Framing an Approach to the Digital Writing Workshop

After a wonderful week in Philly and while reflecting on my experiences at the NWP Annual Meeting, “Digital Is” Conference, and NCTE Convention, I was fortunate enough to engage with a Michigan colleague who, as a part of her master’s program, is doing an inquiry project on establishing her own digital writing workshop. She had picked up my book (thanks!) and then had some questions for me, specifically related to her teaching context. With her permission, I share excerpts of our email conversation here in hopes that it may be useful for some of you attempting to establish digital writing workshops in your own classrooms and schools. The exchange begins with her first question, and I have indented my responses for clarity.

1.  Access is my biggest issue.  Currently, I share a laptop cart of 20 with the whole school (about 220 kids).  I do have 5 computers in my classroom, but I am unable to sign out the cart on most days, leaving me one day a week (to compete with the whole school) to sign out the laptops.  I am currently dreaming and searching for grants to get more computers for my own classroom, but access continues to be an issue.  Not all of my students have access to computers or internet at home, and most aren’t able to use a computer during the school day.  (The competition to use one of the classroom computers can be pretty stiff, especially since many of my students have computer usage written into their IEP…  leaving all the others without class time access.)  How does one go “fully digital” without access?  Do I make blogging their weekly writing a requirement and then have them come in during lunch or after school?  Or do I wait on that part until I know everyone has fair access?

I am in a fairly fortunate position…  my class sizes are small.  But how much do I push the envelope?

You have two problems here — the immediate and long term need for access. So, I will address both.

First, for the short term, no, you should not wait. Kids, and parents, are resourceful, and if you create an assignment and give them a fair amount of time (one post per week, with one response to a peer, perhaps), then I think that it is more than fair to require that as homework. If you make extra time available at lunch or after school, in addition to the one day a week that they have in your class, then this is even more fair. Sadly, we will never have equal access (which is what I think you mean be “fair access”) and I don’t think that should preclude students engaging in digital writing. So, your plan is reasonable. Push the envelope, not only because you know it is pedagogically sound, but because you know that students can rise to these expectations so long as you make them reasonable.

A more long term question is embedded in your desire to get grants to buy more machines. With tools like netbooks and iPod touches as very low cost, that might be your best entry point for a one-to-one system. Honestly, you won’t have full access in your classroom unless your school supports a building-wide initiative, or you get your own for your classroom. So, that is an admirable goal, but I would really encourage you to push for a school-wide initiative in order to make substantive changes in the ways that students and your colleagues engage with technology. You might want to look at this book to help make an argument about why and how laptops can support student learning: Warschauer, M. (2006). Laptops and literacy: Learning in the wireless classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.

In short, you are thinking about this in all the right ways. Trying to make things fair for all of our students is the sign of a passionate teacher, and I appreciate your efforts. That said, I can understand why you feel you are not being fair. One blog post a week, I can assure you, is a fair assignment, and one that moves your students in the right direction to becoming digital writers.
 

2.  Some of my parents are concerned about their child’s off task behavior while  on the internet.  One parent has demanded that we not let her child use the computer at school at all, because she can’t be monitored well enough.  This child is only in 6th grade, so I will continue to have her for 2 more years.  Any ideas to help sway her parents?

The best response that I have heard to this is from a colleague, Bud Hunt (who blogs at http://budtheteacher.com/blog/). Basically, he says that it’s not the internet that makes the kid go to Facebook/IM/game sites/etc. It’s the kid. Your job is to help teach the kid to be productive, ethical, and responsible online. But, that’s part of her parents’ job, too. And, filtering/censoring the internet is not going to solve that. Keeping her offline at school, in short, is not going to help her be a better digital writer nor is it going to help her learn behaviors that are going to make her a good digital citizen. We have to recognize that kids, and all of us, can and should have time to play and explore online, and that should be balanced with doing work. This is true offline as well. So, your job is to help the parents see that it’s not the internet that is distracting their daughter, it’s their daughter that’s distracting their daughter. Show them what you are asking her to do, talk about how that should be engaging her, and then discuss what other reasons might be present for why she is not engaging in the digital writing task (is she a struggling writer? are other kids in the class not responding to her writing? other?)

3.  What do you say to those that value the very traditional 5 paragraph essay “make my kid ready for the MEAP and ACT” kinds of writing, and do not believe that digital story telling, podcasting, and creating PSAs will help their child learn the so called “nuts and bolts” of writing?  Thankfully, I do not get a lot of that at my school…  but I am sure others face it quite a bit.

Like crafting a blog post, composing a digital story, or writing a letter, the writing a 5 paragraph essay is one type of genre that students need to master for a specific writing context. My argument for focusing on digital writing is simple — use the MAPS heuristic and help students talk about the mode, media, audience, purpose, and situation of a given writing task, then use that language across tasks. So, as they compose a blog post, talk with them about the similarities and differences between writing that post as compared to a traditional essay. When kids understand the rhetorical choices that they are making, then they will be better able to discern how and why to make these choices.

Moreover, if kids are engaged in authentic writing tasks through digital storytelling and other means, then it will give them more fodder to choose from for these exams. That is, if they are passionately writing about their own ideas in a variety of other contexts, then when it comes time to perform on the state test, then they will have a variety of ideas to choose from. Rather than drilling them with decontextualized prompts each day, engage them in real writing, and they will be able to craft an essay when they need to.

Beyond that, one footnote. The best MEAP essays are NOT five-paragraph ones. I know that you know this, but point parents to the MEAP released items and talk with them about what the best essays look like. Talk with your kids about it, too. Then, see how that type of essay writing can be fostered by making good rhetorical choices (ala the choices one makes as a digital writer).
 

4.  Just for fun… 
What has been your favorite digital writing workshop activity to experience?
What activity has been the most valuable as far as engaging students in writing, both in and out of class?

I love digital storytelling. Love creating them. Love teaching them.

That said, my favorite and most valuable activity is having my students create a writer’s profile. I am copying and pasting the next few paragraphs from a blog post I made on the Ning a few months back…

At the beginning of each writing class that I teach, I invite students to “interview” each other with Nancie Atwell’s writing survey from In the Middle. While they are interviewing each other, I walk around the room and, with their permission, take their picture with a digital camera. This encourages some offline collaboration that then turns into the basis for their online relationships as readers and responders.

After the interviews, they then take the answers to the questions that they gave, and begin to create an individual page with an autobiographical profile on our class wiki. Before class begins, I have already created a list of students on a page of the wiki, so that they can then link their profile to the class list.

Often times, over the course of the semester, this profile page grows as they add their writing territories (Atwell), responses to a “50 questions” activity I lead them through,” and links to the writing pieces that they are developing over the semester. Also, other students can go into the wiki and comment on each other’s profiles, including responses to writing. These profile pages grow and change over the semester, just as they grow and change as writers.

Two examples of these class pages linked to individual profiles can be found in my ENG 315 course and this summer’s Chippewa River Writing Project.

 

Thanks for supporting me on my quest to “digitize” my writing workshop!

 

You are welcome, and thanks for taking the next steps — I applaud your enthusiasm and professionalism. I look forward to hearing about your work.

Cross-posted on the Digital Writing Workshop Ning.

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6 thoughts on “Framing an Approach to the Digital Writing Workshop”

  1. Is One-to-One Computing the Best Solution? My first response is no, for most teachers. It is expensive and has some potential drawbacks that might be avoided with a different ratio. With the right teacher, the necessary funding, decent support, time to develop quality projects, and whatever professional development is necessary then I’d love to see it in more classrooms, schools, or districts.

    http://balancedtech.blogspot.com/2009/12/is-one-to-one-computing-best-solution.html

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  2. I have done some digital storytelling with my fourth graders, but am finding it limiting in the sense that my district doesn’t have a way to “safely” open blogs and wiki sites for students. I want to open up their projects for others to comment on and offer feedback, thus showing them a true audience for writing. What other ways do you suggest to incorporate digital writing into the curriculum if we can’t post to the “outside world?”

    I also like your class interview project! It’s a great first week of school project that not only engages students, but also excites them about writing. I’m hoping to give it a try and work out any of the “bugs” so at the beginning of the 2010/2011 school year, I can feel confident using it as an ice-breaker activity. Thanks for sharing!

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  3. Kristen — Thanks for contacting me and I wish you well in your project!

    If you are completely blocked from sharing student work online, then there is a new twist on an old standby — send the digital project home (on a flash drive or CD) and ask for parents, family, and friends to email you with a response. That way, students only share with people they know, and the feedback gets filtered through you.

    Otherwise, if you can convince them to create a private blog/wiki/social network that you are able to monitor and invite parents into, then you could go that route, too.

    I hope this helps!

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