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Digital Collaboration Beyond the Classroom: Mentors Come In All Shapes and Sizes

Digital Collaboration Beyond the Classroom: Mentors Come In All Shapes and Sizes

Written by Writing for Change
August 03, 2013

“Connected learning takes root when young people find peers who share interests, when academic institutions recognize and make interest-driven learning relevant to school, and when community institutions provide resources and safe spaces for more peer driven forms of learning.”

Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design

The San Diego Writing Project has had a focus for the past few years on digital literacy.  An over arching question has been “How do we motivate teachers to go from consumers of media, to producers of media?”  We recognize that the reality for many teachers is that we have 21st century goals with classrooms equipped with 20th century resources.  The reality was that many of our teacher consultants viewed themselves with low self-efficacy, were facing time constraints both in our classroom and for staff development. Most importantly, we discovered there were few mentors out there doing the types of things we wanted to explore; so we began to look within. We realized that if we were to commit to move on a digital continuum, we needed to become the mentors we need.

The first step was to develop a common reference point from which to work. The idea that each student and teacher is somewhere on a digital learning continuum, from a basic understanding of what is available to becoming an advocate for teachers and students to have access to the digital media and support in their communities. Another understanding was teachers and students enter the continuum from various places at different times, it is not a linear process, but an ongoing one.

Image originally uploaded on 2013-08-03 07:29

From this work, SDAWP co-director Christine Kane and SDAWP fellow Janet Ilko forged a new project. What would happen if students from a college graduate class and an urban middle school developed a digital space to mentor each other? What did it mean to mentor? What did these two groups of students have to teach each other? Teachers and students alike learned many things from this project.

A Little Background of the Journey

My own development in digital literacy mirrors this continuum. On many levels I still do not see myself as a teacher who is comfortable in the digital world.  I came into digital literacy with the idea that it would encourage my students to write more and for a wider audience. I began as a consumer, using the web as an on line encyclopedia of sorts, going out for information but not contributing information of my own.

As I grew more comfortable, I began to produce media, first on our school site blog, then my own personal blog to learn how to use this space in different ways. I relied on mentors, those who knew more than I, to guide my exploration. Then three years ago, I was selected to be part of a pilot program to bring one-to-one iPods into our classroom. This was that leap of faith that fundamentally changed the structure of my classroom. With every new project we learned side by side, taking turns leading. I was no longer the keeper of the information, I became more facilitator than expert. I knew that writing would be the focus, and this new tool would bring a new excitement to the work. i had the knowledge of language and writing, but my students had the savvy and experience with this particular tech tool. We became partners in these projects, along with other digital mentors that guided our work. It has been this process that has changed my definition of mentor, and my view of digital literacy. I learned quickly that mentors come in all shapes and sizes, and frankly, many of my tech mentors became the students themselves.

Flashforward to our most recent work at the San Diego Area Writing Project. Christine Kane, the co-director of our project, is also a professor at the University of San Diego. This past fall she taught a course on Multiple Literacies for graduate students in the School of Education. I had expressed an interest in coming to her class and share some of the work we were doing in digital writing. We wanted this to be more than just an observation and evaluation of my student work and instructional pedagogy, we wanted her students to experience the writing process on their own terms using similar prompts, time constraints and opportunities. What evolved was inspiring to students on both sides of the project.
Open ConnectedLearning_report.pdf
Open digitalyouth-TwoPageSummary.pdf

What Does It Mean To Mentor? Session One

“We need to think hard about how we talk about writing to our colleagues, to our students, to ourselves. Language, as the linguists tell us, is also the language of thought.” Ralph Fletcher

As Christine and I embarked on this journey, she shared that although her students were comfortable consuming digital media, they seemed reluctant to produce on their own at least in the educational environment. They were skilled at reading articles, writing summations and reports about media, but had little experience it seemed producing and creating their own digital media. As we further planned together we realized that many of her graduate students were English Learners, struggling not only with the academic challenges of a graduate program, but the challenges of learning the English Language. My own middle school students were all English Learners with a similar initial reluctance to write creatively in an educational environment, and with these common denominators I knew we could provide both an interesting link for both groups of students. I had learned in working with English Learners that using iPods in our classroom provided interesting ways in which my students could practice their reading and writing skills in relevant and interesting ways. I made it my goal to not only use apps that would support some remedial practice, but we would use tools such as iMovie and Storykit to create our own media to share. I wanted this project with her students to mirror some of that work from our classroom.

Working in digital media with my own students I knew the importance of creating along side your students. It was important for my students to see me struggle to both write and produce my own digital stories. It was also an extremely powerful tool to build self-efficacy in my students as well as an accepting classroom community. I wanted these graduate students to understand that including technology in the classroom was not about the program or the tool, but more importantly how that tool provides an avenue for that student to share their voice. Technology can at times feel isolated, and contrived and in worst case scenarios remedial in classrooms if students only participate as consumers of programs or games. The idea that students can use the same tool – for example an iPod – that in their everyday world primarily links them to music and games, as a tool to create their own movie to be shared with others is important as we move forward as educators.

So we decided to try something different. When I came into the classroom I shared a modified lesson I taught my students. We used the poems “Where I’m From”  by George Ella Lyon, “Raised By”  by Kelly Norman Ellis, and an excerpt from Sandra Cisneros novel House on Mango Street called “Those Who Don’t”.  Students discussed the poetry elements, patterns and relevance and relationships between these pieces. (Links to these materials are posted to this article.) So far this was familiar work to students in a graduate program, and then I asked them to do something a little different.

I let the students know that the following week, we would be producing movies based on the work we had discussing in class. Just like in my own classroom, it would be a one shot take, and they would have the three hour class period to create. I asked each student to choose one poem or excerpt that spoke to them, and write their own piece and to bring at least 3 images that supported their work to the following class. The level of anxiety rose as I discussed the project. I was surprised that students at that level had many of the same fears and questions as my own students. “Would we have to share this out loud?” “What would the grade be worth?” ” I’m not comfortable with the media.”

To alleviate some of these concerns, before the end of the first class I shared some iMovies created by my middle school students. Their digital poem pieces were  based on the same work that I had shared in their session. The movies were far from perfect, but revealed passion, individuality and an honesty that other writing we had done that year did not yield. I purposefully selected student work to emphasize that the process of writing the piece, and the focus on student voice, comes not from only looking at perfect or near perfect mentors, but it lies also in respecting the work and process of those around you. Students seemed still apprehensive, but intrigued with the project. I looked forward to creating movies with them the following week.
Open Raised by Examples_Student Work.doc
Open Where I’m From Original Poem & Template_0.pdf
Open Those Who Don’t.docx

Digital Collaboration Session Two

The following week we got to work. Again I shared student work, and shared our Writing For Change Site that had other samples of student work for those who wanted more information or models. Something interesting I noticed right away was that students whether they are in their early teens or in their twenties had similar reactions to this assignment. We had issues with the iPods functioning in the classroom due to internet availability, and soon students in class emerged as tech coaches or writing partners as students created their movies. They knew they had to have the piece completed by the end of the period, and that created some angst among some of the students. But we managed to persevere, even if it meant we used the iMovie program on a laptop, or we sent it by the end of the evening. But the interaction did not end with that face to face session.

Creating a Communal Space

During this project, we set up a communal space using Edmodo for students to respond and share their work. Initially this space was created for the teachers to communicate with the students. As students posted their pieces and ran into issues, they posted on this wall.  Here is an excerpt of one of our wall posts.

Image originally uploaded on 2013-08-04 08:36

Image originally uploaded on 2013-08-04 08:23

During the weeks we created these projects I began to share the comments and questions the grad students had with my middle school writers by posting the Edmodo site in my classroom. On my end, the students were excited to see the work of these grad students and more importantly to me, my students began to look at the work itself not as something unattainable, but rather as writers and collaborators. Students noticed the voices, that students in these graduate courses were English learners, still struggling with their own English skills. The immigrant stories and stories of friends and family mirrored their own experiences. They could see that their pieces, and similar mentor text,  had inspired the graduate student work. I could see that look that said, “Maybe I can see myself there too.” A few students in my class reworked their own pieces, and that larger audience inspired me to create a showcase space.

Image originally uploaded on 2013-08-04 08:37

We posted completed work from both my students and student samples from the University of San Diego as a culmination of the work of this project. It stands as part of the work my students completed last year both in class, and as part of our writing club. It is a page that my students would visit long after the project was over.

Student Samples From Cajon Valley Middle School Danya’s Story

The first video is Danya. Danya is a member of our Writing for Change Club. She has been part of our writing program both during the school year and our summer programs. She sees herself going to college and loves to write. She tells the story of what it feels like to be judged using Sandra Cisnero’s work, “Those Who Don’t” from the book The House on Mango Street.

She says this about being part of the college project:

“i have learned how to create a movie and experience new things with college students. i felt proud of what I wrote because my writing was amazing. I liked looking at their writing and know that they saw mine. I think it makes us all better writers.”

Student Sample From University of San Diego Jesus’ Story

Each student in the class contributed a movie and an evaluation of the project. Here are comments from Jesus and his story.

Image originally uploaded on 2013-08-04 14:34

Student Samples From Cajon Middle School Lamees’ Story

Lamees is another student who has bloomed in this digital space. A very quiet and shy young lady, she had difficulty finding her space in our boisterous classroom. She has also been part of this writing space for two years, and has goals of attending college. In participating in this particular project, she saw herself on a college campus. By the middle of the school year she tested out of our English Learner program, and enrolled into my AVID college prep leadership class. She remains active in our digital program, and came to tutor students this summer in our writing camp.  This is what she said about being part of this project.

“I learned about students background, what they like to eat, what they do, and more. When Mrs.Ilko shared our work with the college students i felt really happy and proud of myself and other students. I felt really excited because older students are looking at my work.”

Student Sample From Cajon Valley Middle School Andre’s Story


Andres is a student who I have worked with over the past three years as an English Learner. He did not see himself as a writer, and over the past three years has had many ups and downs in his educational career. But being part of a digital writing world matters to Andres. It has provided him the opportunity to share his ideas and work in ways the traditional classroom does not. He enjoyed creating movies in class, and would write about his life and music on his classroom blog.At the end of the school year students in his Eighth Grade English class were asked to write a poem and share it in front of the class. Andres asked the teacher to record his poem on his cell phone, and he brought it back to me to post on his classroom blog. This young man who often does not see himself in the school setting, brought tears to the eyes of his classmates, his teacher, and myself. There is no greater testament to the power of choice inspiring voice than this piece. He wrote a rap about losing his mother two years ago. Being part of this project showed Andres there was another way to express himself rather than through anger, avoidance or silence. He found his voice, and inspired others to share their stories as well.

Reflection and Next Steps

Image originally uploaded on 2013-08-05 21:57

Reflection and Evaluation

Cajon Valley Middle School

What we have learned through this process is the power of creating spaces that allow for a variety of entry points, and values the process instead of just final projects. My students live in a world where college seems a far off dream. To see the images and hear the voices of graduate students who still struggle with the academic English language, or share stories that mirror their own was empowering. By participating with the students through the digital space, they saw themselves in a new light. They were empowered and motivated to create a piece that was worth sharing to this larger audience.  The entire premise of the project, that my middle school students had something important to share, resonated throughout our classroom and inspired them long after this one project was completed. When they were able to see their work along side of college students, and the focus became about the work, and not their age or life experience, students on both sides of the project began to see learning differently.

University of San Diego

Students in a graduate education class often times do not get to work with students during their courses. They will study videos, or write plans, but to work with students in this manner was an entirely different perspective. Many students particularly enjoyed being able to write something creative and complete a project as a student participant, rather than the role of teacher. The element of play, and the realization that using technology sometimes creates roadblocks, allowed the students to learn by doing. They were able to see the lesson from a student perspective, and when taking something like this into their own classroom someday, they will plan with a different lens.

A Final Thought

Dr. Christine Kane will be teaching another Media class in the Spring of 2014. We will be creating another opportunity for our students to collaborate and write with the graduate class. One aspect of the project we are looking to explore is the use of the Edmodo site. It will be interesting to see if the students have the opportunity to talk together more extensively on that platform what effect that will have on the student generated writing on both sides of the project. You can check out other student samples and watch our continued work at

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