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Digital Writing Marathon: Keeping Teachers Connected in a Rural State

Digital Writing Marathon: Keeping Teachers Connected in a Rural State

Written by Lindsay Sorenson
November 11, 2012

“With the advent of Web 2.0 tools, cell phones and a social networking phenomenon, writing has become a part of the adolescent growth experience in ways that it never has been in the past…Communicating in the 21st century inevitably leads to writing—writing text messages, writing instant messages, writing e-mail messages, writing in Web spaces like wikis and blogs. Writing is how teens communicate, not only with friends in their area but with teens across the world” (Stephens & Ballast, 2010, xiii).

As writing moves into the digital realms, professional development and collaboration are following quickly behind. Teachers face both challenges of space and time–proximity to one another for support from fellow teachers and the time crunch that every teacher faces when seeking ways to implement new ideas. From July of 2010 to May 2011, Dakota Writing Project teacher-consultants led two different cohorts of elementary and secondary teachers through an “open” digital writing marathon experience.  Since it’s first year of implementation, DWP has made it an annual event.

The “Runners” and the “Route”

The first cohort was composed of eight teachers from South Dakota and two teachers from Iowa. It was the teachers’ first experience with National Writing Project. For four weeks, participants were exposed to various digital writing environments and read the anchor text Using Technology to Improve Adolescent Writing (Stephens & Ballast, 2011). They posted reflections of their experiences and readings each week in the discussion area of and conducted live chats with their fellow participants, discussing the week’s environment.

During September of 2010, the second cohort began its first leg’s experiences in conjunction with other professional development offered by South Dakota’s Region 3 Education Service Agency (ESA).

The first leg exposed the participants to TappedIn, Diigo, and VoiceThread.  Tapped In is an environment that offers synchronous and asynchronous discussion, link-sharing, and file uploading/storage. Diigo offers social bookmarking, discussions, and online highlighting and commenting. VoiceThread, another online tool, allows for document, image, and video uploading for presentation sharing and commenting.

The second leg of both cohorts’ marathon was in January of 2011.  Participants experimented with GoogleDocs, Glogster, and Prezi. GoogleDocs, an online writing tool, has the collaboration of writing at its heart. An online, interactive poster of images, text, video, and sound spotlights Glogster and presentations come alive through Prezi’s elements.

The participants implemented lessons relative to the experiences and readings into their own classrooms for both first and second semesters. At the end of May, the public participants shared their experiences in a Prezi presentation.

The goal of the endeavor was to expose more teachers to using technology to teach writing and to find new avenues of teaching writing to their population of students. Through the text and the hands-on experiences throughout the year, the teachers’ repertoire of writing tools grew—along with their confidence in using those tools in their teaching. Following the first leg of the Marathon, a participant commented, “I have enjoyed the synchronous chats on Tapped In. The assignments to investigate the various technology environments has been good for me. I look forward to implementing the lesson I created, as well as hearing from my classmates about the success of theirs. So far, it’s been a great class.”

Ultimately, the experience sought to widen the community of who our colleagues in the profession of teaching really are—to implement NWP’s philosophy of “teachers teaching teachers.” Through conversations and collaboration throughout the process, teachers grew in their trust of one another and have come to rely on each other for input, advice, and support. Another participant stated, “I have really enjoyed the class! I have been impressed with the level of sophistication of my classmates, the caliber of the teachers (and how helpful they are), and how useful the material will be in my classroom…”

Visit DWP’s website to find out how to participate in the Digital Writing Sandbox.

Digital Writing Marathon: The Writing Process

For implementation of our Digital Writing Marathon in the summer, planning begins in April. Recruiting of participants and facilitators take place through e-mail list-serves and on the DWP website. Graduate credit is offered to participants (with credit fees) and registration fees and text purchasing are required. These would not be a necessity to run the marathon, but they open options for teachers and allow for financial supplement to fund the marathon with paid facilitators.


Facilitators are designated and meetings take place in the “home” site.  In its first year of implementation, the Writing Marathon took place in Tapped In.  The Digital Writing Sandbox now uses NWP’s Connect site as its hub.  Discussions surround our choice of environments and organizing the experiences of the participants. Duties are divided among the four facilitators—tutorial responsibilities, facilitator duties and schedules, assistant facilitator duties and schedules, and communication with participants.  Throughout the process, open communication takes place between facilitators—editing tutorials, observations about the process and participants, and troubleshooting for problems and snags that arose.

To stay true to the mission of enhancing the teaching of writing, the site and assignment surrounding it needs to keep writing at the center. The exposure to the site should cultivate ideas and brainstorming for future use with students with sensitivity to the ease of student usage and navigation. The environments should be engaging to both the teacher and the student.

Starting Line

Internet service and servers vary from school to school. Experimentation on the part of the facilitators and planners needs to take place before implementation to assist with troubleshooting and foresight in its future use after the marathon experience. The first priority was choosing a “home” environment. As we thought about various websites, we determined that it must have these elements:

  • Chat feature—for weekly meetings.
  • Discussion thread—for reflection and ongoing conversations

Without a face-to-face meeting, a chat becomes the class discussion. With this experience’s focus on writing, a chat is a very appropriate way to communicate with the class about teaching writing. The discussion threads not only supplement the weekly chats and assigned readings, but also build the community of the class. As the teachers use the technology, thoughts and ideas inspire deeper conversations that can sometimes be limited in the focused chats.

As we have gained more experience with the process, we have come to rely on a few other features because of the ease it lends to the weekly chats and assignments. However, with extra planning from the facilitators’ end and preparation on the part of the participants, a site could function without these if there were no other options or issues arose with the functional side of the site:

  • A tool to project documents or text–for agenda & protocols; participants can post their reflective sentences before the discussions around those statements begin.
  • Link sharing—for easy navigation between the home site and the other environments.
  • File sharing—to upload tutorials, transcripts and other documents.

Tapped In offers a “Notes” to “feature” on the home page. This was used to project the chat’s protocol. There is also a “Whiteboard” that can be used for the participants to post their 2-sentence reflections of the week’s assignment. Without these tools in the site, a protocol would either need to be sent to participants and posted in the chat at the beginning of the session, with the facilitator leading the transitions during each spotlighted person’s time of reflection.

Points of Interest

Once the “home” site is chosen, the other tech environments can be chosen and experimented with. Cost efficiency (FREE!) plays a large role is choosing the tools. Past writing marathons have included such experiences as Internet Classroom Assistants (i.e.Nice net), digital storytelling (using iMovie or MovieMaker), podcasting, del.ici.ous, wikis, and weblogs (blogs).

There is a plethora of resources available both on the internet and within the software of our computers.  We wanted to make sure that we could represent as much variety in our choices as we could.  Using our experiences from previous digital writing marathons, we tried to include resources and tools that represented these categories:

  • Digital storytelling—VoiceThread offers a non-traditional experience.
  • Online classrooms—TappedIn has a K-12 feature for teachers to use with their students.
  • Collaborative writing—GoogleDocs embraces collaboration in its documents.
  • Discusson threads—TappedIn, VoiceThread and Diigo offered these options.
  • Research tool & website collection resource—Diigo also offered bookmarking and note-taking
  • Information presentation—VoiceThread, Glogster, and Prezi provided different views and tools for various purposes.

There are other resources available online that list a collection of tools for writing in digital spaces.  Links are listed on the bottom of this page.


Tutorials for the participants are written. It is important that the facilitators experiment with the sites themselves as they work through the process. We have found the following to help with the process:

  • Write your tutorial from the perspective and mindset of a beginner—start from scratch.
  • Add screen shots and visuals.
  • Anticipate the problems that will arise—research comments others have made about the challenges—work with colleagues.  Have a “back door” way of accessing the technology, if possible.
  • Collaborate whenever possible.
  • Write in a step-by-step format with clear, concise directions.
  • Test the tutorial before implementation with the participants.

Open TappedInQuickReference10.11.pdf

Digital Writing Marathon: Legging It Out

Image originally uploaded on 2012-11-10 19:13

Participants in their places.  Facilitators prepped and ready for action.  All systems go!

The Gun

So the race begins.  Two legs to the marathon. Five weeks of writing experiences await in each leg.  Each week begins with a chat about the featured environments from the week, with the first chat highlighting the home environment.  In the first meeting, members are introduced to the chat feature and how communicating with classmates works within the space.

Calculating Splits

In the two-and-one-half-hour chat, each participant is featured as they reflect on the week’s experience.  They offer two sentences of reflection while other participants respond with comments and questions for the featured member of the group.  In this format, every voice is heard and given value.  It is through the protocol that much of the integrity of the format is maintained.

 DWP Discussion/Discovery Protocol 

1.) Write two sentences by clicking on the Whiteboard link in the menu on the left side. (5 min.).

  • Sentence 1: describe your experience with the form of technology that you used this past week. Don’t make any judgments about the technology; just describe what happened.
  • Sentence 2: Either 1) select a sentence from the writing that you did this past week or 2) describe a moment that stood out for you or that seemed significant or revealing.

2.) We take turns discussing the two-sentence writing that we just did, with one person “featured” at a time. (See Whiteboard below, on the right side.) What do you notice about the featured person’s writing?

3.) Others can now ask clarifying questions. (“I’m wondering about. . .”) The featured person can respond at any point, providing additional info, as needed. (5 min.)

4.) Others offer a one- to two-sentence comment on the featured person’s experience, with the featured person “listening.” At the end, the featured person offers one to two sentences of final reflection on his/her tech experience. (5 min.) 

5.) Repeat steps 2 through 4 for each person until all have shared.

6.) As a group, address any or all of these questions: What tentative conclusions have you reached so far, with respect to this form of technology? How might this technology tool enhance writing in the classroom? How might you help teachers at your site to use this tool? (15 min.) 

7.) LAST TASK: Write a reflective entry, in which you sum up what you learned during the Tapped-In discussion and speculate on how you might use the featured technology environment in your classroom. Post it at Tapped In no later than 48 hours after the chat, in the Discussion area.

The conversation continues within threaded discussions.  Following each chat, participants post their musings about what was discussed in the weekly chat.  Many times new discoveries are made that were not thought of when exploring the environments on their own.  Deeper conversation emerges within the threaded discussions.  One participant within the 2010-11 Marathon states in her reflection following the first chat:

“So many thoughts were going through my head that I couldn’t even think straight. The process of taking simple sentences and having that turn into questions and discussions and answers and more exciting talk of all areas was amazing. Being asked questions about our sentences really made me think about why I felt the way I felt. I have so many ideas … We teachers have so many things that we want to share that at times it was hard to stay on track. The bombardment of great ideas was an exciting process.”

As the participants explore the various environments each week, required readings are also reflected upon in a threaded discussion format.  An “anchor text” helps develop ideas and expose teachers to more than the six environments the Marathon is limited to.  Using Technology to Improve Adolescent Writing (Stephens & Ballast, 2011) was used for the 2010-11 and 2011-12 marathons.

Conversations Along the Journey

While the marathon takes place and participants test the out the various digital spaces, conversations outside of the chat take place.  Discussions from understanding perspectives to offering support to providing wisdom enhance learning and provide a support system.

“While I am still fairly young, I guess I am somewhat of a senior citizen at heart – especially when it comes to certain pieces of education. I suppose I get that from my dad, who is in his sixties and has been an educator all his life. It is hard for me to let go of the “process” of writing. My initial reaction to the proposed idea of the four stages was, “WHAT?!” No prewriting? No editing and revisions before the final draft? Is that okay? Since, I am not yet an “old dog,” I am willing to learn “new tricks;” I do see how this proposed style of writing is a part of a “Digital Native’s” world, though, so I’m willing to give it a shot. Am I currently preparing my students to survive in their technological world? I don’t know. I used to like to think so, but this first chapter made me feel as if I’m leaving out valuable lessons such as, “Texting/Tweeting/Blogging Shorthand – what LOL, TTYL, TMI, etc. REALLY mean!” Wow. Usually, the “senior citizen educator” in me stiffens each time I scan a paper which has “u” for “you” and various other cyber shorthand. But, if Bloom’s Taxonomy is beginning to value this kind of creativity over student’s retention and imitation of “processes,” I better get a little more on the ball with all this!” –Teri

“I had to chuckle a bit at your reference to “senior citizen educator.” I don’t know that we have to let go of certain expectations when it comes to language and grammar. This is where teaching our students about audience and purpose is so crucial. (So, Joey, how effective would using “u” and “TTYL” be in an email request to the principal, an author, or a community business person?) I think it’s perfectly fine and necessary not to “get over ‘u’ as a fair substitute for a formal ‘you'”.” –Anne

“I love your statement about using this as an opportunity to teach students about purpose and audience, Anne. Students would be turned off if we would be totally intolerant of their shortcuts. Are they appropriate in the classroom? No. Is it practical for us to expect them to use proper spelling and grammar in their texts to their friends? Again, no. We just have a whole new addition to the field of purpose and audience than we have had in the past.” –Lark

Marking the Miles

E-mail becomes a vital piece in communicating expectations and assignments to participants.  Transcripts from the previous week’s chat and the tutorial for the upcoming environment are e-mailed within 12 hours of the chats.  Within the e-mail, an outline of reminders are given to participants.  Participation is tracked on a common document (i.e. a spreadsheet in GoogleDocs).  When necessary, gentle reminders are sent to make sure participants are on track to complete the assignment in time for the chats—usually within 24 hours of the upcoming chat.

In the last week of each leg, participants create a lesson plan that focuses on at least one of the digital environments they experimented with.  Those lessons are posted, again, in a threaded discussion, then featured one-by-one within the final chat of the leg.

The protocol differs a bit as participants look at the lesson plan through the lens of teachers and students and work through possible glitches with the lesson.  New ideas emerge and the featured participant walks away feeling more equipped for the lesson implementation in the coming semester.  One participant reflected, “The discussion over our lesson plans was great!!! Everyone gave me great suggestions and I have a feeling this is going to be an awesome semester project. I really like how all of us were able to use one of the technologies in something we already do….not reinventing the wheel. That has been the nice part of the course ~ we are able to look at what we already do and decide how to change it so it’s more effective. I’m very excited to implement my lesson this fall!”

Following the implementation of their lesson, participants post a reflection of how the lesson went within their classrooms.   To begin the second leg, the chat discussions reviewed and reflected upon their lessons, featuring each participant. The second leg is formatted the same as the first leg, including three new environments to experiment with each week.

Celebrating the Work

One participant, Sami Peil, introduced her students to VoiceThread (as featured at the beginning of this page) by introducing herself through a VoiceThread “Goofy Teacher.”

Karen Downing used the presentation tool, Prezi, to introduce her students to unit vocabulary.

Karen’s Vocabulary Prezi

Mary Begley used Glogster, a multi-modal poster-maker in her Introduction to Theatre Class.

Mary’s Theatre Glog

Finish Line

To complete the Digital Writing Marathon, participants gather once more to discuss the journey that they completed.  During the 2010-11 Marathon, public participants were required to reflect upon their experiences using Prezi and discussing each of the presentations within the chat.  Each participant then wrote a formal reflection in one of the digital spaces introduced to them during the marathon and e-mailed it to the facilitators.

The race ends with one final discussion in our chat site in May.  Particpants celebrate their work and depart with encouragment for continuing the trek toward digital literacy,

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