The Community Continues
For the last two summers, I have worked closely with two fellow teacher consultants at the Bay Area Writing Project’s Young Writing Camp in San Francisco. Last year, we were new writing camp teachers so we were experimenting with writing and technology -videos, and digital story telling. We wanted to intertwine writing with technology to engage our students and push their creativity.
Our first summer, we used Google Documents as a way for students to share their work, to comment and help each other edit. However, we found that it limited the audience, the author had to invite readers to their piece thereby limiting both feedback and encouragement. We wanted a space that was inclusive to the entire camp. We wanted an open space where every student had the opportunity to read everyone’s work. We also wanted a space that was both user and instructor friendly, especially with only three weeks of a half-day camp.
This summer, we improved upon the previous summer’s lessons and used pbworks.com, a free blog and wiki site with each student having their own blog page to compose and receive feedback on. We continued with the video and digital story telling, however pbworks.com allowed for a wider audience and was very user friendly when it came to students sharing and editing, or uploading pictures and finished videos.
Our writing camp is different, because it has a “Technology Component” that includes film-making and photography. We strive to enhance the technology component using the Web 2.0 technologies of our camp, yet, not lose the essence of writing.
In pbworks.com, we created a page on our wiki for each student, allowing for individual creativity.
The wiki allowed all the students at the camp to read, and comment on each other’s work. Though the students were divided into groups, based on age and skills, to help better meet their needs, they were not confined to them. The students were not limited to only reading writings from their group, rather they could read across ages. Hearing some parent concerns on Internet safety, we safeguarded the website via invitation, only students, parents, and staff were allowed access to the wiki.
Although the summer has ended and camp concluded two months ago, students are still using the website. Students are still writing, editing and commenting on each other’s writing. As we reflect upon the summer, we ourselves, why are our Young Writer’s Camp students still writing on the website? What’s motivating them to continue writing?
As a teacher, I have continually struggled in teaching my students to appreciate the need to go through the writing process. Many students just write once, without proofreading and turning the original piece in for a grade. Students do not see the need to reflect, make corrections, and add details, in their writing. They see the writing process as a chore and non-engaging. The student’s audience is the teacher, and the end result is the grade. Once the grade is assigned, the piece is “dead.” The student will not go back to the piece again.
We weren’t school; instead we were a writing camp. We didn’t give topics and subjects the students had to write about, nor were students given grades or deadlines. Rather they chose what they wanted to write about. Students would conference with each of the teachers and with each other, working to grow as writers. Our students yearned to write. They could spend hours inside the computer lab composing, and some wanted to go home and read what someone else had written.
The process was different for every student. Some students would begin their piece on paper then type it onto their wiki page; others would just type their work on their wiki page. For our younger students, an older student, one of the teachers, or volunteers would help type the piece. To facilitate the flow of writing, older students or teachers would type for the student who had fewer keyboarding skills. We didn’t want typing to inhibit our young writers from the experience of being in a community of writers because they were frustrated with the process of keyboarding.
As seventh grader James was typing Chloe’s lengthy story onto her blog page, he commented how many times she used the word “said.” His schoolteacher had taught them that “said is dead.”
Eliza whispered, “Chloe just finished second grade.”
James replied, “Oh. She can write for a second grader! Then said is not dead.”
A glimpse of Chloe’s story, that was typed by James.
The passion for writing grew stronger and stronger as more and more students placed their work on their page. Students thrived on other’s reading their work. Interestingly, only constructive comments were written for the author. They were learning to support each other rather then discouraging each other about grammar and spelling mistakes.
Students wrote comments on the author’s blog seeking more, and praising the author. The author read the feedback, corrected or added to their piece.
We discovered something amazing. Unknowingly, the author was revising, correcting, publishing, and utilizing the writing process taught in schools. Since it was peer driven, the student didn’t realize that they were involved in the editing process. For some students their writing was continually spiraling, where they constantly revisit that piece to add or fix it. The students did not seek the teacher’s approval rather they listened to what their peers had to say. Writing became vibrant, personal, and meaningful.
The author’s friends edged the author for more.
A Young Writing Community
Students were courageous in putting their writing on the wiki page. Everyone at camp, including parents could read what was written. The blog included all students, there was no exclusion and everyone was included. A writing community and culture was built, established and trusted. The author knew the audience was authentic. The audience cared about the author’s writing and commented accordingly. The community allowed students to write safely, and to try.
The blog became a place to share.
Many students had probably never been a part of a writing community, and now they are. They had a place to showcase their work, and they were able to be who they are without constraints. The older student had a hard time being without writing boundaries. Some asked, “What do I write about now?” They had been super imposed with years of educational writing – persuasive, literary analysis, expository, etc. leaving them initially stiff in their writing.
For sixth grader Jake, he was able to break free and to find his voice. He was able to freely explore on his terms. He wrote about subjects that are dear to his heart.
Did the sense of belonging and acceptance trigger the students to write more. We believe the students felt connected with one another and writing was the common ground. Writing was the vehicle uniting the youngest to the oldest student together, and technology was the ignition/gas that carried them forward.
Many students first placed a poem on their wiki page and from there the writing explosion began.
We can not exactly explain what made the writing community powerful. Was it the technology component? Technology is a dominant form of communication for students and we wanted to use it, exploit to engage them and enhance their writing. Many students today are connected with technology and were we using technology to our advantage? Rather than paper pencil, students were publishing online, something they may not have done before. Was it is because there was an instant audience? Once a student published his/her work online, it instantly becomes available for everyone to read. Was it is because no topic was off limits? One week, we were all teaching about descriptive writing and as a result Harlo’s story The Blue Poo was created. Watch as Harlo tells his story:
We don’t know the exact answers to our questions. We know that we want our students to enjoy writing and the creativity that it offers. For many students, writing became a joyful process. As in the video, Harlo was able to write and read his story about the incident with his brother. Would he able to do so in a regular classroom setting? Would his teacher approve? At camp, Harlo was praised for his story, and students helped him develop it into a powerful descriptive story about blue poo.
Harlo’s brother, Ozzie responds to his brother’s story with a poem of his own.
Creativity was supported and embraced.
We didn’t want camp to reflect the demands and requirements of school. The students called us by our first names. They weren’t assigned to specific teachers rather they had the freedom to go between teachers, and the wiki allowed for that. Did the teacher’s openness create an environment where students felt free to explore and allow their writing to blossom?
According to the students, we probably took off the “academic” out of writing, but we wonder if indeed we were “academic” and they just didn’t realize it. We wonder if we told them they went through the actual writing process they would believe us?