We’ve been spending a lot of time lately writing in my classroom. Along with our thinwalled partner class in Wingham Ontario, we are spending 45 minutes to an hour each day trying to figure out what writing can be when the tools change.
One of the defining features of writing has always been the solitary nature of the task. One person sits down in a quiet room (or a crowded classroom) and spends a few minutes (or a few years) completing a task. The solitary nature of writing can be a frustration for students, and for teachers trying to help students improve their skills.
In the Idea Hive we read the novel The Book Thief over Skype. What we’ve been doing is writing a field guide to the town of Molching, the main setting of the novel. The students came up with several dozen people, places, events, etc from the book that all needed research and explanation. Once this brainstorming was finished, they chose their own groups and dove into writing.
Each day at the assigned time, the students sign into their google docs account and meet their partners in the chatroom. They usually spend a few minutes catching up from yesterday, talking about the weather, what they did last night, or their plans for the day. After this, they start working. While different groups have had different methods, it has been common that one or two students (out of 4 in a group – two from Snow Lake and two from Wingham) actually write the document. The other students may be off researching the topic and bringing information back and post it in the chatroom or their notes on the document itself. Depending on where they are in the process, other students may be working on editing and revising paragraphs that had previously been written. While this is happening, a constant chatter takes place in the chatroom. Students talk about revisions and edits that are needed. They talk about possibilities for inclusion or exclusion. They look at the writing from an organizational point of view, talking about pieces and paragraphs that need to be moved to other places in the piece. All of this happens while Heather and I jump between chatrooms, switching between groups, offering help and guidance for the process as it is happening.
Overall, the main feature of writing this way has been collaboration. Students have to work together, to question, to bring new content to the document and to solve conflicts as they arise. We have kept a document between our classrooms that is called Knowledge Care. Occasionally, we will have students add their thoughts to it, focussing on techniques for solving conflicts, for working as effective group members and for helping others to write effectively. We refer back to this with our classes when things need sorting out.
It has been fascinating to work with students like this. As teachers we have been able to deeply immerse ourselves in the writing process; watching students write, revise and edit as they do it – live. We can interact with them, offering guidance and advice as they are working. As a veteran teacher of writing, I have learned a lot about how students write that I simply never had access to in the past – a window like this into their thought processes. Teachers often only see pieces of writing as they are completed (or as specific parts are completed), but with google docs, a chatroom and a group of students, we can instead offer guidance as pieces are being written; the true meaning of formative assessment.
Talking with my students about this process, they feel the pieces of writing they are completing are much better written then anything they could have completed alone. They have said that while they sometimes feel frustrated by group members or by the speed of the process (getting consensus from four group members obviously makes things move at a slower speed then a single student writing alone), they understand fully the value that is added to the process by having multiple people working on a single document. They have wondered about moving to groups of two instead of four and of having more specific roles assigned to group members (both legitimate suggestions) but overall, this process has been excellent for their skills. One student went as far to tell me last week that when he is writing alone now, he feels lonely and misses the added voices to help him along in the process.
In the end, we plan on publishing our Field Guide to Molching online and on paper using a service like lulu.com so that all of the students can have a copy of what they have accomplished together.