My Idea Hive partner, Heather Durnin and I have been through a long process with the students in our collaborative classroom. We started by reading a book together over Skype each day. We’d backchannel and collect day ending thoughts on a wall. We’d have our students blog about what they were hearing and thinking about to do with this book.
Once this process finished, we moved into collaborative writing mode where each day students worked in small groups on google docs to work on writing a field guide to Molching, the fictional town at the centre of The Book Thief, the novel we had read. Once again, students talked on skype, worked in chatrooms and used a number of tools to pull together an guide book that was 85 pages long. We pulled all of their pictures and writing together and moved over to Lulu.com where we published the entire thing. (You can order a physical copy if you want. The entire piece is also available here as a free pdf)
This process took months. We started reading the novel in November and didn’t finish writing the our book until May. While we didn’t work every day together due to scheduling conflicts, snow days, ice days, professional development, etc., etc we did take many hours of classroom time to completed this process.
And I don’t regret a single one.
The looks on the faces of the students when the boxes were opened and the real, physical books came out, was worth every moment of frustration.
But more than that, after seventeen years of teaching, this process taught me more about reading and writing using new tools than any other project in the past.
1.) Writing has been a solitary action in the past only because this was the only mode available. When authors sat down with a pen and paper to write a novel or a poem, they were by themselves simply because only one person could physically occupy the space of a piece of paper at one time. But having a small group of students collaborate on a single piece of writing, no matter if they are 2 700 kms apart, has changed my thoughts on this. There is great power in having students work together to make a single sentence just right. There is power in having them set roles in a chat room and then work together, day after day, on document after document, to build something together. Writing, revising and then editing a single document together teaches students about good writing.
2.) Reading aloud makes a lot of things happen. We read this book aloud to two classrooms full of students each day over skype. While one of us was reading, the other worked in a backchannel with all of the students in it. We posed questions for them about what they were hearing, but mostly, we took part as one of them. We listened along as they did. We responded ourselves to what we were hearing. We cried and laughed along with them. We marvelled at the hundreds of comments that scrolled by in chatrooms every single day. We learned that when we read to students, while they often look passive, sitting in a desk listening to the story as it flows by them, there is endless possibilities going on inside of them. At the end of each day’s reading, we had the students post a response on a sticky wall. Again, sometimes we let a question for them, but often we just looked to them for their responses. We were often amazed at what we found.
3.) Its’s all about the connection. We had days where we couldn’t connect. Skype broke down on us several times. Snow days and ice days saw Heather and I exchanging messages before the school day began. Professional development days interrupted schedules. Trips and travels left students with substitute teachers who had no idea of how we were doing what we were doing. But through all this, the kids would comment: “we missed you yesterday. How are you?” We’d bug each other about hockey scores. Our cold weather in Snow Lake became a constant source of amazement for students in much warmer Southern Ontario, while their early spring left us jealous. Each day, bit by bit, with each piece of information, call, blog post and comment, we gres into a learning community. Students showed up in chatrooms when they were travelling or home from school sick. They wanted to be there.
4.) Watching kids write is cool. Writing with a group of kids on a google doc is amazing. Blank documents surrounded by ideas in chatrooms soon filled up with brainstormed thoughts. The formatting changed to notes as they researched. Finally, some enterprising student would step up and begin writing a first draft. Others would chime in, add new paragraphs and pieces. Others would start revising and soon a document emerged. You just can’t do this stuff on paper. We simply didn’t have access to this kind of information. New tools bring us new understandings of how things happen.
Many steps. Many hours. Great learning for students. Great learning for teachers. This is the stuff that classrooms can be about.