the Denver area.

On the first day of the workshop, we engaged in probably the most powerful part of the entire experience (for me), which was a story circle. We were advised to come with a draft of a script, but I tried to sit down and write one, and I found I couldn’t figure out what to say. As it turned out, very few of the participants were prepared with a script. In story circle, we each had twelve minutes to talk about our story, answer questions, ask questions, and obtain feedback from the facilitators and other participants. I think the reason it was such a powerful experience is because it was such a bonding moment. Several of us cried as we reached the heart of what it was we wanted to say, and the facilitators were excellent at provoking us to really think about what story we wanted to tell.

I started my spiel with the idea that I wasn’t going to cry at all. I told everyone I was visiting my grandparents. My grandfather is a WWII vet, and I decided I would make a digital story about his experiences in WWII. He has some really interesting stories about being inducted into the Navy, joining the Seabees, breaking his glasses and running afoul of postal censors when he wrote home asking for his parents to send him two pairs to replace the broken ones, coming up with a secret code so he could communicate with his mother, and contracting meningitis and causing the Army’s 7th Division to fall under quarantine and have their Christmas leave canceled. A couple of years ago, he was able to travel to Washington, DC on an Honor Flight to see the nation’s capital, specifically the World War II Memorial. He enjoyed the trip a great deal. So, I said to the story circle, that’s what I want to tell a story about.

The facilitator looked at me, a pointed expression on her face, and she asked me, “Dana, how is this story about you?” I was startled by the question, but I thought for a minute, and then, naturally, I burst into tears. It was about me because of everything my grandparents had done for me. It was about me because they are elderly, and I don’t know how much time I have left. It was about me because I will be devastated when they are gone.

With this much-needed clarity, I began to write my script. I was having trouble paring it down to the 300-word suggested limit. I thought I might be able to do 500 words, but 300 was too little to say everything I thought I needed to say. I decided I would just rebel and make a longer video, and I set to work with that script. The facilitator helped me record my voiceover. I interviewed my grandfather, who spoke for an hour about his experiences, and I selected the parts I would use in the story. I scanned lots of pictures my grandparents had around the house.

When I began stitching together the different pieces, I accidentally deleted a whole segment in which my grandfather goes into some detail about having meningitis during the war. After I listened to the video, though, I realized I didn’t exactly need the clip, so I let it go, and I actually managed to get the video at the upper time limit. I never thought I’d do that. It has taken me a couple of weeks’ worth of soul-searching and wrestling to decide whether or not to share the story I created.

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The experience of making the video convinced me to pull digital storytelling into my own curriculum. One natural place I could see it falling is in my American Studies in Literature course. I had already decided to incorporate This American Life into my American literature curriculum, as I see media like podcasts and videos as the new “wave” of writing/storytelling. Well, maybe not so new anymore, but you know how it is in education. Near the end of the year, I plan to explore the theme of the journey. I did not select a large number of works because I knew I wanted to do a culminating project of some kind. The journey, can, of course, be a physical journey. It can also be an inward journey, a self-discovery. Like my video was, after a fashion. Here is another example from the Denver director of the Center for Digital Storytelling:

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It really impacted me when I watched it. Obviously, I would not ask students to tell stories that they are not ready to tell, but I think this could be one of the most powerful experiences for my students:

  • We all have stories, and think about how important it is for us to tell them. Think about how interesting your average episode of This American Life and The Moth is. Think about how entertaining it is to read, say, David Sedaris.
  • We often ask students to read the stories of others, but we don’t ask them to tell their own. We ask them to analyze the stories of others.
  • Digital storytelling is a new way of sharing narrative. In the past, we listened to storytellers. Then we read. I think this might be the next thing. Not that we stopped listing to people tell stories or that will will stop reading. But this adds a new dimension to storytelling.
  • The “writing” aspect of this project is some of the hardest writing I have ever done. I can see people challenging the idea that this is writing, but drafting the whole story was an extremely challenging and rewarding process.

Here is more of Daniel Weinshenker on storytelling:

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One aspect of the process that I will definitely borrow is the story circle. It fits hand-in-glove with the kind of writing workshop I have been doing in my classes.

In the end, I even learned some useful technical tricks that made my video better (and here I thought I was an expert!).

Years ago, I was in Coleman Barks’s last poetry class at the University of Georgia. The final project we did in his class was to bring our own poetry to class and share it. Dr. Barks anthologized it. He told us explicitly that after we studied the great 20th century American poets, we were now among them, the next generation if you will. And I believed it. I want to give that gift to my own students.

If you have a chance to take one of the Center for Digital Storytelling workshops, don’t hesitate. They do excellent work. Next to Folger Teaching Shakespeare PD, it’s the best PD I’ve ever had in my life.

Photo by Jill Clardy

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F is for Failure

A light bulb but no (good) ideas... (17/365)No one expects a batter to hit a home run on the first try. In fact, even experienced hitters rarely accomplish this feat. Batters strike out more often than they hit, especially at the professional level. We expect it, and we don’t consider it failure because at that level, hitting the ball is difficult.

How often do we give students one chance to learn, though? Lately, I’ve heard educators beginning to say we need to reassess failure. Some even say it should stand for “first attempt in learning.” One of the things I have come to value as a student myself, both in my master’s program and in online courses I’ve taken through Coursera, is the opportunity to retake quizzes and revise work. Whether or not you want to allow revisions largely depends on your purpose for assessment. If you just want to gauge whether or not students did a reading assignment, perhaps not, but if you want to see what students have learned, then why wouldn’t you?

One of our math teachers allows students to revise their tests. Students grade their own tests and know how they have done before he does. He explains the process in this presentation:

Instead of crumpling their tests and shoving them into the deepest recesses of their backpacks, or worse—throwing them away—students are actually learning from tests. What a concept! Using assessments to learn instead of playing gotcha!

In an English class, this sort of revision can be fairly common—the writing process is designed to teach students that one-and-done drafts don’t really exist. However, grading all these drafts takes time, so not all teachers truly teach the process. I found some success in placing the emphasis on the process through writing workshop this year, and what I found is that students revised even after work had been graded, sometimes continuing to revise for weeks or months (no, not every student). Student writing also improved.

We have created a school culture in which students must do well on their first attempt or risk bad grades, but we complain that students only care about grades and not about their learning. The only way to help students care more about their learning is to allow them to fail. If their first attempt in learning isn’t successful, they need to try again. Otherwise, they receive the message that only the first try counts, and they absolutely must not fail on the first attempt.

I struggle with this idea myself. It’s not easy to make the kind of time we need to make in order to help students truly learn. But if that is the goal, then we need to design lessons that will help students learn, and we need to allow students to struggle a bit with the learning. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that right about the time when grades start really mattering, students seem to lose their curiosity. They are not interested in exploring; they want to know the answer. The stakes are too high. There isn’t time to try and try again.

Perhaps there isn’t time on every single assignment, but teachers need to give students opportunities to revise, to try again… to learn. Otherwise, I’m not sure what we’re all doing in school.

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C is for Collaboration

Working TogetherI recently had an exchange with the parent of one of my advisees. He shared a paper his older daughter wrote in college with me. I don’t have permission to reprint any of it here, but she made some interesting comments about collaboration in schools. She made the comment that academics collaborate all the time on lab reports and journal articles, but collaboration among undergraduates and K-12 students is more rare. In some extreme cases, we might call it cheating.

I recently tried out a new way of teaching writing which involves collaboration. You can read my posts about here:

I have had an opportunity to present how it works both to my own colleagues and at a local conference (here’s hoping NCTE is interested as well; we find out next month). One of the things I pointed out both times is that if we write professionally, we expect to have an editor. No one says we don’t really know how to write on our own if someone edits our work. No one says we’re cheating. Yet, with students, I have heard teachers argue that students need to write in isolation. As I mentioned in the post, I have seen students revise much more often now that we are doing writing workshop, but one of the other byproducts of writing workshop has been a classroom community that I didn’t anticipate. I have noticed it even if we’re not writing. Students are friendly and collegial with one another. They have learned to value each other’s voices and opinions. They work together readily.

We were recently working on multigenre writing projects in the classroom, and as I came in the room and prepared to start class, I noticed two students who had both chosen to write about Edgar Allan Poe sitting together. They do not normally sit right next to each other. They had their heads together sharing their work with each other and talking about the different types of writing they were doing for the project. Would another teacher have wanted to keep them apart because they were working on similar projects? Possibly. Why? They shared great ideas with each other, and their projects will be stronger for the sharing and feedback. I think we are afraid sometimes that it is not original work if students collaborate, but truthfully, we often benefit from models. Models can show us how to do something and give us ideas we might otherwise not have had. A recent study by Thomas N. Wisdom, Xianfeng Song, and Robert L. Goldstone from University of Indiana explores the ways in which social learning can improve problem solving. The implications of the study suggest that sharing ideas and encouraging individuals to work as a team will result in better learning:

The results of both experiments show that imitation can be productive for groups as well as individuals, because it enables the preservation of good tentative solutions in “group memory” and their further improvement through cumulative exploration. These results also showed that the pursuit of larger amounts of exploration can result in diminishing returns for both individuals and groups. (Wisdom, Song, and Goldstone 1419)

One of the things I have noticed about writing workshop is that students often open their laptops and revise their own writing when we are collectively editing a peer’s paper. They notice something they want to change or that they want to try, or they have an idea based on something their peer has said. As such, my students’ writing has strengthened a great deal over the course of the year.

Students might not necessarily go on to be professional writers, but often, the situations in which professional writers work mimic the writer’s workshop more than writing in isolation does. Journalists always collaborate. It’s understood that an editor and copyeditor will work on a journalist’s writing. The writing room for just about every television show you can name involves collaborative writing. Students can apply these skills to the other work that they do.

Students have commented on first trimester course evaluations that the class is “like a family” and that they are “always collaborating.” Second trimester, one student said they “are asked to work together and by ourselves. We do a lot of group work.” The same student added that I make “sure we understand things before we move on.” Another student remarked that the class is “an opportunity to meet challenges.” I share these comments because I think they are a window into how establishing a classroom community and offering opportunities for collaboration helps students learn better and enjoy their learning more. We are reading article after article about the skills employers are looking for in college graduates, and over and over, we read that the ability to work as a team and to collaborate and to communicate well are important. However, we are strangely selective about the opportunities we give students to collaborate. We rarely allow students to write together, and having seen the ways in which collaborating in this way have not only contributed to my students’ ability to write but has also built a strong classroom community, I’m convinced that collaborative learning like writer’s workshop is the way to prepare students for the real work of the world.

Work Cited:

Wisdom, Thomas N., Xianfeng Song, and Robert L. Goldstone. “Social Learning Strategies in a Networked Group.” Cognitive Science 37 (2013): 1383-1425. Print.

Image by Lolly Man

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Using Google Docs for Rubrics

At last year’s annual MassCUE conference, I went to a session presented by Katrina Kennett (@katrinakennett). Her presentation focused on how to use Google Docs to create rubrics, and she outlines the process in this video:

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She further explains her process and goals in this blog post.

I was energized by the presentation and immediately implemented Google Spreadsheets to create my own rubrics.

You can create self-grading rubrics if you like, or you can create rubrics that tally the number of rubric points and convert it to a grade. The first might save a little time, but the second allows you more control over the final grade.

I had a little trouble figuring out what formula to use to convert total rubric points to grade. For instance, I have long used the ELA rubrics published by Greece, NY schools. Jay McTighe introduced me to these rubrics many years ago when he visited a school where I was teaching at the time. As a result of his presentation, I came up with a formula for converting these 30-point rubrics to 100-point grades.

What I can’t seem to do with my rubric is determine what formula to put in one of the cells that will convert, say, 25 points to a 90 on an essay. If you can help me with that, please chime in below or email me at dana dot huff at gmail dot com. I had to disable my contact form, unfortunately, because of a barrage of requests for advertising and guest posts. Very frustrating and a subject for a separate rant some other time. I think there should be a formula that can do this, but I wasn’t able to hit the right one. Update: Please see the comments. I have tested the formula suggested in the first comment with a few different configurations, and it works.

I am sharing a link to a Google rubric I have created combining Katrina’s method with the Greece Schools’ rubric. This Google rubric is view only, so if you want to edit it, you will need to make a copy of it. This rubric is Greece’s literary analysis rubric. As you can see, the rubric has five criteria: meaning, development, organization, language, and conventions. It also has six levels of performance.

The easiest way to see how all of this works is to look at the rubric, make a copy of it, and see what’s under the hood by clicking on cells, where you can see the various formulas and conditional formatting rules.

After reading a student’s writing, I determine which cell best describes their level of performance for each criterion and type an exclamation point (!) at the end of the description. Using conditional formatting, I have set up the spreadsheet so that an exclamation point tallies the points for each criterion in the Rubric Score column and turns the background of the selected cell purple so that students can clearly see where their level of performance falls on the rubric. A cell at the bottom of the Rubric Score column totals the points for all the criteria. I then use the chart I shared in my blog post about rubrics and how to convert point-based rubrics fairly (see link above). As I said before, I have not figured out how to get my rubric to convert these points to a numerical grade.

Katrina assigns weights to the different parts of her rubrics, so she was able to set up an auto-grading feature when she selects cells. Here is a link to her rubric so that you can see how it works. As with mine, this rubric is view only, so you must make a copy of it before you can edit it for your use; however, you can click on the cells to see her formulas. As you can see, her use of the Google Rubric is much more developed and more sophisticated than my own.

What is the advantage of using Google Rubrics over paper ones, especially given that I’m not making as sophisticated a use of them as Katrina is?

  • My classroom is almost completely paperless.
  • We are already using Google Docs in my classroom, and using Google Docs for rubrics enables me to put rubrics and docs in one place.
  • Using Hapara, I can create a Google Spreadsheets Workbook for each student and copy each rubric to their workbooks as I create them. They will then have access to each rubric in one workbook. At the end of the year, or even at more frequent intervals, they can look for trends.
  • I can share links to their rubrics in my comments on their essays themselves (in Google Docs) and also in our open gradebook comments area (we use PowerSchool).

Of course, if I can figure out the formula I need to convert rubric points to a grade without weighting, then I’m all set.

Feel free to ask questions (or help me out with my spreadsheet formula) in the comments.

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Writing Workshop, Part 3: A Reflection

ReflectingFour students in each of my English classes have had what Ron Berger describes as an “in-depth” critique. I have graded some of those essays, and I can see a great deal of improvement. In some cases, I believe the student’s essay earned a full letter grade higher because of the editing and revision. Obviously, I’m very pleased with these results. Grades are not the most important thing to me. I see improvement in their writing, so naturally a higher grade is the result.

On Monday, we had what Berger calls a “gallery critique” of the remaining essays in each class. Students asked that we simply share Google Docs with view/comment privileges only with everyone in the class. Hapara makes this very easy, as it creates groups for each of your classes. Sharing a document requires that either the student or the teacher click on Share, and then type in the name of the group. We changed the settings to “Comment,” as the default is “Edit.” That’s it.

One of the things I noticed during our gallery critique: Students were reading and reflecting on the comments of their peers in addition to the essays themselves. In fact, some were even replying to the comments of others, which is a great Google Docs feature I think few people know about, much less use. One student called across the room to another, asking her to read his paper because he noticed she had really helpful comments.

A roomful of editors brings out some interesting talents I might otherwise not have known about. For instance, one of my students is really great at making a suggestion that leads the writer to generate ideas. His suggestion might be a subtle nudge. I wrote about one of his suggestions in my second post about Writing Workshop. In that post, I described how one student suggested perhaps Queenie in “A&P” didn’t really “boss” the other two girls around, and it was this other student who suggested perhaps describing the girls would be a good opportunity to bring in the metaphor Updike uses of describing the customers as sheep. Then, the student himself thought he could describe Queenie as herding the girls around the store. Leading a peer toward coming up with the perfect revision on his/her own is truly an outstanding gift.

We have another student who comes up with excellent ways to bring in vocabulary. I assign vocabulary from the literature we read, so the words are in context, but they are also common SAT words. One thing I’ve found frustrating over the years is watching my students study long list of vocabulary words given to them by their SAT tutors. The words are completely out of context, and I would be surprised if students really learn most of them. The other day, one of my students mentioned to me that he had the word “sacrilege,” one of our recent words, on another vocabulary list in World Civilizations (our 9th and 10th grade history course).

Another student uses the commenting feature to talk to himself about his writing. He makes notes about where to bring in textual evidence or where to flesh out details. On a short story assignment he’s working on, I noticed he is making notes about a symbol he wants to incorporate into the ending. If not for Google Docs, I would not be able to see this metacognitive process in action, and it’s fascinating to watch him think.

The culture shift in the classroom was subtle, but palpable. After critiquing a few papers, they all suddenly became a community of writers. There is an openness and camaraderie among them. Writing Workshop days are so much fun for all of us. There is an energy in the room that’s hard to describe.

If you do Writing Workshop in your class, my suggestion is that you start with an in-depth critique rather than a gallery critique. I think students learn how to help their peers when they see it in action. Like anything else, peer editing should be modeled. Another strong suggestion I have is to use Google Docs. Google Docs have made the whole process much easier. I am also seeing students use Google Docs for their other assignments and for taking notes, too.

I came up with the following potential criticisms:

  1. This takes a lot of time. Yes, it does. We have an open gradebook, so I did fear students and parents would not like the amount of time that elapsed between an assignment and feedback on that assignment. I think the answer is in the results. So far, I am seeing much better and more thoughtful writing from my students. I used our open gradebook to communicate on the assignment about what we were doing, and why there might be a delay in feedback and evaluation as a result.
  2. Yes, but what can the students do on their own? I would argue that they will learn much more about writing in this way than they would if they did a one-and-done draft, barely glanced at my comments or rubric, and only hunted for the final grade. I have seen much more active revision, even after workshop is over. Students are thinking longer and harder about their writing. When in our adult lives do we have to write anything that we are forbidden to obtain feedback on?
  3. Won’t this lead to higher grades? What will happen when it comes time to recommend students for Honors/AP? We can’t let all of them in! Cards on the table: I have issues with AP. I think students, parents, and colleges are overly concerned with AP courses. I am not convinced by teachers who describe AP courses as loaded with material that they must absolutely cover that AP necessarily does our students much good. That said, students, parents, and schools seem to be invested in AP courses. My school, like some other schools, requires students have an A- average and teacher recommendation to take AP. If students have a lower/close average, they can appeal to take AP, and the English department reads their three common prompt papers (all students in a given grade write on the same topic; for example, our common prompt this trimester was about Updike’s short story “A&P”). So, the concern is that students might actually have a really good portfolio of common prompts, and perhaps their grades will actually be higher because they are turning in better final drafts. Well, essays are not the only form of evaluation I will do, but I admit I am looking at higher grades. I don’t know how many of my students have the desire to take AP Language and Composition next year. I don’t know if I am looking at recommending large numbers of students to AP. I have been upfront about what I’m doing with colleagues, and my administration is supportive (ecstatic, actually). So, I suppose I will just worry about this problem if it arises later this year.
  4. What about a timed writing situation? Fair enough, English teachers like to assign timed writing. Deadlines are a very real part of every person’s life, but outside of school and standardized tests, I have never had to produce a coherent, organized, well-developed piece of writing in under a half hour. Or a class period. Have you? I do not get the fetish for timed writing, I admit. I’m not sure what we learn about students’ ability to write thoughtfully on a topic in a timed situation. I think it confuses students when we think we emphasize the writing process and then ask them to produce a timed writing, no chance for editing and correction. No wonder they turn in first drafts and don’t edit them. And then we complain about that! Students can’t figure out what we want!

I am sure there are other issues I haven’t considered. Feel free to ask in the comments.

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Writing Workshop, Part 2

WritingIn my previous post about Writing Workshop, I explained what an In-Depth Critique looks like in my class. Logistics and tools may be a concern, especially for teachers with a large number of students.

My school has Google Apps for Education, but as we do not use the Gmail feature, Google Docs/Drive is probably the most frequently used Google App at our school. I am piloting a tool called Hapara that works with Google Drive (and also Blogger, Gmail, and Google Sites, if you like) to make it easier to track student work and push documents out to students.

What I like about it is that I don’t have to remind students to share their docs with me; their docs are automatically shared. Google Docs has an excellent commenting feature that I much prefer to track changes in Word. If you haven’t used this feature, this video gives a succinct demonstration of what it looks like:

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As you can see in the video, if a student clicks on the comment, the highlighted text changes color so that the students can easily see what the comment is referring to. They can use the feature themselves to make notes to themselves about what to change. I have a student, for instance, who uses it to talk to himself about areas where he knows he needs to do some more editing or thinking. Once the student addresses the comment, he or she can mark it resolved, but the history is still visible if the student clicks on the large Comments button at the top.

Google Docs makes it much easier for me to conduct Writing Workshop because the student whose paper we are workshopping can have it open in Google Docs and make suggested edits on the fly as we discuss the paper and can take notes on others that he/she needs to consider.

At this stage, we are not sharing our documents with each other. Rather, one student’s essay is projected on the screen, and both the student and I have the doc open so that we can both add the peers’ comments and suggestions. Later, we may decide to share docs as we build our community of writers and gain that trust.

Today, we workshopped a student’s paper. He did a fabulous job integrating quotes, which allowed us all the opportunity to learn. I mean, it really was masterful. His title was clever, but we wondered if it really fit the ideas expressed in the essay, which was an analysis of John Updike’s short story “A&P.” The image of the customers as “sheep” mindlessly pushing their carts through the aisles really appealed to this student, and he wanted to work the image of the sheep into the title. In his paper, he argued that the protagonist, Sammy, made an unwise decision in quitting his job. I should mention that each trimester, all students taking a particular course, in this case World Literature II, write on the same given prompt, which we call a common prompt. The common prompt for this trimester asked students to determine whether or not they felt Sammy made the right decision in quitting his job, and yes, either yes or no can be argued successfully based on the text.

We began, as before, by asking the student to identify his goal for the writing and what, in particular, he especially wanted feedback on. Then we read the essay as a whole, commenting on what we liked and noticed and on what questions we had. Then we read almost sentence by sentence.

The student had an amazing breakthrough when were looking at a sentence in which he described the girl Sammy dubs “Queenie.” My student described her as “bossing” the other two girls around, which is how Sammy realized she was in charge. Another student suggested we didn’t really see any “bossing,” and I agreed. But we all agreed it was obvious she was the group’s leader. How did we know that? Well, the students said, the way they walked around. She was in the middle. She was directing them around the store. Wait! One student had an idea. Why didn’t the writer tie the way the girls walked around the store back to the image of the sheep? And the student writer said, maybe he could revise the sentence to describe Queenie as herding the other girls around the store. It was brilliant! I actually jumped up and down and then gave a student a high five.

I am telling you that this is the kind of thinking we WANT students to be doing about their writing. And it worked because one student suggested a word change, another had an idea about a way to think about the word choice, and the STUDENT HIMSELF came up with the best word to use.

In addition to word choice, we were able to talk about commas and why they can be problematic, but also how we can figure out when to use them. Students were able to see an excellent model for integrating quotes and clever word choices. Students had an opportunity to help a peer think critically about his word choices and correct a few grammatical issues. I can’t even tell you how much easier Writing Workshop makes writing instruction. The kicker is that the writing instruction is much more meaningful because it comes from the students’ own writing. We are establishing ourselves as a community of writers with the goal of improving everyone’s writing.

After class, one student hung back to ask a question about using a semicolon, as it came up when we examined the essay today. Another student asked about integration of quotes in literary analysis as opposed to the kind of writing she does in history, which was a great opportunity to discuss audience and writing for different purposes.

I only offer a couple of examples here. In truth, I do not think I could cover nearly as much writing instruction in a traditional writing assignment graded with comments, which the student might examine for the grade. Perhaps the student might read the comments, but certainly I would see the same problem areas in the next paper, ad infinitum, mainly because the comments alone really don’t help the student understand how to improve. And frankly, I am as guilty of this as anyone, but such feedback never seems to celebrate what went right with the writing. Putting the essay up on the screen and taking a period to discuss it hits all of these common problems in writing instruction. What I like to see in Writing Workshop is the way in which it encourages the students to think about what makes good writing.

Do you have questions regarding logistics? Please ask in the comments.

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Writing Workshop, Part 1

Writing for Film & Television - Students in "The Biz" classOf the subjects I proposed in my previous post, Writing Workshop received the most #1 votes. Google Docs rubrics received more votes if you count #2 and #3+ votes, but since I technically didn’t say to rank the choices, I’m going with Writing Workshop for this post and will write about Google Docs rubrics soon.

First, I need to mention that what I am doing with Writing Workshop is new to me. If you poll your students and ask them what they have typically done for Writing Workshop in the past, if they have done it all, they usually say that they exchanged papers with a peer or a small group of people, and they gave each other feedback. Ron Berger says in An Ethic of Excellence that “[m]any teachers also pair off students and ask them to critique each other’s writing. I suggest teachers take critique to a whole new level” (92). Berger goes on to say that

Critique in most classroom settings has a singular audience and a limited impact: whether from a teacher or peer, it is for the edification of the author; the goal is to improve that particular piece. The formal critique in my classroom has a broader goal. I use whole-class critique sessions as a primary context for sharing knowledge and skills with the group. (92)

I decided to try Berger’s idea after watching him work with elementary school students in this video:

I also showed this video to my students. Their reaction was interesting. Even after watching the drafting process, they insisted Austin traced the last butterfly. The improvement was too drastic. I pointed out that we watched the process in action, but they responded that the butterfly was better than anything they could draw, and they are in high school. But I reminded them that Austin went back to the drawing board several times. However, my point was made. Improvements do occur with multiple drafts, and specific feedback really can improve work. Of course, it was not lost on my students either that if elementary school students can give specific, targeted feedback that will help a peer improve his/her work, then so can they.

My students were ready to try it in my class. I found my volunteers to be the first students to have their work critiqued in what Berger calls an “in-depth critique” (94). I did not have trouble finding volunteers, as I feared I might. Here is Berger’s description of an in-depth critique:

When doing an In-Depth Critique, we look at the work of a single student or group and spend a good deal of time critiquing it thoroughly. Advantages to this style include opportunities for teaching the vocabulary and concepts of the discipline from which the work emerges, for teaching what comprises good work in that discipline, and opportunities for modeling the detailed process of making the work stronger. (94)

In-depth critiques are time-consuming. It took us an entire class period to do an in-depth critique on one paper. I suspect that we will get faster as the year goes on.

What we did first was have the writer share his/her vision for the paper and explain what he/she was hoping to achieve. Then the writer asked the class to focus on certain areas. One writer asked that his peers help him determine whether or not his paragraphs developed his thesis, for example.

Then, I asked the volunteer writers if they wanted to read their papers, or if they wanted me to do so. Both volunteers opted to have me read their papers, but I think it’s good to give students that option.

We read the paper through once, and I asked the students for general feedback about what they liked. For instance, one writer had done additional research and found a statistic from outside the short story we were analyzing (John Updike’s “A&P”) to develop one of his points. The class really liked that. So I asked them if they had thought of doing that, too, and none of them had. Boom. I just taught them it is OK to do additional research in order to make a point, and I also showed the students how this evidence was properly cited and that an entry for the source appeared on the Works Cited page.

Then we went through the paper nearly sentence by sentence and looked for how the entire piece of writing worked. Here is a short list of things I was able to discuss because they came up in the writing we examined:

  • How to properly integrate quotes. Both writers had great examples of tightly integrated quotes and quotes that needed to be more tightly integrated.
  • What to do when you have to change a quote slightly (use brackets).
  • Using dependent clauses at the beginning of sentences and how to punctuate (and why it’s OK to start a sentence with ‘because.’ Teachers, really, you have to stop telling students not to do that).
  • Using appositive phrases.
  • Combining sentences.
  • Stronger constructions. One student said “Quitting his job was not a good decision” or something similar, and I pointed out that phrasing the sentence this way was much more effective than “It was not a good decision for Sammy to quit his job.” We begin with a much stronger word, and we avoided that overused “it is,” “there was,” etc. that we see too often in student work.
  • We had a live model of a peer’s work that had examples of good writing and writing in need of improvement. It’s helpful for students to see that writing doesn’t spill fully formed from the pen, and that all of us have areas of strength and weakness in our writing.
  • Where it might be OK to cut redundant information, and where it might be necessary to clarify a point.
  • How to pick an engaging title and why you should.
  • Works Cited and in-text citations.
  • Identifying areas where arguments are weak and need more development.

All of this and more just from looking at one paper. Yes, it was time consuming, but I can tell the students learned more about writing effectively, even if they didn’t necessarily take in every detail, than they would have if I had simply commented on their papers and handed them back. Workshop was way more effective than any time I have tried to go over such issues in class or in feedback given back to students. Perhaps the most telling feedback I received was when I passed around this paper and asked students to check whether they’d prefer an in-depth critique or gallery critique (passing papers around, reading silently, and commenting on the papers in general once we’re done). Here is how my students responded (names redacted; click on the image to see a larger version):

Writing Critique PreferencesAs you can see, the students overwhelmingly endorsed the value of this endeavor. I just have to figure out how we are going to read all of these papers!

I can think of a couple of reasons, aside from time, that teachers might be reluctant to do this kind of Writing Workshop.

  1. But what can they do on their own?
  2. What about a timed writing situation?

I would argue that students don’t know how to do this on their own, but once they see the process modeled, they learn how. Obviously we don’t have time to do this with every essay. I’m wondering myself how we have time to do it with one essay. But you really don’t need to do it with each essay. Even picking a few volunteers to workshop can really help the others see the same patterns and issues in their own papers, and they can revise and edit after seeing it done. Another point to consider is why we ask students to do this kind of writing on their own when as adults, they can certainly get feedback on anything they write. Even published novelists have editors. Some of them even write with other people! Why do we tell students they have to go it completely alone, no help with revision or it’s not really their work?

The second argument is even more problematic because aside from standardized tests and exams, when in life do you really have to do timed writing? Deadlines, sure, but timed writing? I suppose I hold the radical notion that it doesn’t have much of a place in teaching writing because its antithetical to helping students see writing as a process and discourages students from doing the kind of revision and editing we want them to do. And then we complain when they turn in first-draft work on a final draft.

Aside from the overwhelming interest my students showed in workshopping their own papers, another interesting thing to note from this experiment is that one of my writers participated as fully in the revision as did his peers. He had his Google Doc open as we discussed the writing, and he made the edits he liked right there in class. He also suggested edits himself. If we ran into a sentence that needed work, he chimed it with, “Maybe instead I could say…” It was fantastic! It is the kind of metacognitive process we want to instill in our students.

I will try to share some further thoughts regarding logistics in a future post. Meanwhile, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

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A Poll: What Would You Like to Read?

I have been trying out quite a few new things, and I don’t know where to start in terms of talking about them here. Take a look at this list and let me know in the comments which topic piques your curiosity, and I’ll do my next blog post on the topic that generates the most interest.

  • Using Google Docs to create rubrics
  • iMovie book trailers
  • (Almost) Paperless Classroom with Google Docs and Schoology
  • Carving out a hybrid position (or how I’m teaching two English classes and working as a Technology Integration Specialist at the same time)
  • Writing Workshop: going beyond peer editing with partners
  • Teaching The Catcher in the Rye

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March Madness Ideas

air timeIt’s March! That time of year when everyone’s filling out their brackets. You can use March Madness as a metaphor for all kinds of activities at school:

  • Poetry: Have students pit their favorite poems against one another. They can create brackets. It can be a fun segue into National Poetry Month in April (see also NCTE’s lesson).
  • Writing: TeachHub has writing prompts related to basketball and March Madness for students in grades K-12.
  • Math: Probability activities and more math-related March Madness.
  • Multiple disciplines: This New York Times activity allows students to use brackets to debate academic questions.

ESPN has tournament brackets available as GIF’s or PDF’s.

Do you have a March Madness idea? Share please!

Creative Commons License photo credit: *sean

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I Won NaNoWriMo!

Winner!I posted this on my book blog, but I don’t necessarily have the same readers on each site. I am so excited because yesterday I validated my novel, and I wrote over 50,000 words during the month of November. The story is not finished yet, and in case you care, I tried a new genre (chick lit). I usually stick to historical fiction of some kind.

I learned some interesting things about myself as a writer as a result of participating in NaNoWriMo.

First, even though I have “won” NaNoWriMo before, it doesn’t feel any less fantastic to win again. In fact, it might feel even better to win again because I feel reassured that the first time wasn’t a fluke. I really am a writer. I really could write novels if I keep at it. After I wrote my first book, I didn’t try to write another one for years. I was a little worried all I had in me was one. I tried NaNoWriMo for the first time in 2006, and I didn’t come close to winning. My story never truly gelled, but I did create a character for that novel who sort of sits in a corner of my mind, tapping her foot impatiently, waiting for me to do something with her. The first time I won was in 2009. I still haven’t edited that novel. I didn’t win last year. I fell behind at NCTE, and I never did catch up again after that. I had over 30,000 words, and it was frustrating to lose, particularly because I thought (and still think) the idea behind that novel was pretty good.

It’s weird that when you create characters they become like real people in your mind. For my 2009 NaNoWriMo novel, I created a protagonist named Imogen Medley, a girl who lived in the mountains of Breathitt County, Kentucky during the Great Depression. She is completely real to me in many ways. I had the rest of her life planned out, even though there was no occasion to show it in the novel. I know, for instance, that she grew up to become one of the first woman judges in her neck of the woods, a calling prompted by an injustice she witnesses during the course of my novel.

A second thing I learned about myself is that the large amount of writing I’ve been doing this year, mostly on my reading blog, has made me a faster, more fluent writer. I know that we writing teachers tell students that they will become faster, better, and more fluent writers if they just practice it more, but I’m not sure I ever noticed a measurable difference in my own practice until this year. I rarely had a problem reaching the daily word count of 1,667 words (except some days I skipped while at NCTE). Many days, I was able to write over 2,000 words. That last day, I wrote over 2,800 words. I was stuck one day, so I just started writing about being stuck, and eventually, I was writing my story again.

When I wrote my first book, I had this massive notebook with all my research. For my 2009 NaNo novel, I put a bunch of research into a program called Curio, but it was clunky to flip back and forth between my research and my writing. This year, I used Scrivener, and I found that having all my research and my writing in one place made me more productive. We should teach our students to try out a variety of tools until they find the ones that work for them. I think we all have trouble with finding the right tools sometimes, and the right tools can make a huge difference in our ability to succeed. I think I won NaNo this year partly because I found a tool that helped me work better and smarter than any other tools I’ve used in the past.

Another interesting thing that I noticed (not so much learned, I guess) is that I seem to like to write dialogue. I worry that my stories have too much dialogue and not enough description, but I like to hear my characters talk. I know dialogue can be tough for some people to write, but I think if you listen a lot, your dialogue will sound more natural. It goes without saying that reading other writers will also help you shore up weaknesses in your own writing. You have models for good dialogue, good description, tight plotting, characterization, and beautiful language if you read a lot. I have also been doing a lot of reading. This year, I’ve read 45 books. I am trying to make it an even 50 before the year is out. I know writing was easier for me this time because of all the reading I’ve done.

I know some writers look down on NaNoWriMo because they feel it encourages sloppy, quick, poor writing. I think some people need the pressure of a deadline to get their words down the paper, and NaNoWriMo is becoming my favorite way to start a novel. I think most people who participate realize their novels aren’t publishable on December 1. In fact, they’re likely not even finished. There may be some misguided individuals who don’t understand that revision is where the real work happens, but they’ll probably eventually be disabused of their confusion (one way or another). Another criticism I hear is that it’s unnecessary: true writers will write whether there is an event scheduled around drafting 50,000 words or not. Perhaps. But I do know that writing along with a community and receiving the moral support of NaNoWriMo has encouraged me. Maybe others don’t need that encouragement, but writing can be solitary. It helps to know you’re not alone.

The most important thing was how much fun I had this time. It was hard work—no doubt about that—but I enjoyed it the whole time, even on days when I had to make myself write because I didn’t think I wanted to.

Good luck to those NaNo participants heading into the home stretch tonight.

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