21st Century Digital Citizens
The students I’m working with today will graduate in 2018. They are citizens of the 21st century digital age. They are not the love generation, the X generation, or baby boomers. They are digital citizens. It sounds so refined, doesn’t it? When my students were preschoolers, there were already 100 million registered MySpace users. Today the number of text messages sent daily exceeds the world’s population. My third graders can boot up Mac Powerbooks and bookmark their favorite sites on the Internet. They use Pandora to create a music list, and they can make a three-minute video on Photo Booth. They are still in elementary school!
This year, the $100 Laptop Project began their project of shipping 50 to 100 million laptops each year to children in underdeveloped countries. Technological information is predicted to double every 72 hours. YouTube shows 100 million videos per day and is the second most used search engine after Google. In the last year, there were 2.7 billion Google searches performed each month. IM, text, wiki, blog, podcast, and digital storytelling are all terms that have entered our vocabulary recently.
As a graduate student in 1997, I was indignant when one of my professors insisted that the syllabus would only be available online. Online? You mean there’s no hard copy? At that time I had a computer that operated on a painfully slow dial-up system and a very limited understanding of technology. I wasn’t totally certain that even if the dial-up system suddenly found some speed that I would be able to download and print the syllabus anyway. As a brand new teacher, I sat with my students while our technology person showed them how to file and save. It took me months and numerous lost pages to finally get the hang of it. We played math games online against cyber villains and wrote narratives in fancy fonts. It was all so much fun! But then something funny happened. I started paying attention during staff development sessions where our district guru would share “neat things” you could do on the computer. I liked the sound of the word “wiki” and the way “podcasting” reminded me of Lieutenant Uhura and Captain Spock. I suddenly, or should I say, finally, had been bit by the technology bug.
I decided that I would try podcasting. Why not? It was all the rage. NPR was selling it big time, you could listen to their news reports being streamed through the computer if you happened to miss it on your drive home. I also liked the idea that students could have a social destination for their writing. As a student of both Ralph Fletcher and Lucy Calkins, I followed the writer’s notebook philosophy of having students write to build stamina and then using peers and the teacher to offer feedback. While that worked for some of my students, many young writers needed more. Putting their work online in both text and audio formats allowed them to receive praise and polish from people around the world. The student writers became motivated to revise using polish ideas from their readers.
I began this foray into technology by reading articles online about podcasting. I visited sites of other teachers who had tried some form of digital work with their students. I especially liked a site designed by a teacher in southern Maine, Bob Sprankle: Room 208.
This site is loaded with podcasts, blogs, videos, and assorted links, and it contained lots of terrific student work. I began to think about the ways in which I could incorporate this latest technology into my daily writing practice. Lo and behold, as my research continued, I found that there was a term and a website for what I wanted to do: Kid-Cast. Kidcasts are podcasts designed for and by kids, and they enhance both teaching and learning in the classroom. The topics are endless: students reported the weather from their classroom windows, gave advice about nutrition, described the best way to talk your parents into letting you get a pet, and discussed ideas about how to create peace and solutions for a better world.
Once I had a clear understanding of kidcasting, my students and I began with the process I always use when I’m introducing something new: consume, critique, and produce. In this case, my students and I went online and “consumed” other kidcasts. We talked about what we liked about the ways that the authors had both written and spoken their work. And we noticed how some kidcast creators had added art work, special background music, and sounds to enhance their work. We critiqued numerous sites and created a list of what we wanted our kidcasts to look and sound like. We also wanted to make sure that there was a way to receive feedback from our audience. Having that social destination was a huge motivator for even my most reluctant writers. It changed their perspective to know that they would hear what others thought about their work: grandparents, friends, published authors, and strangers. I had them hooked!
Now that we had a vision of how we wanted our kidcasts and our site to look, the writing really took off. We identified genres that we wanted to make sure were part of our site, including narrative, nonfiction, and poetry. The writing workshop in my classroom became a beehive of production: rough drafts, sharing, revisions, and plenty of laughing as we practiced fluency with our final copies. The beauty of it all was that words and phrases, thoughts and ideas were flying around the room as the students burned through their number 2 pencils.
One student, a “significantly below grade level” little fellow named Chris, who had a one-on-one ed tech with him at all times in the classroom, buried himself in his writers’ notebook, and, to our amazement, created the most amazing narrative titled, “A Day at the Dam.” It was a wonderful story from a student who had not completed a piece of writing all year. It included narration and dialogue that led the reader on a splendid romp through the woods of Maine as the characters discovered a 100-year-old dam. The narrative came to life as this student read it over and over again, polishing the piece until he was ready to have it linked to our classroom kidcast site. As he practiced the voice intonation he would use on different parts of the story to evoke tension or humor, Chris made me think about something my hero Ralph Fletcher had said at a conference I had attended on writing. Mr. Fletcher was describing the data he had recently collected on reluctant writers. When he asked young writers what others had thought of their writing, they responded with, “I don’t know,” or, “My teacher never says what she likes about my writing.” My “significantly below grade level” writer knew exactly what the class thought about his writing, and once his piece was linked to our kidcast site, he received praise and polish ideas from many others who responded to the feedback prompts.
As our kidcast site grew, we identified what we wanted from our audience and asked them to respond to our author’s craft by letting us know if our writing was fully developed and it explained or described the topic. Is it full of interesting tidbits? When you start reading, do you feel as though you don’t want to stop? As writers, we wanted to make sure that the audience could picture what the author was talking about and that our images were clear. We also wanted our writing to be organized using a clear beginning with a lead sentence that grabbed the readers attention. We asked for feedback on details, including whether or not the reader had a favorite phrase or two, and if the author’s words and phrases described or conveyed feeling. When it came to voice, my young authors knew that they had to put their own personal stamp on their work, making sure that the audience could hear their voice booming through. When they cared about the topic, they made sure that it showed!
Their writing rang with confidence and their oral fluency was filled with voice intonation and expression.
I believe that using the kidcast technology sparked a bonfire in the hearts of many of my young writers, especially the one who was “significantly below grade level.” These fourth graders were digital citizens who were trading video games and Webkinz for meaningful work that had a destination outside their rural classroom. Our kidcast site created connections with student writers who had grandparents living in Florida, authors from San Francisco, and Bowdoin College students down the road a piece in Brunswick, Maine. The students were thrilled to hear what these people thought of a phrase they had used or the way they described an experience, and they used that feedback to improve a piece or as a nudge toward an idea for a new piece.
At the end of the school year, we had an online vote to pick five student samples to enter the Maine Writing Project’s Digital Storytelling Festival and Chris’s “A Day at the Dam” was selected as an entry. While it didn’t go on to win, Chris did become a prolific writer who couldn’t be silenced. I ran into him recently at the orthodontist’s office where he was getting braces, a rite of passage for many middle school students. While he sat in the chair waiting for the orthodontist, Chris asked, “Mrs Aronson, remember the story I wrote in fourth grade about the dam? Those people from Bowdoin College really liked the way I described the discovery of the dam, didn’t they?” “Yeah, Chris, they really did,” I replied.
Please check out the following websites for more information about kidcasting and ways to enhance your teaching using technology in the classroom.