Social Media as a Tool for Peer Collaboration with Elementary Students: A Teacher Inquiry Project
It was any ordinary day during writing workshop, and as I was conferring with a third grade student, Jumaane walked up beside me, a tattered paperback book in hand. “Mr. Working, I’m trying to do a lead for my story like the one in this book, but I don’t get it.”
“I can show him!” Yuliana chimed in from across the group of desks, even before I had a chance to respond. I smiled and watched as Yuliana rushed back to Jumaane’s desk and pulled a chair up alongside him.
When it came time for sharing, Jumaane proudly offered up his newly created lead with the class, an enormous smile plastered across his face. It struck me then: Yuliana provided high quality feedback that improved Jumaane’s writing, and neither of them could have been more pleased. Neither could their teacher.
This hasn’t always been my experience with peer response. For years I have struggled with finding a framework or structure that seems to work with elementary students, something that will bring the author a more substantive response than the all too common, intentionally helpful yet ineffective feedback, “I like it.” The problem was, I simply couldn’t be present in every peer conference.
When I was a new teacher, I firmly believed in the power of audience. I was determined to provide every opportunity possible for any student interested in sharing. Not surprisingly, sharing sessions would go on and on as one student after another took a turn sharing. Some pieces were fantastic, some pieces were twice as long read aloud as they were on paper, and what I had planned to take five minutes quickly grew into 20 minutes or more. It didn’t take me long to realize this wasn’t an efficient use of time, but I also learned students love to share, and students who know they get to share will feverishly work during writing workshop.
With such apparent evidence of the power of sharing writing for an authentic audience, I spent a considerable amount of time trying to hack my mandated class schedule, sneaking five minutes here and there, and assigning writing notebook show-and-tell for homework, but I just couldn’t seem to get the most bang for my buck.
Enter social media. Unlike a traditional brick and mortar school, social media spaces are free from the limitations of time and space. This becomes increasingly important as school schedules continue to be hijacked. While writing may be required from 8:25am until 9:15am in the physical classroom, writing can be taught 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year in the virtual classroom. Additionally, virtual social spaces provide the opportunity to archive and reflect upon conversations, and to share writing with not only classmates, but an even broader audience. I was geeked.
I started to consider all of the amazing ways social media could extend and enhance my writing instruction in ways that simply cannot be done in an analog paper and pencil notebook. Student writing could be immediately accessible to classmates, parents, and grandparents. Feedback could be given to and received from classmates hundreds of miles away, as well as in the classroom next door. Student writing could potentially be read around the world. Students could write and reflect outside of the classroom and school day. The options seemed endless.
This all sounded well and good to me, and I was convinced the opportunities afforded by social media would solve all of my problems. I knew the “why,” but the “how” was a whole other can of worms.
In my head I had this grandiose picture of students enthusiastically typing impressive works of writing and eagerly offering constructive feedback to peers. Then I realized, although the space has removed the time and spatial constraint, I still had several unresolved questions: What social media tool should I use? What permissions do I need to acquire from parents, my district, as well as in compliance with user agreements? How can I ensure consistent access to the Internet, especially since many of my students don’t have access at home?
While troubleshooting my way through the questions, I realized there was an even more important set of questions I hadn’t considered: How will my 8 year old students respond to composing digitally? How will a social media tool provide an authentic audience? How do I promote a community of effective peer feedback in a digital space when it was already challenging in the physical world? Clearly, there was much more I had left to consider.
Recalling the title of a book I read during the Summer Institute at the Red Cedar Writing Project, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, I decided the best way to start was to pick a tool. While I knew the tool itself wasn’t important, I needed a tool that met the needs of my students as well as my needs as a facilitator.
- Comfortable space for composing text
- Option for public publishing
- Provide an interface for commenting
- Easy enough to navigate
- Doesn’t require email addresses
- Is free or inexpensive
- Allow for users as young as eight years old
- Easy to manage as a site administrator
Extra credit was offered for tools that already made it through the district firewall. After considering a long list of social tools such as Twitter, Ning, Weebly, Edublogs, Wikispaces, PBWorks, Edmodo, and many others, I stumbled across the tool that met all of my basic requirements: KidBlog.org. While the tool wasn’t perfect and there were many things I wished I could change, I reminded myself it’s not about the tool, it’s about what we will DO WITH the tool. If it doesn’t work, I could always try something different next time.
After consulting with my building principal, discussing the rationale with parents at parent-teacher conferences, and fulfilling the requirements of the user agreement, we began using the resource. At first, the quality of writing was disappointing, and the comments were sparse and not very helpful. And eight-year-olds trying to touch type was painfully slow. Many students would spend the entire time working, and only type eight words.
Unexpected needs began to surface. Basic keyboarding skills such as inserting text and basic punctuation needed to be addressed. We learned that two apostrophes do not equal one quotation mark, that a space is needed after a period, and no, just because your name is underlined in a red squiggly mark it does not mean it is misspelled.
After a few hurt feelings and a few teacher-deleted comments, we began to discuss what it means to be a digital citizen, and considering what it means to have a truly public web presence: People who don’t know you might read what you’ve written and form an opinion of what you’re like.
We stuck with it. Every day we launched our writing time by viewing a published post as a class, noticing at first things such as how font type, font color, font size, and emoticons affected readability and impacted the intended message. Slowly discussions began to center more on content. Posts became more refined, and volume of writing increased dramatically as students became more comfortable with their typing skills. Kids naturally started each day checking for comments. When technology was uncooperative, lessons flopped, concerns arose, we candidly discussed the issue and adapted as needed. Quality of responses began to improve, as did the quality of the pieces of writing.
Eventually responses started to become more substantive and helpful, giving specific suggestions or asking thoughtful questions. My concerns began to subside as I began to see subtle but important changes both in student writing and in comments. They were starting to “get” it!
Finally evidence began to surface showing students making direct changes and improvement in writing based solely upon peer suggestions. Students began using color to indicate revisions.
Along with promising and noticeable changes in student writing, there were many pleasant surprises. I noticed absent students working on writing from home. Parents read their child’s posts at home, and families had discussions to surface exciting ideas for a writing piece. Parents found reading a variety of student writing to be more informative in understanding their child as a writer.
I also began to notice a change in our analog, paper-and-pencil writer’s workshop. Students were more collaborative, often voluntarily meeting with a writing buddy in the designated student conference spot. New leaders began to appear, like Yuliana, brimming with a newfound self-confidence as a writer.
At one point, an unprompted collaborative set of Star Wars stories were published in more than ten episodes, each episode handing off authorship from one student to another, one episode picking up where the last left off.
Reflecting back upon the project, I realized that I probably learned more than any of my students. My original vision of students working around the clock, vehemently writing in anticipation of gaining an authentic audience, didn’t quite work out.
A handful of kids did write from home, but most didn’t have access. So despite my desire to move our peer collaboration to the cloud, it ended up happening either during a scheduled computer lab time, or during schedule literacy center rotations.
There were times when I forgot to reserve the lab. There was the period of two weeks when the heat didn’t work in the lab. Computers died, the network went down, kids accidentally logged in as someone else, new students moved in. Browsers were closed without saving, posts had 95 line returns before the text began, some kids spent more time commenting than writing.
But kids learned how to troubleshoot hardware and software problems, struggling writers became proud writers, parents and staff started asking if they could help, and kids started to have conversations about pieces of writing outside of writing time.
Will I try things differently next time? Absolutely. But I won’t worry about making it perfect. So much of what was accomplished as a class came from the journey of overcoming challenges and adapting to wrong turns and failed attempts. In the end, although using social media became entirely more work than I could have ever anticipated, I also felt the payoff was greater than I had hoped. Not only did student writing improve, but so did motivation, self-confidence, collaboration, digital citizenship, classroom citizenship, and value in the written word of lived experiences. Not bad for an inquiry project.